“We make fine bourbon. At a profit if we can, at a loss if we must, but always fine bourbon.” – Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle
The intersection of Dixie Highway and Ralph Avenue (Ralph Street on some maps) marks more or less the southern boundary of Shively’s former bourbon district, and so it makes as proper a place as any to begin your tour. Assuming you are heading north toward downtown Louisville, when you approach the intersection, on the corner to your right you will see what remains of the old Four Roses distillery: a group of brick warehouses, now sitting on the property of Louisville Cartage Trucking. Note it for later in this series, but for this part of the tour we’re taking a left onto Ralph Avenue and heading just a little ways down to then make a right onto Fitzgerald Road. Be careful, because it’s easy to miss. The street intersects some train tracks at an odd diagonal that can make it look like you are actually turning onto the railway. It all becomes clear once you commit though, and immediately on your left you will see the imposing warehouses of the legendary Stitzel-Weller distillery.
Stitzel-Weller has achieved near mythic status among bourbon drinkers not for what they do, but for what they did. Like all distillery histories, this one is going to get convoluted, though not as convoluted as some, so before we begin I suggest you pour yourself a dram or something appropriate. The obvious — and impossible to find — choice would be a dram of Pappy Van Winkle, preferably one bottled before 2011 so you are drinking whiskey that came from the very distillery that is the topic of this article. But, since you probably can’t get that, let me suggest a few alternatives. On the high end, Jefferson’s Presidential Select released in 2009 (my choice for writing this article) is a fantastic 17-year-old bourbon distilled during the fall of 1991, the last year in which Stitzel-Weller was operational. I wouldn’t classify it as easy to come by, but it’s easier to find than Pappy. On the lower end, any of the bourbons in the W.L. Weller collection will do quite nicely. They are now distilled by Buffalo Trace, who along with Heaven Hill split up the Stitzel-Weller stock when the company shut down. And if you can’t find those, Heaven Hill’s portion of the spoils included the Old Fitzgerald line, so seek out the Very Special Old Fitzgerald 12 Year Old. Ready? Let’s proceed.
It all started around 1794, when a man by the name of Daniel Weller moved from Maryland to Bardstown, Kentucky. By 1800, Daniel has himself a tiny distillery, thus beginning his family’s long history in the business. Upon Daniel’s death, the equipment passed into the hands of Samuel Weller, building upon the family tradition. In 1849, William LaRue Weller and his younger brother John H. moved to Louisville and opened a distillery under the name William Larue Weller & Brother, using the slogan “Honest whiskey at an honest price.” Meanwhile, a guy by the name of John Fitzgerald built a distillery in Frankfort in 1870 while two guys named Philip and Fredrick Stitzel built a distillery of their own. So we have Weller, Stitzel, and Fitzgerald all bouncing around on their own. So far, so good. The only major name missing is Van Winkle, but it’s not his fault. Julian, the patriarch of bourbon’s royal family, was a late comer not being born until 1874, when everyone else was already well on their way. But don’t worry. By 1893, Julian Van Winkle has gotten himself a job at William LaRue Weller.
William LaRue retired in 1896 and passed away in 1899. He is buried in Louisville’s historic Cave Hill Cemetery (section 5, lot 308, grave 3 if you want to drop by and pay your respects). In 1908, Julian Van Winkle and a gentleman by the name of Alex Farnsley become the controlling partners of W.L. Weller & Son. In 1912, The Stitzel company contracts with W.L. Weller to make some of Weller’s whiskey (W.L. Weller and Sons being at this point a whiskey wholesaler). In the same year — and this will make sense way further down the line, if you are still with us by then — Stitzel rents out his distillery to Tennessee whiskey maker George Dickel Co. The relationship between Weller and Stitzel continues. Then, of course, everyone gets hit with Prohibition. Stitzel obtains a coveted license to make “medicinal” whiskey. Weller, under the continuing guidance of Van Winkle and Farnsley, spends a brief period of time operating under the name Red Chief Manufacturing, Corn Shellers (704 East Main, if you are curious) before re-emerging in 1922 as W. L. Weller and Sons, during which year they also contract with Old Fitzgerald. As Prohibition was being repealed in 1933, Weller and Stitzel combined to form — you guessed it — Stitzel-Weller. The new company quickly moved to purchase the Old Fitz brand outright. In 1934, construction begins on the new Stitzel-Weller distillery in Shively. It opens on Derby Day, 1935. As best I can puzzle out, their main brands are J.W. Dant, Henry McKenna, Old Rip Van Winkle, Cabin Still, and Old Fitz.
OK, so that at least gets us up to the physical buildings you can visit (or drive by, at any rate). As Stitzel-Weller, the distillery becomes famous for making “wheated” bourbon. Most commonly, the mashbill that makes up bourbon contains corn (at least 51% by law), barley, and rye — but only the corn is required by law. Wheated bourbon replaces the rye with wheat, and since rye is the spicier and bolder grain, wheated bourbons tend to drink smoother and sweeter than their counterparts with rye. These days, rye is still used more than wheat, but wheated bourbons comprise some of the most beloved brands — Makers Mark, Pappy Van Winkle, Weller — as well as a few of the less beloved brands, like Rebel Yell. Under the guidance of Julian Van Winkle, Stitzel-Weller develops a reputation as the premiere producer of bourbon, if not the premiere producer of whiskey in general in the whole of the United States. In 1964, Julian Van Winkle Sr. retired and named his son Julian Van Winkle Jr. president of Stitzel-Weller. “Pappy” passed away a year later. Like William LaRue Weller, Pappy is buried in Cave Hill Cemetery (section 30, lot 6, grave 3). Julian Jr. would eventually be buried next to his mother and father.
