Old Fitzgerald is an old Brand dating back to 1870 When S.C. Herbst, a rectifier based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin registered the trademark “Jno. E. Fitzgerald”. There are many stories told as to how he created the brand but they are mostly based upon marketing stories. It is unknown for sure how the brand was named and who was John E. Fitzgerald. There is evidence of a John Fitzgerald who was a Government Gauger based in Milwaukee at the time, but I have not seen evidence that he ever actually worked at Herbst’s warehouses. There is also census records from Milwaukee indicating there was a John E. Fitzgerald who was a boilermaker in that city at the same time period. There needs to be more research in that city to determine who he was or maybe if he was the same man who changed jobs during his career.
In any case, the story goes that Herbst had Fitzgerald as an employee in his warehouses. Fitzgerald, like many employees at that time carried a rubber hose or “mule” with him during his time in the warehouse. He would find the best barrels of Bourbon and pop the bung and inset the hose and help himself to a drink while working. It soon came to be known that when they sold an exceptionally good barrel, the employees would say “That is a proper John Fitzgerald whiskey”. Herbst decided to create the brand for his best barrels of whiskey. There was both a Bourbon and a Rye version of the brand.
What is known is that Herbst purchased barrels from Kentucky distillers and preferred pot stilled whiskey for the Fitzgerald brand. He contracted with distilleries like Old Taylor as late as the 1890s to make pot stilled Bourbon and rye for the brand. He also advertised Old Fitzgerald as the last true pot stilled Bourbon in the years leading up to Prohibition. In the 1890s when glass bottles became inexpensive and companies started bottling their own products he created the “Old Fitzgerald” label and included a pot still on the label. After the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897 passed, Herbst purchased a distillery in Frankfort, Ky. to start making his Old Fitzgerald and Old Judge brands. He hired a distiller named Bixler and Bixler is the first person to place in writing that Fitzgerald was a Government Guager.
During Prohibition Herbst sells the brand and existing stocks to Julian P. Van Winkle and it became part of the portfolio of brands sold by W.L. Weller and Sons and A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery for medicinal use in that period. The existing stock was exhausted during Prohibition and in 1928, when the government allowed the production of whiskey to replenish stock for medicinal use, Arthur Philip Stitzel and Julian P. Van Winkle decide to use an old Stitzel family recipe that uses wheat instead of rye as the flavoring grain to make their whiskey. They decided on this because they felt that it provided a better flavor at a young age and they knew that they would need the whiskey fairly quickly as existing stocks dwindled.
After Prohibition W. L. Weller and Sons and A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery formally merged as a company and they built the Stitzel-Weller Distillery in Shively, Ky. Old Fitzgerald became their flagship brand. It was a bonded Bourbon and later added a “Very Old Fitzgerald” as an 8 year old version. This was the maximum age they could do at the time because of the bonding period, the amount of time they could age it before paying the taxes to the government, was 8 years. In the 1950s Julian Van Winkle ran a series of advertisements in newspapers and magazines where he told stories with the moral of the story was that you should drink Old Fitzgerald Bourbon. It remained a bonded product in his lifetime because he refused to release it as anything else. He argued that if people wanted a lower proof, let them add their own water instead of paying him for the water. After he died, the company bowed to consumer pressure and released “Old Fitzgerald Prime” at 86 proof.
The brand had a great reputation as a premium Bourbon. When the Stitzel-Weller Distillery was sold to Norton-Simon in 1972, It was decided to rename the distillery to the “Old Fitzgerald Distillery” and the brand was placed in the portfolio of Somerset Imports. Somerset also had the Johnny Walker brand distribution rights. In 1984, the Distillers Limited Corporation, who owned Johnny Walker, purchased Somerset Imports to gain control of the distribution of Johnny Walker and as a result, Old Fitzgerald. After they became part of Guiness they formed United Distillers. United Distillers started to sell off Brands in their portfolio in 1994 and by 1999 Old Fitzgerald was sold to Heaven Hill. Heaven Hill still owns the brand. Heaven Hill created the “Larceny” brand as an extension of the Old Fitzgerald brand but still bottles Old Fitzgerald Prime and as limited release, the Old Fitzgerald Bonded.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller and Michael Veach