Fred Minnick header image

Blog

The Pappy Van Winkle Dilemma at Bulleit Stitzel-Weller Experience

At the Bulleit Frontier Whiskey Experience at Stitzel-Weller, I wondered if Bulleit’s parent company, Diageo, has a branding problem. Stitzel-Weller is the house Pappy Van Winkle built. They know it. The media knew it. And even the Shively, Ky., mayor knew it. At the long-named site’s ribbon cutting, Mayor Sherry Sinegra Conner said: “I wonder if old Pappy would have dreamed what this (Stitzel-Weller) has become today.”

When Tom Bulleit spoke, he talked about Pappy Van Winkle, too, reciting the story of how Pappy gave Bill Samuels Sr. the recipe for Maker’s Mark. On the tour, they talked about Pappy’s office, the original still and the rickhouses that Frederic Stitzel patented way back when. Pappy mentions were so frequent in my 1.5 hours there I lost count.

I asked Diageo VP Guy Smith if they were trying to take advantage of Pappy, the brand’s popularity. “We’d never encroach on another brand,” Smith said. “Whatever we do will be tasteful and historically accurate.”

As he was telling me this, I couldn’t help but wonder what a Van Winkle would think about the converting of the Stitzel-Weller distillery into a visitor center for Bulleit. I asked Sally Van Winkle Campbell, Pappy’s granddaughter, and she thinks Pappy would appreciate the Bulleit facility.

“I think he would have been okay with this,” she told me. “When changed happened, he was okay with moving on.”

The Van Winkles sold the distillery in 1972, but the family contracted with the facility’s new owners, Norton-Simon, to continue making whiskey. After a couple owners, the distillery stopped producing in 1992, and it’s been aging products for other distilleries since then.

Campbell, author of But Always Fine Bourbon, remembers playing at the distillery as a child. She’s happy Bulleit’s moved into her old playground. (I interviewed Sally at the distillery and have not spoken to other Van Winkles, but she wouldn’t shy away from criticizing anybody for misrepresenting her cherished family name.)

The ribbon cutting for the new Bulleit Experience. The facility is now on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.

The ribbon cutting for the new Bulleit Experience. The facility is now on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.

“It’s just great to see the place live again,” she said. “It’s been dead for a long time.”

Diageo certainly improved the place. I’ve been to the distillery when it was grimy and riddled with snakeskins and tin cans. Diageo’s landscape and interior improvements deserve sincere recognition.

The Stitzel-Weller Distillery in Shively opened on Derby Day in 1935.  Stitzel-Weller is now owned by Diageo.  The Bulleit Frontier Whiskey Experience at Stitzel-Weller will be open to the public Wednesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. -3 p.m., with the last tour beginning at 2 p.m.  Admission, which includes a tasting, costs $10 for adults of legal drinking age.

The Stitzel-Weller Distillery in Shively opened on Derby Day in 1935. Stitzel-Weller is now owned by Diageo. The Bulleit Frontier Whiskey Experience at Stitzel-Weller will be open to the public Wednesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. -3 p.m., with the last tour beginning at 2 p.m. Admission, which includes a tasting, costs $10 for adults of legal drinking age.

Yes, I’d like to know what the hell took them so long. Yes, I want to know whose whiskey they’re aging because they sure don’t own all 412,000 barrels in the warehouses. Yes, I’d like walk past the tour’s 12-foot rope that keeps me from going inside the warehouse.

But those are concerns for another day because nobody is letting me past that rope.

One day, Bulleit will be a name as big as Crown Royal and Johnnie Walker—other brands owned by Diageo. With the family’s bright youth (read my Whisky Advocate story on 21-year-old Tucker Bulleit), its recent investment and its current growth rates, Bulleit is Diageo’s darling North American brand. Five years ago, they didn’t knowingly let my kind into Stitzel-Weller. Now, they let us walk around and take pictures. Baby steps….

Today, a new destination was added to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. And at least one Van Winkle appreciated the attention her grandfather received.Stitzel Weller 4 Stitzel Weller 5 Stitzel Weller 6

 

One Proud Author: Maker’s Mark’s First Lady Enters the Bourbon Hall of Fame

When the Kentucky Distillers Association announced its only 2014 member of the Bourbon Hall-of-Fame, I received several texts, emails and phone calls congratulating me. No, I wasn’t inducted into the HOF. The lone inductee this year is Marjorie Mattingly Samuels, the woman behind the naming of Maker’s Mark, the bottle design and the brand’s trademarked dripping red wax.

Marge, Margie or Marjorie (I’ve seen all three spellings) was also the reason behind the early visitor experience at Maker’s Mark and is the reason why the distillery is on the National Register of Historic Places. So, why were people congratulating me?

