Stitzel-Weller in the Van Winkle Days

None of us are immune to nostalgia, even (or maybe especially?) when the object of our reminiscence happened well before the advent of our own lives. And of course when we're talking about vintage whiskeys and other antique spirituous liquors, we're probably particularly prone to wistfulness. Spirits have that effect. Which might explain why whiskey collectors are drawn to quarter-century and older, out-of-production bottles produced at the Stitzel-Weller Distillery in Kentucky during the period it was run by its founder, J.P. "Pappy" Van Winkle, and his family.

These days, high end American whiskey brands are either newer to the market, or have been bought and sold so many times that it can feel like differential calculus to uncover where, and by whom, they're actually made. So its not just quality and rarity that add to the value of older bottles of labels like Old Weller and Old Fitzgerald - it's the romance of knowing they were made before multinational beverage conglomerates muddied the waters of the maker story. We are selling a number of these antique spirituous Stitzel-Weller whiskies in our Rare Spirits & Fine Wine Auction.

J.P. Van Winkle got his start in the whiskey business as a traveling salesman for William L. Weller & Sons, who are credited with pioneering smooth "wheat whiskey," as opposed to whiskey finished with rye. When William L. died, Van Winkle bought the business from the & Sons in 1909, with his fellow salesman, Alex T. Farnsley. The two then partnered with A. Ph. Stitzel, one of Weller & Sons biggest wholesalers, to provide a secure supply of raw whiskey. When Prohibition was enacted, Weller & Sons and Stitzel were two of the only whiskey companies allowed to retain their licenses to sell whiskey for medicinal purposes. That allowed them to absorb a number of other independent whiskey labels that were going out of business, like the Milwaukee-based company Old Fitzgerald, which would become one of Stitzel-Weller's marquee brands.

Eventually A. Ph. Stitzel and Weller & Sons consolidated completely, and in 1935, when Prohibition was repealed, Van Winkle opened the new Stitzel-Weller Distillery in Louisville. Thus began the golden age of the Van Winkle empire, and "Pappy" became synonymous with the finest American whiskey. J.P. Van Winkle ran the distillery until his death in 1965, at which point his son, Julian II, took over as president. During the presidencies of father and son, Stitzel-Weller made Old Fitzgerald, Pappy Van Winkle, W.L. Weller, Old Weller, Rebel Yell, and a few others. As Pappy himself wrote below in a 1954 issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly, the company prided itself on the smooth, age-friendly character of their whiskies. Which, of course, bodes well for those collecting these whiskies now, after many decades in the bottle.

JP-article-558Read full column in the Princeton Alumni Weekly here

Julian Van Winkle was forced by stockholders to sell the family company in 1972, and since then the original, venerated Stitzel-Weller brands have been sold off piecemeal to several different corporations. But our current auction of Rare Spirits & Fine Wine offers a selection of these labels from the much sought-after Van Winkle-run years. They are a testament to the commitment to quality, and time-honored process, that J.P. Van Winkle valued so highly. They're not short on nostalgia, either.