With a beautiful blue sky backdrop, Diageo officials, the Louisville and Shively mayors, Tom Bulleit and several Pappy Van Winkle grandchildren watched the first barrel being filled at Stitzel-Weller since 1992.
The whiskey came from Stitzel-Weller’s hybrid column / pot still that Diageo officials say will churn out roughly one barrel per week. Right now, they’re distilling a mashbill of 70% corn, 20% wheat and 10% malted barley. Diageo doesn’t quite know what it’s doing with this whiskey yet, but for now, as Stitzel-Weller is in its 80th year of existence, the first barrel is filled. (Stitzel-Weller opened on Derby Day 1935.)
For the ceremony, Diageo rewarded long-time employees, some of whom were here before then-United Distillers decided to close the distilling side of Stitzel-Weller and before Julian Van Winkle III made his grandfather, Pappy, famous again, giving Stitzel-Weller new life.
The first Stitzel-Weller barrel comes at a time when Diageo is making a significant push toward American whiskey. Last year, its Bulleit Bourbon brand got the go ahead for a $115-million distillery, while it introduced the world to its Orphan Barrel series and recently relaunched the I.W. Harper brand in the United States. It’s also brought to market the new Blade & Bow bourbon line that currently includes a 22-year-old product from another distillery.
The Blade & Bow 22-year-old is phenomenal and already on my shortlist for best bourbon of 2015. I unknowingly tasted this in San Francisco and recently again at the Kentucky Derby Museum. I’ll write more on Blade & Bow later. But even at $180, the 22-year-old expression is a must buy.
Aside from the whiskey quality, Diageo officials said they will be as transparent as they can moving forward with products distilled at other facilities. I get the sense that they’ll find a way of disclosing where the whiskey actually comes from without saying the George T. Stagg Distillery or the Bernheim Distillery. As you may recall, Diageo attempted to disclose its Lost Prophet originated from the George T. Stagg Distillery, only for Sazerac lawyers to intervene. Brands are highly protective of their trademarks, and Sazerac owns George T. Stagg. I’m sure the day somebody comes out with a “Bullet” bourbon, which they surely will, Diageo lawyers will be calling.
Whatever the next steps are for Stitzel-Weller and Diageo remains to be seen. Portions of the original 60-inch-in-diameter column still are on display, and I’m still not sure how the Bulleit, Orphan Barrel, Blade & Bow, I.W. Harper and Stitzel-Weller will coexist under the Diageo umbrella. But you cannot deny this distillery’s presence and Diageo’s efforts to maintain the facility’s manicured look.
After all these years, and through various owners, Stitzel-Weller still means something to people. Let’s hope Diageo always respects this legacy.
These are a few photos of the place over the years.