There are several Bourbons on the market now that are made with wheat as the flavoring grain instead of rye. These brands include Maker’s Mark, Old Fitzgerald and its expressions, W. L. Weller and its expressions, Rebel Yell and of course the Van Winkle Bourbons. These brands all have a common thread in history and that is the Stitzel Brothers.
Using wheat as the flavoring grain is not a new idea. When looking at the late 18th and early 19th century recipes for whiskey at the Filson Historical Society or the Kentucky Historical Society, the recipes often state that rye or wheat can be used in the recipe. It would often depend upon such a common factor as availability of rye to determine which was used to make the whiskey. This practice was very common and there were plenty of 19th distillers who would make Bourbon using wheat when necessary but wheat was a more expensive grain than rye as there was a higher demand for the grain to be ground as flour. Rye became the most common grain used as a flavoring grain for Bourbon.
In 1872 the Stitzel Brothers built a distillery at 26th and Broadway in Louisville and started making Bourbon – the Glencoe and Old Fortuna brands. They were an innovative family who experimented with whiskey making. In 1879 Frederick Stitzel patents a system of barrel racks for aging whiskey that are still around today in warehouse across Kentucky. They also experimented with the recipe for Bourbon, using wheat as the flavoring grain. They experimented until they found what they thought was the best ratio of grains, yeast, distillation proof and barrel entry proof. They never used this whiskey in one of their major brands, but they would pass along what they learned to Arthur Philip Stitzel when he opened the A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery in 1903.
The idea of using wheat in the recipe lay dormant through the years of prohibition. At the time of Repeal, A. Ph. Stitzel and his partners Julian P. Van Winkle and Alex T. Farnsley joined together to form the Stitzel-Weller distillery in Shively. They would sell the A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery on Story Avenue to Frankfort Distillery after the Shively Distillery opened in 1935, but started to distill Bourbon for their own use as soon as repeal allowed them to do so. The problem was that they could distill the whiskey but it took four years to age a good bonded whiskey for the market. They needed a product that would sell at a much younger age. According to a letter at the United Distillers archive from Julian P. Van Winkle, that is when they pulled out their present recipe using wheat. It was something the Stitzel Bros. had been experimenting with for years and they (Van Winkle, Stitzel and Farnsley) thought it tasted best at a young age. They released first Carolina Club Bourbon – 1 month old. Then Carolina Club 3 month old, then 6 month old and then 1 year old and kept this brand around until they had 4 years old bourbon to place in their major brands.
These brands were Cabin Still, W.L. Weller and Old Fitzgerald. Later they would introduce Weller Original Barrel Proof that later became Weller Antique and in 1961 they introduced Rebel Yell. In the late 60s Old Fitzgerald Prime was added to the portfolio of products. These were all the same whiskeys that were made different by varying age and bottle proof.
When T.W. Samuels decided to get back into the distilling industry in 1953 he decided upon using wheat as the flavoring grain. However he made this decision, it is known that he came to Julian P. Van Winkle for the recipe and the yeast to start Maker’s Mark. According to an oral history interview at the University of Louisville archives, Roy Hawes, the distiller at Stitzel-Weller at the time helped them with the recipe and furnished the yeast to start up the distillery in Loretto. The recipe would be adjusted as different distilleries will make a different flavored product because of factor such as stills size, copper content, water source and aging facilities, but the DNA for Maker’s Mark is the same as that made by the Stitzel Bros. back in the 19th century. More importantly, they yeast was the same as that used by the Stitzel Bros.
The Van Winkle Family sold the Stitzel-Weller distillery in 1972 but continued to bottle Bourbon made at that distillery even after the distillery closed. The distillery becomes part of United Distillers who close the distillery in 1992. By the end of the decade all of the wheat recipes brands were sold with Old Fitzgerald and Cabin Still going to Heaven Hill (Cabin Still is no longer a Bourbon made with wheat), The Weller Brands going to Buffalo Trace and the Rebel Yell brand being sold to Luxco. Van Winkle is now partnered with Buffalo Trace to make his Bourbon from the wheat recipe.
There are small distilleries popping up all over the country and many of them are making a Bourbon with wheat as the flavoring grain. There is more variety in this category now but up until a decade ago, all of the so called “wheated” Bourbons could trace their origin back to the Stitzel Bros. Distillery in Louisville.
Photos Courtesy of Maggie Kimberl