It seems that hardly a week goes by without someone asking me about the Stitzel-Weller Distillery under the Van Winkles and why the whiskey was so good. First of all, let it be stated that Stitzel-Weller was making whiskey just like many other distilleries at that time and there are other distilleries that made whiskey on par with that made at Stitzel-Weller. A Maker’s Mark from the late 60s or early 70s would be hard to pick out from a Weller of that era in a blind tasting. The reputation of quality was there at Stitzel-Weller, but there were others distilleries equally admired by Bourbon drinkers. Let us look at the six sources of flavor to see what it was that made Stitzel-Weller whiskey different.
- Grain: Stitzel-Weller was making a wheat recipe Bourbon. The mash bill was about 70% corn, 20% wheat and 10% malted barley. This changed over the years after the family sold the distillery. They reduced the amount of malt and increased the amount of corn to save money. This also meant they added enzymes to make the conversion.
- Water: There was a deep well under the distillery during the tenure of the Van Winkles. Pollution of the groundwater in Louisville forced the well to be capped and forced the distillery to use reverse osmosis treated city water in the 1980s.
- Fermentation. Under the tenure of the Van Winkles the whiskey was made using jug yeast. After the distillery. was sold the new owners started using a dry yeast. They said it was made from their yeast strain but I have heard skepticism about this point.
- Distillation. The column and the thumper were copper in construction and remained constant in that fact under the new owners. To my knowledge the distillation proof remained the same as well. I believe it came off the second distillation at about 140.
- Maturation: The whiskey was aged in charred barrels in iron clad warehouses since the beginning of the distillery. What changed here was barrel entry proof. The Van Winkles used a 107 barrel entry proof. That was raised under the new ownership to the point when the distillery closed it had reached 114 proof. They had also changed the barrels during the Second World War. Before the war they were using 48 gallon barrels with eight iron hoops. To save wood and iron for the war effort barrels were made at 53 gallons and six iron hoops. They have remained that way to this day.
- Bottling: The brands made at Stitzel-Weller varied by age and proof. This is how they distinguished the flavors in their brands since they only made the single mash bill whiskey. Cabin Still was 4 years old and 90 proof, later dropped to 86 and then 80 proof under the new owners. Rebel Yell was 5 years old and 90 proof. Weller Special Reserve was 7 years old and 90 Proof. The Weller Antique started life in the late 1940s as “Original Barrel Proof” and was 7 years old and 110 proof. The proof varied some over the next few years until it was decided to bottle at barrel entry proof of 107 to prevent having to apply for a new label every year. Old Fitzgerald was always a Bottled-in-Bond Bourbon. It varied from 4 -7 years in age with a Very Old Fitzgerald at 8 years old. After 1958 the bonding period was increased from 8 to 20 years and even older versions of the brand came out in limited quantities. After the death of Julian Van Winkle, his son introduced Old Fitzgerald 1849 that was 8 years old and 90 proof.
This is what was being done at the Stitzel-Weller distillery before the distillery and brands were sold to Norton Simon in 1972. If there was something special about that whiskey it lies somewhere in these differences.
Photos Courtesy of Maggie Kimberl