Sunday, October 11, 2009

More Maker's Anyone?

Here is another angle to the issue of Maker's Mark not making any enthusiast expressions. If that was "The Maker's Mark Dilemma," call this "The Torch of Stitzel-Weller."

Arguably, the Maker's Mark Distillery is the natural successor to the legendary Stitzel-Weller Distillery, which distilled its final batch in 1992. Why? For several reasons.

First is the "Pappy gave Bill Sr. the Stitzel-Weller recipe" story, which came to me many years ago from a guy who worked for Stitzel-Weller when Pappy was still alive and the Van Winkle family still owned the distillery. It apparently was common knowledge among insiders at the time. I've talked to Bill Jr. about it and he more-or-less confirms it, saying his father sought and received input from many of his friends in the industry. He mentioned, for example, that Pappy told Bill Sr. that you can't cook a wheated mash under pressure.

The second reason is the Maker's Mark stills. They were made by Vendome, which also made the Stitzel-Weller still, and the specifications are the same, according to former Maker's Mark Master Distiller Dave Pickerell. The stills have some unique characteristics in common which Dave can explain much better than I can.

Third, Joe Beam and his sons worked at Stitzel-Weller at various times and Will McGill, the longtime Master Distiller at Stitzel-Weller, was Joe Beam's brother-in-law. One of the sons, Elmo Beam, who had worked for his Uncle Will at Stitzel-Weller, was the first Master Distiller at Maker's Mark.

Fourth, some percentage of Maker's Mark whiskey is aged in the warehouses at Stitzel-Weller, where Maker's Mark has been renting space from Diageo for a decade or more.

So the premise is that since Maker's Mark is the natural successor to Stitzel-Weller, it should take the torch and try to reach some of the exalted heights of excellence that Stitzel-Weller did with some of its higher proof and longer aged expressions, such as Very Very Old Fitzgerald (12-years-old, 100 proof), which some consider to be the best bourbon of all time.

It is probably impossible to exactly duplicate the whiskey made at one place someplace else. There are just too many variables. Is the Jim Beam White Label made at Booker Noe exactly the same as the Jim Beam White Label made at Clermont?

Still, if Maker's has the best possibility of duplicating what Stitzel-Weller did, shouldn't they try? On the contrary, Maker's Mark follows practices that would inevitably make their whiskey less like Stitzel-Weller rather than more, because they are aiming for a consistent product in the 5- to 6-year old age range to be sold at 90 proof.

According to press releases issued at the time, Julian Van Winkle has since joining Buffalo Trace provided guidance to help BT's wheated juice more closely resemble Stitzel-Weller whiskey, but of course the distillery itself is very different.

Has he succeeded? The proof, I think, is in the excellence of the Van Winkle bottlings, where I no longer care if, in fact, there is any Stitzel-Weller whiskey in there or not, or where the whiskey was made (Bernheim? Buffalo Trace?) because the quality is there (e.g., Lot B).

But the question persists about Stitzel-Weller because real Stitzel-Weller whiskey is becoming so scarce.

The actual successor to Stitzel-Weller, arguably, is Heaven Hill's Bernheim Production Facility, which was designed by the owner of both plants to be the successor, and which was set-up by Ed Foote, the last Master Distiller at Stitzel-Weller.

Although Buffalo Trace produced a little bit of wheated bourbon prior to acquiring the W.L. Weller brand in 1999, it didn't produce enough to fully support the brand and even today a lot of the Weller on shelves is Bernheim whiskey. So is some of the Van Winkle. Of course, all of the Old Fitzgerald on shelves today, except for the odd Stitzel-Weller dusty, is from Bernheim, which Heaven Hill acquired along with the Old Fitzgerald brand.

Dave Pickerell was also deeply involved in the design of Bernheim and probably no one alive knows more about all three facilities.

Finally, I tasted some of the Jefferson's Presidential Select yesterday at Binny's and I agree with what some others have said. It's definitely Stitzel-Weller whiskey and is very good, although it's not the best Stitzel-Weller whiskey I've had by a long shot. It reminds me of that Everett's bottling of Weller 12-year-old from a few years ago, that contained 16- and 14-year-old Stitzel-Weller whiskey. But that was $20 a bottle. This is $90.

For the money, I prefer two bottles of Van Winkle Family Reserve Lot B.

1 comment:

hubbit said...

One other thing to keep in mind is that Maker's Mark maintains a fairly low distillation/barreling strength; If I am not mistaken it's barreled at 110 proof. Pappy's advertising for Old Fitzgerald used to mention his disapproval of high-proof distillation. He was in the business of selling whiskey, not water.

That being said, my own opinion is that, because of its 90 proof bottling strength, Maker's Mark is more a successor to Cabin Still than it is to Old Fitzgerald, although there is certainly room for an older, 100 proof (or higher) bottling to really shine if they ever find it within their means to produce it.