Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Whiskey Wednesday: Jefferson Presidential Select and the Cult of Stitzel-Weller

Among Bourbon connoisseurs, there is a special reverence in tone used to discuss the Stitzel-Weller distillery, and if you announce you are serving a Bourbon containing the "juice" of the long closed plant, heads will turn. There have been many heads turning over the last few months since, for the first time possibly since the closing of the distillery, a Bourbon bottler announced it would be marketing a new Stitzel-Weller Bourbon.

Closed in 1991, the Stitzel-Weller distillery has developed what can only be described as a cult following among Bourbon lovers. Located in Shively, Kentucky, a distillery-rich suburb of Louisville, the distillery was founded just after prohibition and made what in Bourbon parlance is known as a "wheater" or "wheated Bourbon." According to the federal regulations governing spirits, Bourbon must be made from at least 51% corn. Most Bourbons use a higher percentage of corn than is required and then use rye as a secondary grain to add flavor, along with some barley. Rye is what gives Bourbon its spicy kick. Stitzel-Weller, however, used wheat instead of rye as its secondary grain, giving their Bourbons a smoother, gentler taste, often with citrus notes.

Stitzel-Weller's biggest brands were Old Fitzgerald and W.L. Weller. After the distillery closed, as is common in the world of Bourbon, it sold off the brand names. Old Fitzgerald is now produced by the Heaven Hill distillery and W.L. Weller by Buffalo Trace; both are still made using wheated bourbon recipes. Buffalo Trace has also teamed up with Julian Van Winkle III, the grandson of Stitzel-Weller founder Julian P. "Pappy" Van Winkle, to make a series of wheated Bourbon under the Van Winkle label.

Julian Van Winkle has confirmed rumors that he still has stocks of Stitzel-Weller Bourbon that go into the older versions of the Van Winkle line, but none of those Bourbons, the Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve series, are marketed as Stitzel-Weller Bourbon, and there is no official disclosure of whether the older versions (20 and 23 year old Bourbons) are purely from old Stitzel-Weller stocks or are blended with Buffalo Trace Bourbons. In any case, those old stocks won't last forever and eventually, Van Winkle Bourbons will be made wholly with more recently distilled whiskey.

Stitzel-Weller became big news again in the world of Bourbon this summer when Bourbon bottler McLain and Kyne announced that it would be issuing a new expression of its Jefferson Reserve line of Bourbons -- the Jefferson Presidential Select, a 17 year old Stitzel-Weller Bourbon. Speculation was rampant as to how McLain and Kyne acquired the Stitzel-Weller juice. Some suggested that they may have purchased it from drinks giant Diageo which was the last owner of the Stitzel-Weller distillery, but only McLain and Kyne know for sure.

The release of a new Bourbon marketed as Stitzel-Weller Bourbon is unusual in the world of American whiskey. Unlike the world of Scotch, in which there are regular new releases of rare, old whiskies from closed distilleries, it is unusual to see new Bourbon releases from closed distilleries. One of the only other such Bourbons currently on the market is A.H. Hirsch from the old Michter's distillery in Pennsylvania.

The announcement also gives the new crop of younger Bourbon lovers a rare glimpse into the flavors of Bourbons past. Stitzel-Weller closed at the tail end of a whiskey market downturn which saw many distilleries, in Scotland and the United States, close their doors. Less than ten years later, a spirits revival would begin. Most of the new afficionados who have come to Bourbon during this revival either weren't of drinking age or simply weren't drinking Bourbon when Stitzel-Weller was producing. To these drinkers, the McLain and Kyne bottling is manna from the heavens, something many of them have heard about but that they never believed they would taste.

No one seems to know exactly how much Stitzel-Weller Bourbon is still resting in barrels in ancient warehouses, but if the Jefferson Reserve bottling sells well, then the world of Bourbon just might see an extended last hurrah of a distillery that closed nearly twenty years ago.


Jefferson's Presidential Select, 17 years old, 47% alcohol ($85-90).

The nose is alive and singing on this one. I smell sweet, caramelized fruit, pastries and the smell you get when you first open a can of passover coconut macaroons. The flavor is rich and clean. You can tell it's an aged wheater, but it doesn't have the chewy, oakiness you would expect in a 17 year old Bourbon. It's less layered and complex than I might have imagined, going more for a clear, clean Bourbon flavor. This is a Bourbon that knows what it wants to be, sweet but not overly so, woody but not overly so, very well balanced in every respect, including a solid finish.

A great Bourbon and a chance to taste history. Is it expensive? I suppose, but nowhere near what you would pay to taste whisky from a closed distillery in Scotland. This would make a great holiday gift for any Bourbon loving friends or family.

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