History of Stitzel-Weller Distillery

The Stitzel-Weller Distillery opened up on Derby Day in May 1935 in Shively, Kentucky. The distillery was a result of a merger between W.L. Weller & Sons and A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery. W.L. Weller & Sons was first started as W.L. Weller & Brothers by William Larue Weller and his brother Charles Weller. William Larue Weller was born on Tuesday July 26, 1825 and Charles David Weller on Friday May 1, 1835 to Samuel Weller and Phoebe Larue Weller in Larue County, Kentucky. Captain Samuel Weller was born on Tuesday January 9, 1787 and Phoebe on Sunday April 28, 1805. The brothers were born with distilling in their blood. On their father’s side, their paternal grandfather Daniel P. Weller (born October 8, 1762) was a distiller. Daniel was distilling in the early days of the country and was likely a farmer distiller, meaning that he was primarily a farmer but operated a still on the side, likely using some of the leftover grains from his farm.

In the 1840’s William moved to Louisville, Kentucky from Larue County. Larue County was named after John Larue, an early settler of the county. This is the same Larue family from William’s mother’s side of the family. In 1847 William joined forces with the Louisville Brigade and fought in the Mexican-American War. The war ended on February 2, 1848 and William returned to Louisville. Just a year later, in 1849, the two brothers began their careers as whiskey sellers forming W.L. Weller & Brothers. The brothers did not distill their own products, but rather they would source barrels from other distillers and sell them. The slogan for their whiskey was “Honest whiskey at an honest price.”

On Tuesday July 1, 1862 Charles was out collecting business payments in Tennessee when we was murdered and robbed. During this time the American Civil War was ongoing and William’s brother, Captain John, was out to war. Captain John Henry Weller was born on Monday April 11, 1842 in Larue County. John had attended Kentucky Military Institute and when the Civil War began he enlisted in the Fourth Kentucky Infantry, which later became known as the Orphan Brigade. Fighting for the Confederate Army, he worked up the ranks and by the end of the war was a captain. During the Battle of Chickamauga, which took place September 18, 1863 through September 20, 1863 in Catoosa County and Walker County, Georgia, a fragment from a bursting shell gave John a head injury. Even though the Confederates ultimately won that battle, it left a lasting effect on John. After the Civil War ended, John returned back to Louisville and joined William in his whiskey business.

By 1887 William’s sons were coming of age and were joining the distillery and the name of the company was changed to W.L. Weller & Sons. In 1893 William hired the famous Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle as a traveling salesman. Julian Proctor “Pappy” Van Winkle Sr. was born on Sunday March 22, 1874 in Louisville, Kentucky to John Sallee Van Winkle and Louise Dillion Van Winkle. John Van Winkle was born on Sunday March 8, 1829 in Wayne County, Kentucky. He was married prior in 1858 to May Buster. Just a year after their marriage she died. In 1867 he would marry Louise and the two would have seven children together. Also around the time Julian was hired, so was another salesman by the name of Alex Farnsley. Alexander Thurman Farnsley was born on Tuesday February 9, 1869 to Alexander Pericles Farnsley and Mary Elizabeth Potter Farnsley.

In 1896 William Larue decided to retire from W.L. Weller & Sons and ownership was taken over by his brother John and his son George. George Pence Weller was born on Friday August 22, 1851. Just a few years after his retirement William died in Ocala, Florida on Thursday March 23, 1899. He was buried at the Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville. His legacy however continued to live on through his name and the company that he created.

The bourbon that W.L. Weller & Sons sold was a wheat bourbon. The mash bill was still made up of at least 51% corn to be called a bourbon, although this was not a regulation at this time in history. Instead of the typical addition of rye in the recipe, the rye was replaced with wheat. This produced different characteristics to the bourbon. This change to the recipe was not something that was typically done in the bourbon distillation industry at this time. However, by 1903 the A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery had opened up and became the main source of W.L. Weller & Sons’ products. The A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery was started by Arthur Phillip Stitzel. Arthur was born on Friday March 19, 1875 in Louisville, Kentucky to Phillip Stitzel and Elizabeth Kahlert Stitzel. Distilling was in Arthur’s blood as his father was a part of the Stitzel Brothers. Phillip Stitzel was born in September 1846 in Sausenhelm, Germany. In 1857 he immigrated to the United States of America with his father and two brothers Frederick and Jacob. The Stitzel family eventually settled in Louisville.

The three brothers would eventually open up their own distillery in Louisville in 1872. Here they produced bourbon whiskey and conducted their own experiments. They produced brands Old Fortuna and Glencoe. The brothers would also experiment with using wheat in place of rye in a typical bourbon recipe. Typically bourbons are made with corn, rye and barley. The change in grains was not widely done at this time, so the distillery never released a commercial version of this recipe. Instead the knowledge was passed on to Arthur when he eventually opened his distillery.

