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Stitzel-Weller American Whiskey

By Dominic Roskrow

Shively isn't the sort of place you want to go walking in at night.

It's at the rough end of Louisville in Kentucky and it isn't pretty. The polite expression is that it's seen better days. And many of those better days belonged to the collection of buildings right in front of us.

The next few hours, though, are going to change my view forever

It's 2003 and I'm sitting in a car with renowned bourbon writer Chuck Cowdery shortly after his definitive book Bourbon Straight has been published, and we're on a tour of the city where the Kentucky bourbon story really got started. We're by a small lot of shops and in a neat line are a gas station, a liquor store and a 'massage parlour' - the single man's perfect day out all within a few metres of each other - but the landscape is dominated by a small army of huge, black metallic stack warehouses placed like a military compound behind tall fencing and barbed wire.

This is the Stitzel-Weller distillery, looking pretty sorry for itself but arguably the most important and iconic distillery in bourbon history. Chuck tells me of the three great whiskey dynasties who worked out of this site - the Stitzels, the Wellers and the Van Winkles; how the recipe for wheated bourbon, so important to Weller, Van Winkle and Maker's Mark bourbon to this day - was perfected on this site; and how the distillery was built fit for purpose - a giant supermarket of a distillery compared to many of the cottage ones elsewhere.

He explains how Pappy Van Winkle created his mission statement to 'make fine bourbon, for a profit if we can, for a loss if we must, but always fine bourbon'; how the distillery stayed open during Prohibition to make medicinal bourbon and how during that time illness strangely swept through the State so that doctors had to issue prescriptions for large quantities of bourbon; and how pipes ran out under the fences from the barrels to a grateful local community. Stitzel-Weller doesn't just whiff of history, it's immersed in it. Hell, it is history.

And yet now it is locked up, only the ghosts left in its warehouses, only memories of its stills remaining. I'm not sure there's anything sadder than a silent distillery.

"Diageo owns it now but they haven't done anything with it," Chuck says. "They store some stock here but there's nothing much left here."

It's a depressing moment. But it turns out that Chuck's wrong. Very wrong indeed.

Roll forward a decade or so to April 2012, and Kentucky's a building site. In the 11 years I've been coming here nothing ever seemed to change much. Now, though, Kentucky's on the move as it claims its share of the current world boom in whisky. New brands are being launched on a regular basis, new warehouses going up, bigger stills being constructed. And as part of my whiskey tour I'm about to become the first European journalist for a generation to walk through the Stitzel-Weller gates.

If I said I was very excited by the prospect I'd be lying. and in fact I have some grave misgivings. Our tour itinerary refers to visiting the Bulleit distillery in Shively and from the off I've worked out where we're going. Bulleit doesn't distil -its whiskey comes from Four Roses miles out of the city and a long way from this site. And Bulleit claiming Stitzel-Weller as its home is a little akin to Leyton Orient saying they play at Wembley.

I've said all that needs to be said about smoke and mirrors and false claims of provenance and heritage elsewhere so let's let it lie. Somehow, though, it just doesn't feel right to visit the site where Julian Van Winkle's grand-father and Preston Van Winkle's great grand-father made the finest bourbon when they are not in a position to do so - or if they are, choose not to.

The next few hours, though, are going to change my view forever. Any feelings of guilt are drowned entirely by what waits within these walls.

Diageo doesn't have a lot of American whiskey - George Dickel in Tennessee and Bulleit in Kentucky is it. There are plans for expanding Dickel and some talk of opening a Bulleit distillery. But then again, there are rumours that the company is looking to buy a ready-made bourbon maker such as market leader Beam, so who knows? There is one other gem here, too, though: IW Harper, which in its various ages is the Holy Grail for many American bourbon lovers. It is made at Four Roses, too, and has been removed from most US States because it commanded a far higher price in Japan than it did in America and people were buying cheap and selling high by exporting it.

What made my visit special, though, was the distillery archive.

Picture if you will a whiskey version of Aladdin's cave - in this instance a giant stack warehouse 30 metres high, its interior divided in to narrow corridors flanked by shelving space. Now mentally fill that space with everything good from the world of whisky. You're there.

Cameras are strictly forbidden in the archive so I have no proof. Trust me when I tell though that it is like nothing i have ever seen in the world of spirits. Nothing comes close.

The first aisles are filled with file after file of brown envelopes, a yellow 'post it' sticker on each one describing in the broadest way the contents of each. Immediately two things become abundantly clear: one, that the collection of pre-computer paperwork has been in here for many, many decades; and two, that apart from a cursory examination, the contents have remained unread and uncatalogued ever since. Here raw history is waiting to be cooked and served up. This is not something that happens too often in this day and age.

And then we come to the bottles and assorted paraphernalia: stunning posters from the 50s and 60s, framed pictures, ceramic jugs, Prohibition prescriptions, branded glasses…I've never seen anything quite like it.

And that's before I discover the bottles - row upon row, shelf upon shelf, some half empty, robbed by the angels who uninterrupted for years on end have been able to take more than their share. There are whiskies from across the world here, many of them independent bottlings of blended Scotch, many of them with names long forgotten. There is a large collection of Canadian whisky, famous Seagram names packaged in old livery, and they are miniatures, some empty.

But best of all are the bourbons, a motley crew of faded labels, dark broody liquids and strange names, many of them unfamiliar to me and to 99.99 per cent of the rest of the whisky world, an eerie collection of chess pieces with a direct link to the past.

It's stunning stuff, and my Diageo guide has to all but pull me away. As we finally leave the distillery, though, I can't help but glance back.

Tonight Stitzel-Weller doesn't look nearly as morose or forbidding. It l;oops magisterial. For a minute I swear it positively glows.

It turns out the patient's not dead at all. And deep at the core of it, Stitzel-Weller's heart is still beating. I feel honoured to have been there.

Random Irrelevant Fact

On five separate occasions in america recently a Kentucky bourbon producer stated that bourbon has to be two years old to bear the name. It doesn't - one minute in the cask and it's bourbon. Two years and it's straight bourbon.