Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Stitzel Weller– bourbon hype or hero

For those hardcore bourbon fanatics (like me), when I first heard about the renowned Stitzel Weller bourbon, I didn't know what the all the buzz was about. I remember attending a corporate sponsored family day at Kings Dominion here in VA and received a call from my brother who asked the question "ever heard about Stitzel Weller bourbon from Canada Dry?" My comment was that I had read something about Stitzel Weller and folks seemed to think it was good stuff. That's all I knew so of course my brother picked up some bottles, later finding out the juice inside wasn't SW bourbon but liquid crap with bourbon coloring.

Just my opinion but bourbon hype goes something like this.

Q: Hey, did you hear Bison Trail distillery is coming out with a super premium bourbon called "Bison Trail Select Reserve Presidential Heritage 400th Anniversary Single Barrel Uncut Uber Delicious Bourbon"?

A: Holy $*@#, I gotta get me some of that, it's gonna be faaaaaantastic! I'm gonna bunker me 80 bottles!

I'll be the first to admit that early on I was guilty of getting sucked into the marketing hype. But a lot of what we see today is of course current market offerings but there's a secondary market of out of production bourbons that get passed around and picked up during dusty hunting and much is made of this or that bourbon and how great it is (again, guilty as charged).

Back to Stitzel Weller bourbon and maybe a quick history. Stitzel Weller was formed as prohibition was ending in 1933 and in that same year purchased the Old Fitzgerald Distillery. The following year SW begins construction of its Shively location which opens on Derby day 1935. Up until his death in 1965, Pappy Van Winkle was key to the growth and success of Stitzel Weller. 7 years later in 1972, Stitzel Weller is sold to Norton Simon who then changes the name from Stitzel Weller to Old Fitzgerald. Fast forward a dozen years and Old Fitzgerald is sold yet again and then around 1992/93 the distillery closes down for good.

Pappy Van Winkle was serious about bourbon and not just bourbon but good bourbon. His motto "We make fine bourbon. At a profit if we can, at a loss if we must, but always fine Bourbon" goes to the heart of Pappy Van Winkles passion for quality bourbon. So does that passion translate into the best bourbon ever made? Is Stitzel Weller hype or are they the hero of bourbon goodness? For those that read the bourbon boards, there's always someone who is pining away about getting their hands on SW bourbon and will go to great lengths or expense to get it. Example:

As a practice, I don't sell my bourbon. It's for drinking and sharing with like-minded bourbon dorks. But, a couple years ago, as a test, I auctioned two 200ml bottles of Old Fitzgerald Bottled in Bond bourbon, both SW whiskey. I wanted to find out just how much hype surrounded SW bourbon and the result was those two bottles sold in quick fashion for $25 each. Just recently Buffalo Trace released the 23 year old Old Rip Van Winkle bourbon, only 1200 bottles produced. I have no doubt these will all be sold for the bargain price of $350 each. The market for SW bourbon is hot but how much of that is hype or is it really because that bourbon is simply one of the best bourbon's produced? As you know, SW bourbon used wheat as the flavoring grain whereas everyone else at the time used rye. Why not be just as happy with a current wheated bourbon like Old Weller Antique, Pappy 15, Old Rip Van Winkle or for that matter, the current Old Fitz BIB produced by Heaven Hill? To get you thinking, how and why do you think (if you do) it's better, worse or comparable to what's offered today?

As a side note, Sally Van Winkle Campbell wrote a very informative book called "But always fine bourbon" on the life of Pappy Van Winkle and Stitzel Weller (Old Fitzgerald). It's a pleasant read and is a nice addition to the bourbon library.

I'll wait for comments before giving my take on the issue. Let me know what you think.


  1. Not counting the Canada Dry swill, S-W = hero (but I know you know that!) It's the cherry-vanilla-butter thing that separates it from today's wheaters.

    Whether the extra-aged expressions from the end of the UD era -- ORVW 23 or JRPS 17 -- are worth that much more than an 80's Old Fitz BIB is an exercise for the reader (drinker)!


  2. I remember how much we coveted Rebel Yell (90 proof) in the 1980s when it wasn't even sold above the Mason-Dixon line. You had to have a friend heading north, or make a trip to Maryland to get any.

    Now I know why we loved it! Still miss it, too. Can anyone compare the new Rebel Reserve to the old RY 90?

    The S-Ws I've had from the 60s were outstanding.

