Stitzel-Weller Rides Again: A Boon For… Rye?

This weekend, the diehard bourbon enthusiast/nerd community had a collective freakout when John Hansell broke the news that the Stitzel-Weller distillery was going to begin producing again. For those who don’t track this stuff in depth, Stitzel-Weller is the distillery that was run for a time by none other than Pappy Van Winkle himself. Stitzel-Weller was notably the producer of some really great whisky under the Very Old Fitzgerald and Very Very Old Fitzgerald labels. I’ve had the privilege of trying both; they’re quite good. As with all things, they perhaps don’t live up to the hype, high prices and general hysteria that accompany them these days, but they’re quite good.

Stitzel-Weller stopped distilling in the early ’90s. Much of what remains has made it to market in the form of the white-hot and truly overhyped Pappy Van Winkle line – though it’s been said lately that the contents of Van Winkle aren’t 100% Stitzel-Weller. More Stitzel-Weller whiskey has been bottled at times under the Jefferson’s Presidential Select label; the rumor mill says this may not be entirely Stitzel-Weller anymore either.

This is not another puff piece inflating the legacy of Stitzel-Weller. I’ve said before like others that I think it’s a bit overrated – and let’s not forget that Stitzel was perfectly capable of producing mediocre whiskey.

There were several reactions to be seen in response to this news. It was most fun to see the unbridled optimism of those who were convinced that this meant it was only a handful of years until we lived in a land of milk and honey, where the high-quality wheated bourbon was plentiful and we’d all be drinking Stitzel-Weller wheated bourbon (the “real” Van Winkle) at low cost. Perhaps the ghost of Pappy would smile down on Kentucky and a permanent beam of sunlight would shine on the distillery and there’d always be a hint of cigar smoke lingering in the air.

Unfortunately, it’s misplaced optimism. Stitzel-Weller is owned by Diageo, the massive multinational who owns something like fourteen thousand whisky distilleries in Scotland.

This is not a “hate on Diageo” piece, for that matter.

Diageo, through the merger-and-acquisition route, had a toehold in the American market in the form of George Dickel, the lesser known (but arguably better) competitor to Jack Daniel’s. American whiskey enthusiasts have long lamented Diageo’s seeming indifference to the Dickel brand, and it certainly has not shown a lot of imagination or attention in dealing with the brand. Interestingly, there are some ultra-aged Dickel barrels out there. I recently had the privilege of trying a 25 year old sample provided by a friend – certainly too old to be bottled on its own, but potentially a foundation for something special. The biggest news to come out of Dickel territory was the addition of a rye to the lineup late last year – though that was merely another sourced whiskey from Indiana.

Diageo’s attention and distribution has seemed to focus on getting more traction for the Bulleit label. Bulleit was another acquisition, though one that has been the beneficiary of more attention – I’ve certainly seen Bulleit in most bars whose bourbon selection go beyond the usual Jim & Jack options. Bulleit is distilled in large part (if not in totality) by Four Roses under contract. The usual industry mystery wraps the details of Bulleit – sometimes a “proprietary yeast strain” is mentioned, the mash bill has been claimed to be 68% corn, 28% rye and 4% barley (which would put it at about 50% “B” high-rye and 50% “E” low-rye Four Roses variants). Recently, Bulleit saw expansion with a 95% MGP (LDI) rye marketed as Bulleit Rye, and more recently, a 10 Year variant of Bulleit. Clearly Diageo has seen profitability and interest in the brand.

It’s my belief that the Bulleit Bourbon will eventually become 100% Stitzel-Weller distillate from the new era. Perhaps Diageo has old Stitzel stocks – if so, they may move to release them in some sort of special “Augustus Bulleit” edition while they’re still good (and to start using the Stitzel name on labels). With The Bulleit Experience also located at Stitzel-Weller, clearly the ties are being drawn ever tighter to associate “Stitzel-Weller” and “Bulleit” in the minds of the average consumer.

Realistically, Diageo has to move at a measured pace – in four years they can’t just switch over to the new whiskey cold turkey and expect customers to come along for the ride. However, Diageo does know a thing or two about blending whisky. It seems like the most rational path forward would be a ten-year plan – four years of relative silence from the new distillery as stocks age out, with the first new era whisky coming online somewhere around late 2017 (assuming a mid-2013 start).  I’d expect the S-W portion to be small initially, to both introduce change gradually as well as to support aging stocks to 10 years (2023) to support the 10 Year label in-house. Assuming batched releases they could could gradually work up to 100% Diageo-produced whiskey within a few years – maybe two or three on an aggressive timescale, or 5-6 on a more gradual shift. I’ve noticed drastic shifts in single malts in the course of a decade – a six year plan could be very achievable and beneath the radar for most. A 6 year schedule for cutover would put 2023-2024 as the time where you would expect 100% SW Bulleit and 100% SW Bulleit 10 Year, ostensibly with excess capacity to support both and some limited annual releases (a la the Distiller’s Editions and year-end exclusives from their Scottish holdings).

