Stitzel-Weller’s Distilling and Barrel Entry Proofs in 1954 (Part I)

Proof Positive

The legendary Van Winkle bourbons, especially the Pappy line at 15, 20, and 23 years old, are highly regarded for rich, mature taste. I drank them regularly a dozen and more years ago when they were available for comparatively little money. Today they are hard to find, especially the Pappys, and much more expensive.

D.S.P. 16 in Louisville, KY, was built in 1935 by Julian Proctor Van Winkle, Sr. (1874-1965) and partners. In the 1920s Van Winkle, Sr. had merged his Weller whiskey wholesaling business with the Stitzel distillery, which had operated since the 1800s. The newly built operation was known as Stitzel-Weller Distillery.

The new plant made wheat-recipe bourbon, eschewing the more usual formula based on corn and rye. For more detail on these aspects, and the origins of the Old Fitzgerald branding, see Charles K. Cowdery’s engaging 2014 book, Bourbon, Strange.

The distillery’s brands were Old Fitzgerald, W.L. Weller, and Cabin Still. The plant was sold in 1972 to a conglomerate called Norton Simon Inc. but the family retained rights to the name Old Rip Van Winkle and used it to brand whiskey reserved from the sale, sold initially in decanters. Whiskey later was obtained for this purpose from the buyer of D.S.P. 16 and other sources. The Pappy branding started in about 1995.

Commercial distilling at D.S.P. 16 ended in 1992.* After that, Old Fitzgerald and W.L. Weller were produced by what is now Diageo at New Bernheim distillery, also in Louisville. In 1999 the Old Fitzgerald label was sold to Heaven Hill Distillery in Bardstown, KY, which bought New Bernheim (now Heaven Hill Bernheim), the same year. Also in 1999 the W.L. Weller label was sold to Buffalo Trace distillery in Frankfort, KY. The Old Rip Van Winkle website states:

Buffalo Trace bought the W.L. Weller label in 1999 and had been making the bourbon with nearly the same recipe as Pappy’s. The transition was easy. As of May 2002, Buffalo Trace has produced the Van Winkle bourbons, using Pappy’s exact recipe.

Hence, while there is reason to think the Weller and Van Winkle bourbons are quite similar, it seems there are some differences. Apart from age in specific cases, barrel selection likely is part of it. In terms of distilling-out proof – the proof off the stills of new-make whiskey, it seems from various sources that the number is the same for Weller and Van Winkle bourbons, 130 proof or between that and 140, possibly.

For entry proof – the proof of the new spirit when actually placed in the barrel – sources seem agreed it is 114, again whether for the Weller or Van Winkle bourbons. Buffalo Trace has issued some wheat-recipe bourbon, distilled out at 130 proof, entered at proof points other than 114 but this was experimental in nature. See this page for the details, from its website. That 130 number may well reflect the distilling-out both for Weller and Van Winkle bourbons; at any rate it is unlikely to be lower.

Michael Veach, who writes on bourbon history, states on his website that before its sale in 1972 Stitzel-Weller entered at 107 proof. See his (undated) blogpost, here. He adds that entry proof had risen to 114 by the time D.S.P. 16 closed in 1992.

If that 107 figure is accurate, entry proof must have risen some time after 1954 because in that year, Pappy stated a lower figure in a news ad. And Pappy’s distilling-out proof that year, also mentioned in the ad, was much lower than the 130-140 range likely applicable to Weller and Van Winkle bourbons today.

The ad was part of a “talking ads” series where Pappy directly addressed his market. The tone was folksy, downhome, intimate – a personalized form of selling that reflected Pappy’s unique personality. In a warm, fireside chat style he highlighted the traditional methods used by the company to make high grade sour mash whiskey, standards he felt explained its fine taste and repute in the market.

Pappy could charm with words, as befitted someone who started in sales and never forgot its importance. He may have gilded the lily sometimes, but as numbers are inherently technical in nature, what he stated had to be true.

You can read the advertisement here, in the May 28, 1954 issue of the Buffalo Courier-Express.

The series ran about 10 years, in magazines and (frequently) northeast newspapers. Some ads were later reproduced in various bourbon resources, but not this 1954 ad, as far as I know. I found it earlier this week when perusing Old Fitzgerald ads in the Fulton History website.