Marjorie Samuels (left) with her husband Bill Samuels Sr. She joins her husband in the Bourbon Hall of Fame.

Marjorie Samuels (left) with her husband Bill Samuels Sr. She joins her husband in the Bourbon Hall of Fame.

Well, I wrote Whiskey Women and Samuels nearly received her own chapter. I’ve talked about her importance in various interviews, essays and argued on WhiskyCast that she should be in the Bourbon Hall of Fame. I believe she changed the liquor packaging industry and planted the seed for what is now the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.

I’m proud to have helped bring attention to Mrs. Samuels, and I’m also stoked what has happened since the publication of my book nearly one year ago.

Women have told me that Whiskey Women opened doors and broke the stigma associated with them in the business. In the past year, several major companies have put women in more public roles, but I don’t deserve the credit. The women breaking down barriers deserve the praise.

Woodford Reserve’s Marianne Eaves, whom I wrote about for Whisky Advocate, created her own opportunities. In her mid 20s, she became Brown-Forman’s master taster earlier this year. Mark my words, Eaves could become bourbon’s best distiller one day.

Former Diageo employee and now with Michter’s Andrea Wilson fought her guts out to save Stitzel-Weller, the historic distillery once owned by Pappy Van Winkle. While nobody is fessing up as to why Wilson is no longer with Diageo, Michter’s got lucky with Wilson.

Speaking of Michter’s, they hired Pamela Heilmann, who ran the Booker Noe Distillery in Boston, Ky. Now that Michter’s is transitioning from a sourced whiskey bottler to a full-blown distillery, Heilmann, the distiller and vice president of operations, joins Maker’s Mark’s VP of Ops Victoria MacRae-Samuels as the highest-ranking women in operations.

In my book, I argued there was no everyday whiskey named after a woman. That’s no longer true. Western Kentucky craft distiller MB Roland is actually named after a woman. Merry Beth Roland married Paul Tomaszewski, who named the distillery after his wife’s maiden name. They co-own the business.

From the ever-talented whiskey writer Liza Weisstuch to author Heather Greene and from Four Roses director of sales Patty Holland to Brown-Forman president of North America Jill Jones, women are in every aspect of the business.

They always have been, but played second fiddle to the men when it comes to recognition like the Bourbon Hall of Fame. That time is over.

There may not be a woman with the title “Kentucky master distiller,” but most master distillers report to women. If Marjorie Samuels has taught us anything, it’s better to be the boss than the worker.

 

Distillers Grain, Cattle Love It

My degree is in agricultural communications, and I wrote a beef book, so I’m fascinated with distillers grains, a byproduct of whiskey and fuel ethanol production. My great grandpa fed distillers grains to his hogs in Ada, Oklahoma, and they’ve long been fed to American cattle.

In 1907, the United States studied distillers grains in cattle production and essentially learned the grains used in distillation were decent replacements for dry grains. After further research, they’ve learned the nutrient composition of distillers grains have three-fold the protein of dry grains. Distillation removes the starch in the corn, and give cattle bitefulls of fat and protein. Yum!

This distillers grain came from Heaven Hill and will be used to feed cattle in Indiana.

This distillers grain came from Heaven Hill and will be used to feed cattle in Indiana.

Distillers grain also gives bourbon producers another revenue stream. The USDA maintains a weekly distillers grain report here, but it’s not all roses for distillers grains.

Prices have dramatically declined in 2014. Distiller grain prices dropped more than $125/ton in the Spring, because China placed a ban on U.S. distillers grains earlier this year due to the GMO traits.

So, it’s okay for China to accept the bourbon but not the distillers grains?

We all have our priorities!

 

 

Buffalo Trace Antique Collection Coming to a Store Near You…Maybe

The popular Buffalo Trace Antique Collection is set to be released in late September or early October. The suggested retail price is $80, so if it’s higher than that blame your retailer.

If you can’t find the whiskey, because some jerk bought the entire store’s inventory, I’m hosting a tasting at the Kentucky Derby Museum with Buffalo Trace master distillery Harlen Wheatley February 5, 2015. I grill all my guests in front of a live studio audience. I plan to ask why Wheatley, a renowned bourbon distiller, has a vodka named after him.

As for the Antique Collection, I’ve yet to taste samples, but here’s what the company is releasing on the anticipated series.

2014 BTACGeorge T. Stagg

According to the Buffalo Trace press release, Barrels for this year’s George T. Stagg bottling were selected from Warehouses C, H, I, K, L, P, and Q.  This uncut and unfiltered bourbon was distilled back in the spring of 1998 and weighs in at 138.1 proof, the company said.  Buffalo Trace said the highly allocated product will have more bottles available than last year.

