View Full Version : Weller and the wheat recipe
I had lunch today with my former boss at United Distillers who now works for Brown-Forman. Chris is very knowledgable about bourbon history and the industry as a whole. We were discussing the wheat recipe in bourbon and where it came from. While at U.D. we worked hard to find an answer to this question and never really found a satisfying answer. I looked hard. I traced Weller family distilling back as early as 1800 with Daniel Weller, W.L. Weller's grandfather. He owned two stills in Nelson County. These stills then went to Samuel Weller, W.L.'s father. In all of this I found no reference to wheated bourbon. This upset the marketing people at U.D. who wanted Rebel Yell to be created by Weller (it wasn't, it was created by Charlie Farnsley in the 1940's). The fact is we never found the evidence to support this claim. Actually I found evidence that it did not come from Weller. This is a 1913 contract made between W.L. Weller and Sons and A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery asking Stitzel to make 500 barrels of bourbon for Weller using a mash bill that was rye and not wheat. Weller was not a large company at that time and 500 barrels represents a large portion of their yearly sales so I found it hard to believe that Weller was making a wheated bourbon at the time. That left Stitzel as a possible source of the recipe. Sally Campbell seems to think that this is the source, but Chris and I decided we are not sure of this. We think that it may have been the Old Fitzgerald brand and this is our reasoning. During Prohibition W.L. Weller and Sons was selling a lot of brands for other people. These brands included George Dickel's Cascade (which was made at the Stitzel Distillery after 1910), Old Charter, Waterfill and Frasier, Henry McKenna, and of course Old Fitzgerald. Many of these brands were sold to other interest either during or shortly after prohibition and Pappy Van Winkle could have acquired them but the only one he did acquire was Old Fitzgerld. It is possible he acquired it for the recipe. The real test would be to find a bottle of pre 1920 Old Fitzgerald and taste it to see if it is a wheated bourbon.
Of course it is also possible that the wheated recipe is a creation of Pappy, Stitzel and Farnsley. If this was the case I think the Van Winkles would have said so before now, but maybe that is something Pappy never really talked about. After all he always had his grain bins labeled "RYE" when it was really wheat in order to keep the recipe from being common knowledge.
Mike, give some thought to this...
Before the acquisition of Old Fitzgerald (which, as you implied, is not really known to have been a wheat bourbon at that time), in fact before the merger of W. L. Weller & Sons and A. Ph. Stitzel, there was another unique kind of whiskey being made at the Stitzel distillery. It had been made there from 1911 to 1917 and was known to be very different from the other whiskeys produced. This would have been Cascade, a refugee from already-dry Tennessee. Of course, one thing that set Cascade apart from the several other brands marketed by Stitzel was the Lincoln County process of charcoal leeching. But the brand may have also been different in other distinctive ways. Would it be too far-fetched to imagine that it could have arrived with a substantially different mash-bill than the one it left Stitzel-Weller with when it was sold to Schenley... soon after Old Fitzgerald was purchased. Schenley got the label and the Lincoln Process; could Old Fitzgerald have inherited the mash-bill? Your research may need to take you outside Kentucky to learn just what this forerunner of George Dickel was once really made out of.
Just a thought.
Good thought but no cigar. Schenley had in their records mashbills from pre 1910 Cascade Distillery and it was a rye product and not a wheat.
Thanks, Mike. That's one of the things I most enjoy about having you in this forum. There are quite a few knowledgeable folks here, but you're the one with the evidence to back it up!
From what we can piece together of Fitzgerald's history, based on the new information in Sally Campbell's book, the Old Fitz brand was a creation of its distributor, Charles Herbst, who bought whiskey on the open market from a number of different distillers. It seems unlikely that he was specifically buying wheated whiskey. Only in 1899 or 1900 did he purchase his own distillery, Old Judge, outside of Frankfort. According to Campbell's source, Claude Bixler, that distillery was built by a man named Mitchell, then owned by Laval and Mayse, who sold it to Herbst.
The term "distiller" tends to be used for both the whiskey maker and the distillery owner, but S.C. Herbst was not a whiskey maker, nor was Pappy Van Winkle. The Bixler's were and, according to Sam Cecil/Whit Coyte, Jerry Bixler and his sons Claude and Tom all made whiskey at the Old Judge plant. Other Bixlers were involved with other distilleries in a whiskey-making capacity, including Old hermitage, J.H. McBrayer, Old Jordan, Henry McKenna, Tom Moore/Barton and Eagle. Is it possible that the Bixler's originated the wheated formula at Old Judge? This seems as likely as a Stitzel source.
The key, it seems to me, is to find a pre-prohibition whiskey known to have been wheated, then see if it has any clear links (such as a distiller or distilling family) to post-prohibition Old Fitzgerald.
--Chuck Cowdery (http://cowdery.home.netcom.com)
I agree with what you said about the origin of Old Fitzgerald and its early sources of whiskey. Chris and I pondered many of these same issues during lunch the other day and we still came back to Old Fitzgerald as a possible origin of the wheat recipe. If it is the origin then you are right in saying that it is an Old Judge / Bixler creation. This is why I would like for somebody to taste, in a public forum, some pre 1920 Old Fitzgerald to see if it is a wheated bourbon.
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