Kentucky has been home to a number of famous distilleries over the years and, while American whiskey may not have originated there, some of the best bourbon ever produced has come from that single state. One such distillery is the famed Stitzel-Weller distillery, where the original and much-sought-after Pappy Van Winkle bourbon was produced and which was shuttered in 1992. Now, Diageo is looking to resurrect that facility with their Blade & Bow brand.
Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle Sr. started his career in 1893 at age 18 working for a spirits distributor named W. L. Weller & Sons., a company he and another Weller salesman would purchase outright following 15 years of solid work and investment. Two years after, in 1910, the company purchased the A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery in Louisville, Kentucky to produce their spirits. This distillery had been operating since 1872 using a “sour mash” process where the same yeast strain was transplanted from batch to batch for more consistent results and interesting flavors.
Throughout prohibition, the company remained afloat by being one of the few distilleries in the country licensed to produce “medicinal whiskey” and production continued uninterrupted. After the repeal of prohibition, the company decided to open a new distillery and, on Kentucky Derby Day in 1935, the Stitzel-Weller distillery opened its doors in Shively, Kentucky (just down the road from Louisville).
The distillery was a cathedral to doing whiskey ‘the right way’. Pappy’s famous motto for his distilling operation was “we make fine bourbon at a profit if we can, at a loss if we must, but always make fine bourbon.” That dedication to craft and detail went as far as the door knockers on the front door of the administration building, which were designed as five keys — one for each of the five key components in the process of bourbon production (grains, yeast, fermentation, distilling, aging) and served to remind everyone who walked through the doors about the importance of that process.
Compared to other distilleries, things ran a little differently. The bourbon started with a 51% corn content as required by law but, rather than using rye as the secondary component, the Stitzel-Weller recipe used the more abundant and locally grown wheat. The use of wheat instead of rye was thought to give the whiskey a smoother and richer flavor. The mash was then cooked to release the sugars in the grains — but where other distilleries used commercial high-performance yeast, Pappy continued the Stitzel tradition of a sour mash process using the same locally grown yeast strain. And finally, where other distillers put their whiskey in new oak barrels at the maximum alcohol content allowed by law (to get the most whiskey at the end), Pappy barreled his whiskey at a lower alcohol content to improve the resulting flavor.
Pappy Van Winkle would continue to run the distillery until his death in 1965, which is coincidentally when things took a turn for the worse in the American whiskey market. During the 1960’s and 1970’s, the US market rejected whiskey in favor of clear spirits like vodka, and the massive stockpiles of whiskey at distilleries like Stitzel-Weller suddenly became worthless. The Van Winkle family would be forced to sell the company in 1972 to a large distilled spirits conglomerate that would eventually become the massive British firm Diageo.
While the distillery continued to operate for around two decades more, the facility eventually closed its doors for good in 1992. The ancient sour mash yeast was lost or destroyed. The equipment was left to rust. And the remaining whiskey, which had been so lovingly produced, was exported and blended with other sources to create the Crown Royal Canadian Whiskey line.
That wasn’t the end of the Pappy Van Winkle line, though. After the sale of his family’s distillery, Julian Van Winkle, Jr. (son of the original Pappy) purchased a small bottling plant nearby and began purchasing back barrels of the famous whiskey his father had produced and selling them under the old family name. As the American whiskey renaissance kicked into high gear over the recent decades, that brand of whiskey has been prized by whiskey snobs worldwide for its incredible quality and flavor. Buyers often pay exorbitant prices on the secondary market for a single bottle of the stuff. Given the dwindling stock of original whiskey and the booming demand, Julian Van Winkle, Jr. has since partnered with Sazerac and Buffalo Trace to restart production of their whiskey line, with the new production becoming available in 2020.
Also around this time, Diageo realized that they had let a potential goldmine of whiskey slip through their fingers and decided to try and target that same market of whiskey geeks and connoisseurs. Thus, the Blade & Bow brand was born to highlight that Stitzel-Weller heritage, using some of the last original barrels of whiskey to produce a new run of product that hopes to capture that same spirit.
This whiskey is a little strange, in that it is one of the first bourbons to use the “solera” method for production in a mass market whiskey. Normally, a whiskey is placed into a single barrel, aged in that barrel, and then the entire contents are dumped when it comes time for bottling. With the solera method, only a portion of the whiskey is removed for bottling, and then the barrel is re-filled and allowed to continue to age.
When the source of that whiskey is consistent (as in, coming from the same distillery with the same process), this can ensure a good consistent flow of spirit. However, that is not the case with Blade & Bow. The original Stitzel-Weller is no longer in operation, and there is no way to reproduce the whiskey it once made. Instead, Blade & Bow are taking the last few remaining barrels of Stitzel-Weller whiskey and adding younger whiskey from other distilleries (which are not disclosed — nor is the grain bill or process for those spirits) to make up for the volume they have removed.
According to Blade & Bow, this process will ensure that the flavor of the whiskey remains consistent. But as even someone who barely passed chemistry class understands, with each cycle there is a lower and lower proportion of original Stitzel-Weller whiskey in each bottle. At some point, its just not Stitzel-Weller anymore.