The smart money is on using some near match of the existing mashbill, which means a high-rye bourbon.

At no point has wheated bourbon even entered the discussion – the style that Stitzel has been synonymous with in the past. I suspect examining Diageo’s large-scale industrial approach holds some clues to what may be in store for US operations as a whole. As noted upthread, Diageo is the force behind Bulleit and Dickel. These two brands both have a rye whiskey released under their respective names, which means that Diageo is a firm believer in the potential for rye whiskey going forward. There’s a clear economy to be had here if operations at Stitzel are to grow or, indeed, expand.

If the new Stitzel has a large capacity, they may dedicate some of it towards producing rye. Rye is in low supply in the US – Rittenhouse comes and goes, Sazerac is even more transient, and Wild Turkey has had to cut proof to keep up with demand. MGP (LDI) seems to be the only reliable producer, and it’s conceivable in the medium term that Diageo may start producing rye in-house if all goes well. They could simply produce for both Bulleit and Dickel, do the extra filtering for Dickel and then label and bottle it appropriately. This would allow Diageo to control their own destiny and keep costs down in a segment they clearly value which still has tight stocks. Conceivably Diageo could also do contract distilling and compete with MGP on a limited basis. Is this pointing to a huge capacity? Quite possibly. However, Diageo has no problem thinking and executing on a huge scale. The Roseisle distillery is massive – 10 million liters a year – and they’re considering building another one. Not to mention, Diageo has been expanding capacity in a big way in many of their existing distilleries. Whisky is in a growth business for Diageo.

One might reason that Diageo would clearly see the value of a longer-term investment in wheated bourbon and start production. It seems that Diageo is patient to play a long game. Conceivably if they massively expanded Stitzel-Weller they could lay down stocks. If you think strategically though, Diageo waited quite a while to start producing its star product itself – it may yet wait to see how well the transition works before it tries to broaden and diversify. As a betting man, I’d expect that you’d be more likely to see an unaged Bulleit (call it “Bullet Raw”) before a wheated bourbon. Thinking in a production sense, if they did occasional rye runs they may also occasionally do a corn run and make that hypothetical “Bulleit Raw” as a corn whiskey. Balcones has shown that corn whiskey can be done right, and the unaged whiskey market continues to be inexplicably hot.

Finally, there is one potential upside to this in any case – more jobs for the local markets. Diageo’s focus is on their bottom line (– photo from K&L Spirits Journal) and automation whenever possible, though you can’t (yet) run a distillery without people. That is perhaps one of the best pieces of news. Any real judgement on this can’t be complete for several more years until the first whiskey comes out.

In the spirit of “This could be good news for rye whiskey” (and since I’ve already reviewed Bulleit Bourbon), here’s  look at their other bottle currently available on California shelves – Bulleit Rye.

As said before, Bulleit Rye is a product of the LDI distillery owned by MGP in Indiana. LDI rye drives a lot of designer labels (including Templeton), so it’s not an unknown experience. However, for the sake of completeness, it’s worth tasting.

At a glance:

Bulleit “95″ Rye 45% ABV
Nose:
  Gently minty with a pine body upfront, a lightly bready body underneath. Gentle, lightly caramel sweetness through the middle, but it’s primarily dominated by the thinner notes (without being thin per se). Settles down a bit with air.
Palate:  Moderate mouthfeel, noticeable wood and a thin, piney, faintly sticky taste. A light bit of young wood and some faint sweetness, but this is fairly dry. A little cinnamon and a pinch of pepper.
Finish:  Warm at first – cinnamon and some breadiness. A little more pine that’s slightly sticky and a little greener; lightly floral and aromatic.
Comment:  A youngish but agreeable rye. Worth checking out.
Rating: B-

4 thoughts on “Stitzel-Weller Rides Again: A Boon For… Rye?”

  1. Nicely summed up. It’s nice that they’re opening a distillery, but I doubt it will have much in common with the former Stitzel-Weller.

  2. Diageo must have been tinkering with Bulleit production for years, with this being the final step, I guess. Evidently there was some dramatic or at least important change made relatively recently – just yesterday I was told that Tom Bulleit occasionally asks his friends (in a wink-wink-nudge-nudge manner) if they’ve noticed anything different in the way Bulleit tastes now, as opposed to a few years ago. I don’t know if that means a yeast change, a change in the blending of different recipes, or if Diageo indeed is getting some Bulleit precursor from another distillery. At any rate, the more that Four Roses can focus on its own amazing product, the better off we all are.

  3. There is a good article in Malt Advocate explaining what is in Pappy. The 2012 release of the 20 year is the last year to have SW in it. I think they said it was a 50-50 mix of SW and BT, while the 23 was all SW and will be for a few more years. I also think the 15 and other “family members” were BT.

    I think rye is the truly overhyped whiskey craze but I love a wheated bourbon. Ill take Jefferson 18, SW or not (which the 2012 is) over just about any rye. Even with the fanfare of BT “Antique”, my liquor stores can’t get rid of Thomas Handy.

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