Pappy wrote that Old Fitzgerald came off the first (column) still at only 85 proof, and from the doubler still at a final 117 proof.**

In his words:

We distill at low proof to preserve the natural bourbon flavors. OLD FITZGERALD comes from the still at 85 proof and is further refined in our old-fashioned pot still doubler to 117 proof.

He also wrote:

Whiskey comes in sizes too, and the sole concern of our family-owned distillery through more than a century has been to provide a flavor ample enough to fit the man who knows how real Kentucky bourbon ought to taste.

How do we do this? Largely by controlling our proof through each stage of operation.

Finally, for barrel entry, he stated that the whiskey was reduced with water to 103 proof to maximize contact with the oak.

These are impressively low numbers. In another ad, Pappy said the new whiskey emerged as a “pretty rugged boy” but took to barrel aging like “a mule to pasture” due to at least four years aging in wood. That ad appeared in the same Courier-Express, on May 14 in the same 1954.

Hence, Pappy laid stress on the proof factor for the quality of his whiskey. The wheat content in the mash bill is not mentioned, in this period.

Whiskey at 117 proof off the doubler retains many congeners, the secondary constituents that give whiskey (or brandy, malt whisky, heavy rum, tequila, etc.) its body and character when aged. Bourbon author Fred Minnick gave the lowdown on modern bourbon industry barreling proofs in his 2017 article in Whisky Advocate, “The Secret Science of Proof and Barrels”, see here.

As may be seen, Michter’s enters its spirit for aging at Stitzel-Weller’s 1954 level – 103 proof. Interviewed in Minnick’s article, Michter’s head honcho uses reasoning similar to Pappy to justify that level. Of the distilleries included in the table, only Michter’s uses 103 proof today. The next highest are two craft distilleries at 105 proof and 107 proof. Weller/Van Winkle is stated at 114, consistent with other sources.

Many distilleries enter at the current legal maximum of 125 proof, see for example this table on the site Modern Thirst. Of course, each distillery has a reason for its practice, as Minnick discusses in his article. And to be sure not all distillers are agreed on the ideal entry proof for bourbon, and the same applies for distilling-out proof.

I tasted D.S.P. 16 bourbon many times, starting in the 1970s. My favourite iteration was 1970s-80s Old Fitzgerald Prime, not quite at the Pappy-ideal of 100 proof, but 86 proof, and plenty good. It was rich, full-flavoured and satisfying just like Pappy stated in this further 1954 ad, from the Kingston Daily Freeman in New York.

The current Weller and Van Winkle bourbons are very good too. Any bourbon fan is grateful to have them; at the same time, historical inquiry has its own reward, for many.***

Note re image: the source of the image above is the 1954 news advertisement described in the text and linked from the Fulton History website. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. All feedback welcomed.

………………………….

*Today, the Stitzel-Weller Distillery hosts the Bulleit Frontier Whiskey Experience and a very small amount of whiskey is distilled there for experimental and demonstration purposes. The warehouses on site are still used to age various spirits produced by Diageo, including apparently Bulleit bourbon itself, which has been distilled under contract at Four Roses Distillery in Lawrenceburg, KY, owned by Kirin of Japan. Diageo has built as well a new distillery to produce Bulleit at Shelbyville, KY, now open for “Experience” tours.

**[Note added November 10, 2019]. I finally located my copy of But Always Fine Bourbon: Pappy Van Winkle and the Story of Old Fitzgerald, authored in 1999 by Sally Van Winkle Campbell. At pg. 148 she states, in relation to the late 1950s as I read it, that low wines from the beer still came off at a “low proof” of “85 to 90”, and the “new bourbon came from the pot still [doubler] … at 118-120 proof”. This aligns with Pappy’s numbers in the 1954 column, as there would be minor variations in daily yields especially in that period from the equipment used. Unless I missed it, I could not see any reference to barrel entry proof. I highly recommend her memoir, due to its engaging tone, considerable information conveyed, and the numerous handsome illustrations.

***For Part II of this post added November 11, 2019see here.

Leave a Comment