In the year 1899, W.L. Weller & Sons purchased a larger storefront on the north side of Main Street between 1rst and 2nd streets from Bernheim Bros. The office and store were very close to the waterfront where barrels could be loaded on steamboats for shipment to markets, but this fact had become less important after the Civil War. By the end of the 19th century, the railroad was the major form of shipping whiskey to markets in other states. Still, it was a larger building than W.L. Weller & Sons had owned before and there was prestige in having their offices in the heart of Whiskey Row.
That same year, William LaRue Weller passed away. His son George Weller was President of the firm and George’s youngest brother John was the head of sales. Julian Van Winkle and Alex Farnsley were also part of the sales team for the firm at that time. This photograph is from the trade magazine published in Louisville called The Wine and Spirits Bulletin and was published not long after W.L. Weller & Sons moved in and were doing business out of their new office.
“Whiskey Row” in Louisville had been around since the 1840s. Distilleries and rectifiers in the city wanted offices on Main Street to be near the wharf where they could ship barrels of whiskey to markets. It was also good to have an office where potential customers from other cities could visit when their steamboat brought them to the city. Distilleries in other counties in Kentucky also wanted their offices on Whiskey Row for the same reasons. Louisville was the center of the Bourbon distribution in America. It was also where people came to purchase their barrels of Bourbon. Louisville was much easier to get to than the small towns and rural areas where many distilleries were located.
Whiskey Row continued to be important after the American Civil War. Although the L&N Railroad made steamboat shipping less important and the trains also brought in customers, there was still a prestige in being located on Main Street. By the time W.L. Weller & Sons moved into this building, there were about one hundred distillery offices in the city and most of them were on Whiskey Row. This prestige remained until Prohibition. After Prohibition, with the improvement of roads and the popularity of the automobile, the growth of the trucking industry made Whiskey Row obsolete. Distilleries outside of Louisville no longer had the need to have offices in the city as trucks could deliver case goods directly from the distilleries and the automobile made a trip to the distillery a much easier experience.
W.L. Weller & Sons kept their office in this building during Prohibition. Julian Van Winkle ran the sales force from this building as they strove to sell pints of “medicinal spirits” across the nation. Alex Farnsley also had an office in the building but he was also a bank President full time during Prohibition. A. Ph. Stitzel’s office was at the distillery down the road on Story Avenue, but was a frequent visitor to this building during Prohibition. When the Stitzel-Weller Distillery was opened in 1935, this building was abandoned as the offices were moved to the new distillery. Eventually, the building came into disrepair and the bulk of the building was torn down, leaving the cast-iron façade standing. A new structure was built behind the façade and new owners used the building as offices.
With the 21st century came a rebirth of “Whiskey Row”. Bourbon tourism has fanned the flames of interest in Whiskey Row and distilleries are coming back to Main Street and Whiskey Row. The new Whiskey Row is not the same as the old Whiskey Row. Instead of office and sales buildings, the distilleries are building visitor experiences on Main Street. Smaller, artisan distilleries that will attract visitors is the new form of Whiskey Row. Many of these distilleries are built by large distilleries elsewhere such as Michter’s, Heaven Hill and Brown-Forman. Others are distilleries that are new brands such as Peerless, Angel’s Envy and Rabbit Hole. It would be nice if Preston Van Winkle could get a hold of the old Weller office building and build such an experience for the Van Winkle brand behind the façade of the building his great grandfather worked in for so many years on the Whiskey Row of the 21st century.
Image from the archives of Michael Veach