Woulda, shoulda, coulda.
Is there a sadder and more bitter troika in the world? This observation applies generally, but we seem to get more than our fair share of these forlorn horsemen skulking around the whiskey neighborhood. Like most bourbon lovers, you’ve probably muttered ruefully to yourself, “Oh man, I wish I would have bought [bottle X] when it was [readily available/cheap] back in [year].” Inflate that sentiment with a Barry Bonds-sized dose of steroids, and you would probably have some sense of how the Van Winkle family feels about the Stitzel-Weller distillery.
I’m musing glumly on this sorry tale because today’s whiskey comes from 1973, the year after the Stitzel-Weller distillery was sold to Norton-Simon. This transition marked the beginning of a multi-decade process of decline for Stitzel-Weller, culminating in the closure of the distillery by then-owners United Distillers in 1992. Diageo currently owns the Stitzel-Weller building, which is being used as the visitor center for the Bulleit brand of sourced whiskey; no distilling is occurring there.
The decision to sell Stitzel-Weller was lamentable but understandable. Bourbon whiskey had been in the dumps for a decade, as younger drinkers eschewed the prior generation’s beloved brown booze and flocked to lighter libations such as vodka. I’ve recounted before how the Van Winkles (as well as others) resorted to packaging whiskey in exuberant ceramic decanters in order to move inventory. Though the bourbon in these bottles has subsequently become a collector’s item in its own right, at the time it was little more than an afterthought.
I was once told by Preston Van Winkle that the sale of the distillery was forced by (or at least influenced by pressure from) other members of the gens Van Winkle outside of the direct “Julian” line. Whether this is fact or represents a bit of ex-post reputation burnishing, I am unable to say with any certainty. Regardless, the die was cast and the family lost control of the source of their bourbon.
We all know how this story ends, and it’s hard to pity the Van Winkles too much. They’re majority holders in a partnership producing a suite of bourbons (and one rye) that have no equal among American whiskeys in terms of their desirability and resultant scarcity. They’ve become the type of whiskey that people who know nothing about whiskey know about, perhaps in the manner of Scotch and Johnnie Walker Blue Label.
How many of those energetic neophytes gushing about “Pappy” this and “Pappy” that could tell you the true history of the family and the brand? Few, actually, based on several conversations I’ve had with those whose enthusiasm exceeded their expertise. How many have tried the original “juice” from Stitzel-Weller on which this illustrious brand’s reputation is based? Yet fewer, and I’m not even sure I qualify. While I’ve had Pappy in its 20-year-old and 23-year-old incarnations, I’ve been informed that the former was assembled from old Bernheim stocks. The source of the latter was not disclosed; it could have been Stitzel-Weller, though (based on my knowledge of the family’s custom of sourcing opportunistically) I’d be unwilling to stake my firstborn on it.
Thus, I am excited that, following today’s review, I’ll be able to speak more confidently on the merits of the vaunted Stitzel-Weller distillery. I’ve got here a circa-1973 bottle of Old Weller Antique 107. John previously treated us to a tasting of 2015 and early-2000’s versions of this expression, while Adam considered it both in isolation and also as a component of the ersatz “Poor Man’s Pappy” blend.
107 is a number which has taken on aspects of the conspiracy theory: once you know about it, you start seeing it everywhere. It occurs more commonly than the non-round nature of the number would suggest, popping up in the case of, for example, Baker’s. The reason for this, according to speculation by informed historians, is that this was the expected proof at the time of dumping, given the traditional barrel-entry proof of 100 and the associated rise in ABV (as water evaporates faster than alcohol at high temperatures) over the course of maturation. So, Old Weller Antique 107 would have been understood to be effectively a barrel proof offering in its time. Indeed the label indicates as much, with the subtitle being “Original 107 Barrel Proof.”
As for the other specifics: these bottles proclaimed “Aged Naturally 7 Years In Wood” at a time when aged bourbon was in plentiful supply. Still, that pegs the date of distillation of the youngest component as 1966, a year after Pappy passed. Given the ample stocks of longer-aged bourbon sitting around back then, I’d wager that there are likely components of this will a few more years on them. As for the raw materials: this will be from Weller’s famous wheated mash bill, in which the proportions were reported to be 75% corn, 18% wheat, and 7% malted barley.
If you wanted to procure a bottle of this today, how much might it cost you? This was another sample generously provided by Scott, so I haven’t the first idea. Rather, I looped in our friend Ryan Alves, known to Malt readers as one of the folks behind the now famous New Riff Quarter Pop Barrel Pick. As manager of Justins’ House of Bourbon in Lexington, Ryan traffics regularly in obscure and ancient “dusties” such as this one. When I put the question to him, he replied that he saw a 1969 to 1970-era bottle go for $2,500 recently, and pegged the likely market value of this one at “minimum $2,000.”
Yowza. I’ll be sure not to spill a single drop! Set your time machine to 1973 and join me on a journey into the past.
Old Weller Antique 107 (1973) – Review
Color: Burnished orange-gold
On the nose: This immediately presents a sumptuous, rich honeyed note, followed by a dense core packed full of spices: black pepper, cumin, and nutmeg. A meaty, smoky, and sticky-sweet scent of barbecued chicken breast rounds this off. Finally, just before this evaporates, I get the deftest, most subtle touch of vanilla. With some time, this takes on the uncanny juicy black fruity scent of oak barrels full of Cabernet Sauvignon maturing in the cellar. This is precisely the first time I have ever gotten this note on a whiskey, and it is remarkable.
With more time and air, this takes on some different aspects. The nose encompasses all the notes mentioned before as well as a musty funk reminiscent of a used bookstore and another sweet, rich note of apricot marmalade. A licorice note emerges in concert with the aforementioned spices. If anything, it is even more compelling and beautiful than it was at first, and that’s saying something.
In the mouth: In contrast to the lavish nose, this is pert and tightly stony as it first enters the mouth. As the whiskey approaches the middle of the tongue, this has the sweet flavor of a perfectly ripe cherry. In fact, there’s all manner of pitted fruity throughout this: plums, peaches, nectarines, and what have you. This quiets down as it hits the top of the mouth, with all that fruit yielding to an astringent note of young, fresh oak with some baking spice accents. Toward the back of the mouth, the sweet and salty flavor of peanut brittle is evident. The finish is a mixture of salty cashews, stone fruit, and minerality that sits firmly at the back of the tongue for a solid 15 seconds before this dissipates gently. Throughout, the comparatively high proof is evident in a subtle but persistent heat through the mouth.
This is why people break their necks to find dusty bourbon. It’s also why they break the bank to purchase it. There are aromas and flavors here that I have never experienced before, and I am a wiser and more astute critic for having sampled this. I feel nothing but awe and gratitude for the chance to have done so and, once again, find myself deeply in the debt of a magnanimous benefactor.
We’ve discussed before – several times actually – how challenging it is to evaluate these types of rare and old bourbons in the context of Malt’s price-sensitive scoring bands. MSRP is irrelevant, as it is a decades-distant memory. Current secondary market values are less representative of the price of these as consumables than they are indicative of their perceived value as collectibles.
I’ll beg forgiveness of my editors and cast price aside in order to assign a score which triangulates between the hedonistic enjoyment, intellectual stimulation, and overwhelming emotional impact I felt while tasting this whiskey.