So really, what we have is a Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey produced by Stitzel-Weller prior to 1992, which has been diluted and blended with other straight bourbon from undisclosed locations. They have created the bourbon equivalent of the Ship of Theseus.
Whatever concerns we may have about the production process, the packaging here must be applauded.
Starting from the base, this is a six sided flat sided bottle, with the front and rear aspects significantly larger than the sides. The body has a sharp edge at the shoulder where it quickly angles inward towards the medium length neck. The whole thing is capped off with a wood and cork stopper.
Speaking of that stopper, there is a foil wrap that comes on the cap of this bottle at first. Usually, you’d expect some kind of perforation in that foil to let you peel it off easily… but instead there’s a dangling key pendant on a short bit of string that you can use to pop off that wrapper. It’s a nicer looking and more enjoyable experience than trying to peel it off with a normal perforated wrapper, so good job there. The dangling pendant also makes the bottle more likely for a potential buyer to touch, which is a good thing since bottles that get touched are ~70% more likely to be purchased.
As for the labeling, this is a perfect job. There’s a small dark circular label in the center of the bottle that lets you know the brand and once again showcases the five keys, but all around that is clear open glass. Really lets the whiskey shine through, which is what you are buying this bottle for after all.
This liquid is a beautiful dark amber color, and the smell coming off this glass is fantastic. There’s the usual brown sugar and vanilla notes you would expect from a bourbon, but there’s a fruity peach note in there as well. The saturation and the depth of the aromas are something to note as well — there’s an almost syrupy saturation here that you don’t often find in younger bourbons, and which is usually a sign of good things to come.
Those aromas translate very well to the actual taste of the whiskey. The brown sugar and vanilla are the first things I get, combined with a little charred oak and some more of that peach fruitiness. As the flavor develops, there’s a smooth sourdough bread flavor that creeps in, and on the finish there’s just a touch of black pepper spice to add some tingle to the lips.
Pappy Van Winkle reportedly always preferred his whiskey on the rocks with a twist of lemon… and I can absolutely see why.
There’s one aspect of the whiskey which was a little brash when taken neat, and that’s the charred oak flavor. It was a little strong, if I’m being critical. Still delicious, but with that note turned down a little bit, it might have been even better.
Thankfully, that’s exactly what the ice has done — toned down that charred oak flavor but miraculously left the rest of the flavor profile in tact. The brown sugar and vanilla is still there, as is the peppery spice, and even the bit of peach fruit — all have made it through to the other side unscathed. Delicious.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
As it stands in the glass, there’s a good mixing of richer and darker flavors with some fruity notes. But add in a bit of angostura bitters and this becomes a truly next-level cocktail.
The depth and complexity of the standard bourbon notes (the brown sugar, vanilla, and other richer aspects) are nicely interacting with the bitters to produce a great rich drink, but the real highlight of the show is that the peach fruit note is still there, bringing a bit of sweetness that keeps this from going off the deep end. It keeps everything nicely in balance, and a touch of sugar really helps highlight that brightness.
There are two things I’m looking for in a good mule. First, the bourbon needs to balance well with the bitter and bright ginger beer. Second, it needs to add some unique flavor or texture to the cocktail that you wouldn’t normally see with a vodka-based mule. In this case, I think it hits all those points.
For the flavor balance, the brown sugar and vanilla aspects do a great job keeping the bitter ginger in check. There isn’t the same depth or complexity as you get with a richer bourbon — this is definitely a brighter take on the cocktail. This would be a great cocktail for summer, or even as a mint julep alternative for the Kentucky Derby.
As for the complexity, it hits that mark as well — and in two ways, no less. First, the smoothness from the sourdough bread (which is probably a byproduct of the wheat content) adds a honey-like sweet layer to the middle of the cocktail experience that is quite enjoyable. Then, on the end, there’s a slight surprise as that black pepper spice kicks in once more to add some character and a new texture.
Honestly, this is a tough one. There are some new and interesting tricks in here and this really is a good tasting bourbon… but it isn’t blowing my socks off. I think I can see some of the attributes that make the old Stitzel-Weller bourbon a much prized possession, but that additional newly-produced bourbon seems to muddle the results. In the end, this is a fairly good bourbon that is absolutely worth the money they are asking… but it falls short of some of the other options in the same price range and category.
What really irked me the most about this bourbon, though, was the branding and marketing. This is being sold on the weight of the Stitzel-Weller name and has it emblazoned on the package as many times as legally possible, but in reality only a small fraction of the contents are from that old stock. I’ve marked down previous reviews for far less egregious schemes, and in this case I just can’t justify going above three stars.
|Blade & Bow Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey|
Produced By: Blade & BowOwned By: Diageo
Production Location: Kentucky, United States
Classification: Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 45.5% ABV
Price: $50 / 750 ml
Overall Rating: 3/5
It really is the bourbon Ship of Theseus with only the original nameplate still remaining.