In 1908 Julian Van Winkle and Alexander Farnsley purchased W.L. Weller & Son. They continued sourcing of products from the A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery which helped the two companies form a strong relationship. This bond was extremely important when National Prohibition took effect. Overnight the sale and production of “intoxicating liquors” became illegal. This was the end of many distilleries and brands that have been lost to history because of this. The government only issued six licenses throughout the years of Prohibition to sell and produce alcohol. The A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery was one of those lucky companies. This helped to allow the sale of the W.L. Weller & Sons brand of bourbon through the means of A. Ph. Stitzel and keep the brand alive. On December 5, 1933 Prohibition was repealed, but the industry had a long road to recovery.

W.L. Weller and Sons and A. Ph. Stitzel took their relationship to the next level by merging the two companies in 1933 and forming Stitzel-Weller. A new distillery was built and opened on Derby Day in May of 1935 in Shively, Kentucky. The original A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery was sold shortly after they opened their new distillery to Frankfort Distillers. Frankfort Distillers was another one of the distilleries allowed to operate during Prohibition. One of their main products at that time was Four Roses. Julian Van Winkle became president of Stitzel-Weller, Arthur Stitzel secretary and Alexander Farnsley vice president. Outside of the new distillery a sign was hung that read “No chemists allowed.” The statement was a testament of the owners’ beliefs in that distillation was an art and a craft and science could not tell them how to distill.

Stitzel-Weller’s first master distiller was William H. “Boss” McGill. Will shared the same mindset as the owners that distillation was an art and not a science, so he seemed to have been the perfect fit for the company. He had previously worked at Tom Moore Distillery and Early Times. Under his supervision, the distillery produced a large number of brands including Old Fitzgerald, Rebel Yell, Mammoth Cave, Cabin Still, Old Elk, Kentucky Oaks, Old Stitzel, Belle of Jefferson, W.L. Weller, Billie Burke, Carolina Club and Belle of Bourbon.

Cabin Still was a brand introduced in 1849 by W.L. Weller & Brothers and continued to be produced under the new company. Mammoth Cave was purchased in 1920 by W.L. & Sons after the original owners, Old Times Distillery, was shut down with the start of Prohibition. Rebel Yell was created by Stitzel-Weller owner Alexander Farnsley’s nephew, Charlie Farnsley in the 1940’s. Charlie was a politician in Kentucky and a mayor of Louisville. Charlie created Rebel Yell as a private label offering that he would give out as gifts. The image on the bottle was simple and illustrated a shooting cannon. In the 1960’s Stitzel-Weller purchased the brand and began to offer the product commercially to customers in the south. The Old Elk brand was acquired during Prohibition from Edge Cliff Distillery.

Stitzel-Weller’s flagship and top selling brand Old Fitzgerald was not purchased by the company until Prohibition was enacted. The brand itself originated from Solomon Charles Herbst. Herbst was born on Monday March 7, 1842 in Germany and immigrated to the United States when he was sixteen. He began life in America as a tinsmith in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He later became involved in the spirits and wine industry by being a wholesaler and rectifier. Herbst would blend whiskeys together and sell them. In 1867 he purchased the Old Judge Distillery located on Benson Creek near Frankfort, Kentucky. There he began distilling for himself. There are many conflicting stories on how the name Old Fitzgerald came to be including the most popular tale of John E. Fitzgerald and his keen taste for good whiskey. The story goes that John was an employee of Herbst and would thieve (referring to the tool thieve that would be used to extract whiskey from a barrel) select barrels of fine whiskey. Thus, the brand was named after him. There are many myths that surround the origins of this brand and it is still a mystery if it is true. However, we do know that in 1884 the Old Fitzgerald trademark was registered and by 1889 the products were on the market. Herbst continued to produce the brand until the start of Prohibition. Since Herbst was not one of the distillers able to produce during this time, he sold the brand to Stitzel-Weller and the name of Old Fitzgerald survived Prohibition for us to still talk about today. The brand went on to be Stitzel-Weller’s flagship brand. Stitzel-Weller, being infamous for their use of wheat in the mash bill, introduced wheat into the Old Fitzgerald recipe.

Alexander Farnsley died Tuesday October 28, 1941 and was buried at Cave Hill Cemetery. World War II was ramping up by this time and many distilleries were forced to shut down regular production and make industrial alcohol for the war efforts. This put a burden on many distilleries who were still trying to recover from Prohibition that ended less than a decade before. The Stitzel-Weller Distillery survived these troubled times as they did once before. A few years later Arthur Stitzel died on Sunday April 13, 1947 in Jefferson County, Kentucky. He was buried at Cave Hill Cemetery. The Farnsley and Stitzel families both retained ownership in the company, however this left the distillery operations in the hands of Julian Van Winkle.