William Larue Weller

This is the wheated bourbon of the bunch. This year’s was distilled in the spring of 2002 and aged on the second, third, fourth, and sixth floors of Warehouses D, K, and L.  It’s the strongest Weller release in history at 140.2 proof.

Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye

Hello, uncut and unfiltered straight rye whiskey. The 2014 Thomas H. Handy was distilled in spring 2008, aged on the fifth floor of Warehouse M and weighs in at 129.2 proof.

Eagle Rare 17 Year Old

This has been aging on the second, third and sixth floors of Warehouses I and K.

Sazerac Rye 18 Year Old

The straight rye whiskey release was aged in Warehouse K.

 

Bulleit Distilling Company; My Diageo Job Offer; & All Love Tom Bulleit

At the Bulleit Distilling Company groundbreaking today, fascinating facts just kept jumping from the podium and the crowd like a leaking bourbon barrel. (Read May post about the distillery announcement. Read my Live Tweets from groundbreaking.)

  • Diageo North American President Larry Schwartz said he didn’t want Bulleit Rye when they were first considering the brand. Now that Bulleit Rye is a category leader or rising star (depending on which report you read), he firmly supports it. He says Diageo believes in the Bulleit Bourbon founder, Tom Bulleit.
Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear speaks eloquently about Diageo and how bourbon is essentially becoming water in Kentucky. The Diageo plant will bring 30 jobs to the Bluegrass State.

Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear speaks eloquently about Diageo and how bourbon is essentially becoming water in Kentucky. The Diageo plant will bring 30 jobs to the Bluegrass State.

  • Kentucky politicians love Diageo. From the locals to Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear to Congressman Steve Massie, they couldn’t stop raving about how great of a company Diageo is.
  • Diageo loves Tom Bulleit. When Diageo personnel spoke, they gushed over Bulleit, a Vietnam Veteran (read my American Legion story on Tom) and a cancer survivor.
  • An inside source also told me they will move the Stitzel-Weller stills to the new Shelby County facility. I expected that to happen. Why wouldn’t you move those historic stills?

But the most-interesting conversation I had was after the press conference. Diageo’s executive vice president Guy Smith is quickly becoming a top-level interview on the American whiskey scene, because you just don’t know what he will say. He recently commented on Chuck Cowdery’s blog with a few typos and always offers an interview that I can’t tell whether he’s serious or joking.

In this is the interview, Smith kind of offered me a job.

Diageo executive vice president Guy Smith talks on the phone prior to the groundbreaking's press conference.

Diageo executive vice president Guy Smith talks on the phone prior to the groundbreaking’s press conference.

What is the timeline on the Bulleit Distillery?

I won’t give you a specific date because you’ll hold me to it. Construction is a fairly close science, but you always run into things. We’re looking at being operational in about two years—around late 2016.

I was told the Stitzel Weller stills will be coming over here….

We’re looking really hard at that…

We know Bulleit Bourbon will be made here. Will you also make Bulleit rye here?

Probably. We’ll make different kinds of whiskies, some we don’t even have the names for yet.

Are you planning a George Dickel brand here?

Dickel is a Tennessee brand.

I know, but there have been reports that Diageo will make George Dickel here. You could always make George Dickel’s Cascade Bourbon, which was made in Kentucky in the early 1900s.

It’s a pretty good idea… I wish you’d quit being a journalist and come into our innovation department. … I can’t speculate.

Analysts were recently beating up Diageo for its lack of American whiskey efforts. Does this distillery indicate Diageo is going all-in on American whiskey and pulling back on Scotch?

We ain’t pulling out of nothing. But we’re clearly moving into American whiskey even more with a $115 million distillery. It’s our expectation to meet consumer demand and there’s a lot in American whiskey.

Are you looking at buying other American whiskey brands?

Gee… I don’t know. What do you think?

Yes.

Well, it was you who said yes.

What about Stitzel-Weller? Are you keeping it as a visitor center?

Stitzel-Weller has the history and heritage. It is very important to the company and we’re looking at all kinds of opportunities. I think if we see continued demand we’re going to be taking advantage of those opportunities, and the Stitzel-Weller heritage is an incredible component of that.

Will Diageo continue to rent warehouse space to competing distilleries at Stitzel-Weller?

The industry is a big club. And we will do everything we can to be helpful to craft and old time big guys.

Who is making Bulleit right now?

Some very, very talented whiskey makers.

Is there more than one distillery?

I don’t know.