  3. Great post and issue. I've had three SWs: A 1960s or 70s era OF BIB, a recent vintage Pappy 20 and the Jefferson Presidential. The OF was actually my favorite of them all, with a strong, punchy, yet smooth flavor. The Pappy 20 was subtle and complex, great stuff. The Jefferson was very good but didn't live up to the other two. For my money though, the most recent version of Weller BTAC is much cheaper than the Pappy and generally cheaper than the Jefferson and offers more of the punch/smoothnes combo that I appreciated in hte old OF, so if I was counselling someone on the matter, I'd say hunt for dusties, but get some Weller antique before spending big on the new SW releases.

    I also have a bottle of Pappy 23 awaiting and I'll probably buy a bottle of the ORVW 23, because I'm a sucker that way.


  4. Through hunting and a lot of really great friends, I've had quite a few SW releases. OF BIB from a few different decades, VVOF from the 60s, OF Prime from the early 70s, ORVW 15/107, Pappy 20, Weller 12, OWA, etc. That being said, it is damn good whiskey, mostly because it has a bit of a profile lacking from most of today's juice.

    However... I also really love a lot of current and semi-dusty bottles. It is a hero, but also carries with it a lot of hype. 60s Ancient Age, OGD, Turkey bottlings, and a few others from years past have been AMAZING as well. 20 years from now, I'm sure there will be bottlings that today we overlook that are on the hype train as well.

    I love experiencing as many different bourbons as I can... and appreciate them all for different reasons. Regardless of distillery, if it's a good bourbon then it's a good bourbon. Perhaps part of the hype is due to the closure, I dislike most all (OGD aside) Beam products now, but the stuff from the 70s is fantastic. Maybe SW now would be awful and discredited? Who knows... but I sure enjoy drinking it when I can!

  5. Josh - Please tell me you were wearing a swami hat when you posted. It's almost as if you read my mind as you summed up my thoughts to a T. Emerald, through an act of generosity, left a 1980 OGD114 at my house when visiting a while back. That bottle was one of the best examples of Old Grand Dad I've ever had. Sadly it's gone....fortunately, I have another.

    Here are my brief thoughts on SW. SW bourbon is a hero with a side helping of hype (a small portion.) The fact that SW deviated from the industry standard rye mashbill was pretty bold and set them apart from other distilleries. SW bourbon is unique and flavorful, a whiskey that's never disappointed. I would add that the older WT and OGD's are hero's also. As you've noticed, and I'll articulate in my own words here, a number of bourbons from yesteryear have a depth and robust nature about them that's lacking in today corresponding offerings. That doesn't make the current stuff bad or undrinkable, but different in many respects.

    I've had a lot of different bourbons that span about 70 decades. I know what I like and that's bourbons from decades ago. Does that make me a snob? I don't think so, I just know what I like and I'm grateful for the chance at having access to out of production bourbons.

  6. Just to keep things clear, this is +UA. I logged in with my gmail and it said my name was "Josh" instead of the "JoshUA" that I post as on SB.

  7. My guess to the difference for corn production is becuase corn these days is mainly used for livestock feed rather than other uses. So its important to have a higher protein for cattle in a feedlot so they have enginered the corn to be more beneficial for cattle.

  8. This is very interesting & sheds some light to certain items. I have a chance to purchase some 200ml of Old Fitz 1849 gold label 80 proof from a fellow bourbon enthusiast. I have some regard if this is in fact S/W juice in these bottles. Theres no DSP labeled because of the proof, & they are marked with an 89 at the bottom of the bottles, & have a tax stamp with no ink markings on the top. The bottles dont have any S/W markings on them at all. Just says Old Fitzgerald Distillery, Louisville, Jefferson County Kentucky. Can anyone help me on this? Any info is greatly appreciated. Regards.

    1. I didn't know the 1849 came in 80 proof...only one's I've seen were 90. About the only time you will ever see a DSP on the bottle is if it's Bottled in Bond. If '89 is correct for the bottle year, what's the UPC number on the label? That should give you an idea of provenance.

  9. First off let me correct myself on the 1849 statement. the neck reads "since 1849". The labels are gold, white banner with red lettering. UPC reads 88076 22510. My friend states that the box it came in reads DSP KY 16. That would make sense if true. I don't know how to post an image on this thread or i would have to make thing a little easier. lol.

    1. Ok...so this is normal 80 proof Old Fitz. In all my hunting, I've never seen the DSP number of a box (I've had a number of boxed OF's). But, if the bottom date is '89, then you've got SW bourbon putting the distillation around 1984/5. The UPC of 88076 was used toward the end runs from SW....the bottles to look for are around 1980 or before that lack the UPC or after 1980 that have 88508.