In the late 1940’s Stitzel-Weller welcomed its second master distiller, Andrew “Andy” Corcoran. He held the master distiller title until the early 1950’s when Roy Hawes became the master distiller. Julian continued to operate the distillery until his death on Tuesday February 16, 1965. Pappy was buried at the Cave Hill Cemetery. After Julian’s death, his son, Julian Jr., took over operations. Julian Proctor Van Winkle Jr. was born on Tuesday February 3, 1914 in Louisville. He attended Princeton and after graduation joined the Army. He was stationed at Fort Campbell and eventually fought in the Pacific as a tank commander. He was injured during his time serving in Guinea and was honorably discharged. He earned a purple heart and a silver medal for his accomplishments. After he returned home from war he joined his father at the distillery, so at the time of him taking over he had experience with working at a distillery. In 1971 the distillery welcomed its third master distiller, Woodrow “Woody” Wilson. Woodrow had worked previously as assistant distiller to Hawes.

Tough times were ahead for Julian Jr. in running the distillery. The 1970’s proved to be extremely tough on bourbon producers as the industry as a whole went into a downturn. This caused additional pressure and difficulties. The shareholders of the company wanted to sell, so on Friday June 30, 1972 the Stitzel-Weller Distillery was sold to Norton Simon Inc. Norton Simon Inc. was already involved with the Scotch whiskey business through its subsidiary, Somerset Imports, and so it expanded its portfolio to the American whiskey business. The distillery was renamed the Old Fitzgerald Distillery after the flagship Stitzel-Weller brand. Julian Jr. eventually resurrected a pre-Prohibition label called Old Rip Van Winkle and continued to source barrels of whiskey from Norton Simon.

In 1983 Edwin “Ed” S. Foote began as master distiller of the distillery. Ed had gotten his start in the industry as a beer chemist for Henry McKenna Distillery. He was teaching math for one semester when he had seen an ad in the paper for the position. Henry McKenna was purchased in 1941 by Seagram and Ed continued with the company for many decades until he had seen an ad in the paper for master distiller at Stitzel-Weller. Although he replaced Woodrow, he learned the most about his new position from previous master distiller Roy Hawes.

In 1984 the distillery was purchased by Distillers Corporation Limited. The new owners had deep roots in the Scotch industry dating back to 1877. Production continued at the Old Fitzgerald Distillery even after the new owners took over. In 1986 Distillers Corporation was purchased by Guinness. The following year United Distillers was created out of the purchase. Distillation continued at the distillery until 1992 when United Distillers shut the plant down. Any production that they wanted to continue was moved to Bernheim Distillery. The closing of the Old Fitzgerald Distillery was one of the first signs of the downfall of United Distillers. The company began selling off many of its key brands to its own competitors.

The Bernheim Distillery was sold to Heaven Hill along with its brands Rebel Yell, Cabin Still and Old Fitzgerald. Heaven Hill sold the Rebel Yell label to David Sherman Corporation, known today as Luxco. The W.L. Weller brand was sold to the Ancient Age Distillery, known today as Buffalo Trace Distillery. At the time a new start up brand named Jefferson’s bought a large quantity of some of the overproduced whiskey from the Old Fitzgerald Distillery to help get its start. The Old Elk brand was abandoned after the sale of the distillery to Simon Norton, so the name was up for grabs when Curt and Nancy Richardson revived the brand. It is now a Fort Collins, Colorado brand started by the same owners of Otterbox.

In 1997 United Distiller’s parent company Guinness merged with Grand Metropolitan to form Diageo. Diageo now owned the distillery and eventually reopened it in 2014. One of Diageo’s brands of bourbon was Bulleit, so the distillery was originally turned into the Bulleit Frontier Whiskey Experience. It remained a place for visitors to come to on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail until the current visitor’s center opened in 2019. Today the distillery is home to three of Diageo’s other brands including Blade and Bow, I.W. Harper and Orphan Barrel. Distilling has now resumed within the walls of the old Stitzel-Weller Distillery. Diageo offers tours of the historical distillery.

Although Stitzel-Weller is still not around today, they fostered many great brands that are still in existence. Stitzel-Weller will remain one of the iconic and important brands that helped the bourbon industry get to where it is today. Whether you find yourself drinking a dusty bottle of authentic Stitzel-Weller products or one of the current productions, remember you are sipping more than what’s in your glass, you are sipping history.

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