This photograph is from the same collection as the “Big Three” photograph of Van Winkle, Farnsley and Stitzel. McGill is standing outside of the office building at Stitzel-Weller. McGill was the first Master Distiller at Stitzel-Weller. He was related to the Beam family which is appropriate since Elmo Beam was the distiller at the old A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery on Story Avenue at the time and I believe he elected to stay at that distillery when it was sold to Frankfort Distillery in 1935. It is probably the thinking of Stitzel, who was in charge of production at Stitzel-Weller, that they would stick with someone from the Beam family at the new distillery.
McGill had a tough job in front of him at Stitzel-Weller. He had to work with a new distillery and figure out all of its quirks in order to make the best whiskey possible. This is not an easy job and takes several years to do because of the aging process. I have tasted whiskey from that first year of production and it is good, but it got better as the years progressed and they learned the stills. McGill retired around 1949 and was succeeded by Andy Cochran. Cochran died young and only distilled for a couple of years. He was succeeded by Roy Hawes.
Roy Hawes had the longest tenure as distiller at Stitzel-Weller of all of the people who distilled there. He spent about twenty years as distiller, from the early 50s till the early 70s. Chances are if you drink a dusty bottle of Old Fitzgerald, Cabin Still, Rebel Yell or Weller Special Reserve, Hawes made the whiskey. In my opinion he was the best distiller to make whiskey at Stitzel-Weller. Of course he had advantages over those who came before or after him. McGill had to learn a new distillery and was able to pass that knowledge on to Cochran and Hawes. Cochran died too young so there is very little of his whiskey to compare, but more importantly he was still learning the craft when he died. Hawes grew with the distillery and made a lot of excellent Bourbon during his tenure.
The distillery was sold to Norton-Simon in 1972, about the time Woody Willson became distiller. Willson had to deal with the corporate world and declining Bourbon sales. The new owners looked for profiting on the distillery by doing things such as raising barrel entry proof. Willson had learned the craft from Hawes and made good Bourbon but it was changing in flavor profile. When he retired in 1984 Edwin Foote was hired as the new distiller.
Ed Foote already had twenty years in the whiskey industry having retired from Seagrams when he took the job at Stitzel-Weller. Roy Hawes and Woody Willson helped him learn the distillery and how to make their whiskey. But slowly under Ed it became a different whiskey from the product made by Hawes and Willson. Foote was tasked with reducing barley malt in the mash bill and use enzymes for conversion. Barrel entry proof crept a little higher. When the distillery closed in 1992 the whiskey was different from that made in 1972. Distillation at Stitzel-Weller started with Will McGill in 1935 ended with Ed Foote in 1992.
Image from the archives of Michael Veach