And this is where things start to get dark. Short of Prohibition, there was no worse time for the American whiskey industry than the 1970s. Post Summer of Love, whiskey as seen as something your parents drank, something for old folks and squares. Consumers abandoned bourbon and latched onto clear spirits and terrible cocktails with juvenile names. Stitzel-Weller took a pounding, and unlike nearby Brown-Forman, the Julian Van Winkle Jr. could not weather the storm. Stitzel-Weller was sold in 1972 to Norton-Simon Inc., who, though the Van Winkles remained at the helm. Norton-Simon, however, dropped the Stitzel-Weller name and rechristened the distillery Old Fitzgerald in honor of the best selling brand. Sadly, the 1980s were scarcely any kinder to whiskey than the 1970s. In 1984, Old Fitzgerald was purchased by a company called DLC, who in turn merged with Guinness in 1986. Guinness changed the distillery’s name back to Stitzel-Weller in 1992, but by then it was all over. The stillhouse was shut down in 1992, and a year later facility owners Guinness — now called United Distillers and about to just become Diageo — also shuttered the bottling plant.
But what about all that whiskey? Decades and decades of the stuff, generally considered to be the best ever made?
The Cabin Still, Henry McKenna, and Old Fitzgerald name and stock went to nearby Heaven Hill. Everything else (that we know of) was bought by Buffalo Trace. For several years, these distillers used Stitzel-Weller stock to bottle the brands they acquired, but with the original stuff being in finite supply, it was only a matter of time before authentic Stitzel-Weller whiskey dried up. Pappy Van Winkle, named for the man who made the reputation, was released by Buffalo Trace using Stitzel-Weller backstock until fall of 2011. Although demand for Pappy Van Winkle is still astronomical, none of the fifteen year old bourbon bottled from that date on is original Stitzel-Weller whiskey. It’s Buffalo Trace — still fantastic, mind you, and made by Julian Van Winkle to resemble S-W whiskey as closely as possible. I am not sure if any of the more recent bottles of the twenty or twenty-three year Pappy Van Winkle is still Stitzel-Weller. But even if it is, once it’s gone, it’s all gone.
So what’s in there now? Hard to say, especially when you visit a facility closed to the public on a day that it’s even closed to the employees. We idled outside the front gate looking in. The grounds are still quite nice and well maintained, but the dark warehouses are more than a little ominous. If Diageo held back some stock and still has plans for old Stitzel-Weller whiskey, it’d take someone with better connections than me (meaning, any connections) to find out. Coincidentally, the warehouses are now managed by a guy named John Lunn, who also happens to be the master distiller at a company that once contracted with Stitzel and is now owned by Diageo: Tennessee’s George Dickel. Maybe we can pry some information out of him, but probably only after he stops caring about his job.
Driving down Fitzgerald Road gives you a great view of the warehouses and the signature Old Fitzgerald chimney. I have read articles by several folks who were allowed to get up close and poke around the outside a little more, so maybe that will be a project for my next visit. As it is, there’s much that is forlorn about the location, especially on a windy, snow-swept December afternoon. The stillhouse is still abandoned and derelict, and Diageo has no plans to do anything but let it crumble (something to do with taxes and the cost of removing all that asbestos). If you want to wander around a little more, the truck entrance for Stitzel-Weller is on Tucker Ave — go back to Ralph Ave., take a right, and then a short ways down make the right onto Tucker.
Even though I said in this series’ introduction that Shively is a run-down combination of industrial sprawl, strip clubs, and low income housing, the location occupied by Stitzel-Weller is actually quite all right, and it would make an excellent if slightly more urban stop on the official Bourbon Trail. By all accounts, the Trail would love to have them, but Diageo doesn’t really know what to do with the place. Or they do, but that is “nothing.” The best they came up with so far is renting office space on the grounds to Diageo-owned Bulleit Whiskey — which seems a bad joke, even by the typical “lies and smokescreens” standards of the Kentucky bourbon industry, which is infamous for shenanigans and fake origin stories and phantom distilleries. Even though they refer to their Stitzel-Weller office as “the Bulleit Distillery,” Bulleit is actually distilled at Four Roses — and not the remains that we saw a couple blocks away on the corner of Ralph and Dixie Highway, but the current Four Roses distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky.
In it’s way, the old Stitzel-Weller distillery is the perfect summation of distilling in Louisville: dormant, confusing, derelict, exploited, abandoned, proud, and promising. The history of the place is still celebrated in the names of current whiskey brands, and even if Diageo seems uninterested in the heritage of Stitzel-Weller, Julian Van Winkle III at his new home in Frankfort’s Buffalo Trace is doing his best to both maintain and profit (it is a business, after all) off of the legend. Buffalo Trace even honors the man who started the whole ball rolling in their Antique Collection William Larue Weller (for my money, even better than Pappy — but no easier to find). Buffalo Trace’s stewardship of the Old Rip Van Winkle and W.L. Weller lines has been impressive as well, and Heaven Hill has done right by the Old Fitzgerald name. On a post urban bourbon distillery tour visit to Bourbons Bistro (part of the official Urban Bourbon Trail), I had a pour of Very Special Old Fitzgerald 12 year old bourbon that delighted me to no end. A shame Diageo doesn’t show the same care in handling the brooding old distillery that made it all possible. Ah well. Whatever the future may hold for the storied location, we raise a glass to its past.