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.)
“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.
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….