When people speak of Stitzel-Weller, they affectionately recall its founder, Pappy Van Winkle, and the mouth-watering wheated bourbons distilled there. But often forgotten are the master distillers who made the stuff. Pappy did not make whiskey.

One in particular has a story so improbable that I still can’t believe it.

I first learned of Roy Hawes, the master distiller from 1960 to 1971, when flipping through newspaper archives researching Whiskey Women. I notated him and moved on, but one day, I found myself fascinated with Stitzel-Weller. (The way my mind works, I can’t schedule this: I just get on a mission to learn.) I started digging into as much as I could, calling former relatives, digging through court records, etc., and I found myself circling “Roy Hawes.” Who was he?

Unlike most Kentucky master distillers, Hawes did not come from bourbon blue blood royalty, from what I could tell. When I asked former Master Distiller Edwin Foote about him, I got, “Oh, he was really respected.” But not much on his background.

So, on a hope, I called his son, Robert, who was mentioned in the obituary.

What I learned sent chills down my spine.

Roy’s father, Dorris, was murdered by a man having an affair with his wife. Dorris threatened the man in a bit of jealous rage, according to newspaper accounts, and told him the adulterer to get a gun. “You’ll be dead by sundown,” Hawes told Robert Boyd on August 30, 1909. They met again on the L&N railroad tracks in Evansville, Indiana, where they both worked as section hands.

In this encounter, an unarmed Dorris, perhaps with a change of heart, raised his hands and Boyd fired four shots with a revolver, killing Dawes. Boyd pleaded not guilty, using self defense as his argument with several witnesses corroborating his story. He was acquitted.

Christine Hawes, Roy’s mother, later died birthing the child thought to be Boyd’s.

That left Roy Hawes being passed around from one relative to another until nobody could afford to take care of him anymore, Robert Hawes recalls. He lived on the streets and sold newspapers until the age of 14, when his aunt saw him and took him in for the next two years. Roy then lied about his age to join the Marines, and that’s when his life started to change for the better.

He went on to get a degree in chemistry at the University of Louisville and started working for Stitzel-Weller shoveling coal (exact years are unknown, but I presume it’s after World War II.). By 1959, the Courier-Journal features him and republished his photo in 2014. You must see the man in action, tasting mash, in slide five.

But you don’t hear about Hawes on the tours and he’s barely mentioned in history books, including mine. Yet he arguably created the greatest American whiskey in the history of bourbon during his decade-long stretch. Even when he didn’t have the master distiller title, he impacted the whiskey flavor, according to past Stitzel-Weller employees, including the most coveted vintage releases of the Very Very Old Fitzgerald line.

So, for Bourbon Heritage Month, let’s remember Hawes and raise a glass of Old Fitzgerald (his favorite brand) in honor of his improbable career. Hawes won life by overcoming what he did, but he made ours better, too, with his distiller talents.

Join Fred Minnick at Bourbon & Beyond September 23 and 24, and check out his latest books.