Saturday, August 25, 2007

Last Night's Tipple

William LaRue Weller's grandfather Daniel began distilling in Kentucky around 1800. His father Samuel became a distiller in his own right, and WL got into the business, too, founding the William LaRue Weller & Brother company to market whiskey in 1849. He remained in control of the company, rechristened WL Weller & Son, until 1896, shortly before his death. It was with this company that Julian "Pappy' Van Winkle got his start in the whiskey business, getting hired as a salesman in 1893. Weller was a whiskey trading company, not a distilling company, so they had to buy the Bourbon that they sold under their own label somewhere; and starting in 1903, that somewhere was the Stitzel distillery in Louisville. The Stitzel brothers leased the distillery to Weller in 1912, and that distillery had a license to sell medicinal whiskey during Prohibition. After Prohibition ended, Pappy Van Winkle and his business partner Alex Farnsley bought both Stitzel and Weller and merged them to establish Stitzel-Weller (oh, the originality!), and the new company opened a new distillery in Shively. Van Winkle in turn sold out to United Distillers in the 1970s, which eventually became Diageo after a series of mergers. Diageo shut down the Stitzel-Weller distillery in 1995 and eventually sold off the former Stitzel-Weller brands, including Old Fitzgerald and WL Weller. The former brand is now owned by Heaven Hill, the latter by Buffalo Trace.

The claim to fame for Stitzel-Weller Bourbons is that they were wheated. That is, their mashbills replaced rye with wheat as the secondary grain (after corn, of course). All wheated Bourbons currently on the market (WL Weller, Old Fitzgerald, Rebel Yell, Maker's Mark) derive from Stitzel-Weller's wheated mashbill. The first three were S-W Bourbons that continued with the same mashbill even after Diageo sold the brands off. Maker's Mark, despite the company mythology about Bill Samuels Sr. creating the mashbill from bread-making experiments, uses the S-W wheat mashbill, too: Pappy Van Winkle gave it to him when Samuels was just starting out and needed all the help he could get. Where did the S-W wheat mashbill come from? Nobody really knows. There are extent company documents from the turn of the century indicating that the old Stitzel distillery made standard Bourbon with rye as the small grain. Sometime between then and when the new Stitzel-Weller distillery opened in 1935, someone had made the decision that wheat worked better to create the kind of Bourbon that the company wanted to create. It's undoubtedly the case that wheat had been used as a small grain in other Bourbons prior to S-W making a habit out of it in the early 20th Century. Early distillers probably used whatever grain they could get, and it stands to reason that they could often get wheat instead of rye. By Pappy Van Winkle's time, though, rye was the standard small grain.

In any event, the WL Weller brand today is anomalous just like the Old Charter brand is. All WL Weller Bourbons (except the 19 year old, which is part of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection) are middle-shelf offerings, and yet they have a good deal of age on them. The 12 year old costs less than $18 a fifth, which is just crazy for a Bourbon that old. I doubt that Buffalo Trace will phase out the brand or stop offering the 12 year old, but the price has to rise. The hallmark of all wheated Bourbons is that they're sweet and not bitter, and so it is with this one. It has a graininess on the finish that I don't particularly care for, and it's remarkably hot for a whiskey that's only 90 proof. Believe it or not, but I think it could probably stand a bit more age. It's not bad Bourbon, but I don't think that it will be one of my favorites.

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