The Bulleit Frontier Whiskey Experience at Stitzel-Weller revives an important piece of whiskey history — and stocks your favorite bottles and gear.
When The Bulleit Frontier Whiskey Experience at Stitzel-Weller opened during Kentucky Derby week in 2014, it marked an exciting new chapter for a historic property with deep roots in the whiskey industry.
It was another Derby — Derby Day 1935, to be exact — when the Stitzel-Weller distillery first opened in the Shively neighborhood of Louisville. The three partners in the business were Julian P. Van Winkle, Alex Farnsley, and Arthur Phillips Stitzel. The three had ridden out Prohibition together, barely surviving on Stitzel’s medicinal license. Now their stocks of bourbon were getting low and they needed to make whiskey, and fast.
The only problem is that whiskey, unlike clear spirits, needs to age before it can be sold. Thanks to pre-Prohibition era legislation, things unscrupulous rectifiers were doing to make their whiskey appear older than it was were no longer legal.
The trio devised many ways to address the whiskey shortage within the confines of the law. They started a completely new label called “Carolina Club” and released it first at three months old, then six months, then nine months, then one year, and then two years. Once they had built up enough stocks of post-Prohibition new make two-year aged whiskey, they discontinued the label to do away with the association with immature spirits.
As the supply problem eased, they began to experiment with a wheated bourbon recipe. They felt it would taste better at a younger age and eventually marketed their whiskeys as being made with “A Whisper of Wheat.” It was here at Stitzel-Weller that wheated bourbon was put on the map. Pappy Van Winkle’s bourbon of choice was Old Fitzgerald Bottled in Bond, the primary product made at his distillery.
Stitzel-Weller was well known for its strong commitment to employees, their families, and the community. The cafeteria was well known for excellent food at reasonable prices and employees were encouraged to keep vegetable gardens on the grounds. It is rumored that in the late 1950s Cassius Clay, known today as Muhammad Ali, trained in the back room of the control building, which these days houses a working experimental distillery.
Over the years the bourbon industry once again fell on hard times. Many distilleries were required to produce ethanol for the war effort during World War II, which hindered whiskey production. After Pappy Van Winkle died in 1965, his son, Julian P. Van Winkle, Jr., took over the family business. Unfortunately this was during a steep decline in bourbon’s popularity in the United States and he was forced to sell the family distillery in 1972, keeping only one obscure whiskey label in the sale: Old Rip Van Winkle.
Whiskey geeks rejoiced as Stitzel-Weller was re-opened as The Bulleit Frontier Whiskey Experience.
Norton-Simon held on to the distillery for a few years, then after a number of sales it ended up in the hands of United Distillers. It was during the United Distillers time that bourbon historian Michael Veach got his start as an archivist. Then the distillery was shuttered and production ceased in 1992. Barrels sat in the rick houses collecting dust. United Distillers, part of Guinness, eventually became Diageo in 1997 and later acquired the Bulleit brand in a Seagram’s acquisition in 2001.
During the late 1990s, Sally Van Winkle Campbell visited Stitzel-Weller and came to the realization that her grandfather’s now crumbling distillery was about to be lost to time. She began to compile family stories and photographs and published But Always Fine Bourbon in 1999.
Then, during Derby week 2014, whiskey geeks rejoiced as Stitzel-Weller was re-opened as The Bulleit Frontier Whiskey Experience at Stitzel-Weller. Not only did the Bulleit brand finally have its own home, but the Stitzel-Weller property was also being saved from ruin. Now there’s a yearly homecoming party at Stitzel-Weller every Derby week, and a new Bulleit distillery is taking shape in Shelbyville and set to become operational later this year.
The Bulleit Frontier Whiskey Experience visitor’s experience has also expanded over the last two years as new areas have been opened up and renovated. The cooper’s shop was relocated from the back of the property to the front. The main office building houses many of the visitor’s exhibits as well as Tom Bulleit’s office in what was originally Pappy Van Winkle’s. There’s a working artisanal distillery and the former government house has been transformed into a gorgeous tasting room for the Blade and Bow line. A retail area — featuring bottles of Bulleit brands as well as Kentucky for Kentucky gear — was recently doubled in size. Visitors also have the opportunity to learn about the history of the site, as well as the current brands that call it home, during regularly scheduled tours.
Tours are available 10 a.m. until 3 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, 1 p.m. until 3 p.m. on Sundays. With the last tour of the day departing at 3pm. Tours last about an hour. The Brand Store is open 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 1 p.m. until 4 p.m. on Sundays. Tours are $10 for those 21 and older, including a tasting, and free for those younger than 21.