“Let’s see who this really is!” – Fred from Scooby-Doo
Today will be another attempt at revealing the true origin of a whiskey from a brand that has traded hands repeatedly. The risks are low: the downside scenario is some “meh” whiskey and potentially a little bit of embarrassment for me. The payoff is huge: a sip of whiskey from a bygone era, at the least. In this case the upside is even more significant, as the purported producer of this whiskey is a storied (but now destroyed) distillery that made some outrageously tasty bourbon.
If you guessed that this is potential Stitzel-Weller whiskey, then you guessed correctly. The mere mention of this distillery makes the hair on whiskey nerds’ necks stand up; based on my physiological state at the moment, honesty would force me to include myself in that category. Stitzel Weller is the American whiskey equivalent of Brora, Port Ellen, Hanyu, or Karuizawa.
Those of you not fortunate enough to have (yet) tried any whiskey from days of yore might be wondering what all the fuss is about? I’ll have to concede a few points here: There is some marvelous whiskey being produced today, both at craft scale and by the large Kentucky bourbon distilleries. One doesn’t need to time travel in order to taste good bourbon. Likewise, not all whiskey produced in days of yore is life-changing. I’ve had examples that were interesting, educational, just OK, and fairly uninspired. Dusting off and cracking the seal on an old bottle offers the chance at – but not the promise of – a special experience.
So, in consideration of the above, is this more likely to be a banger or a bust? To make a guess, I’ll have to step back and consider some of the factual aspects of the Old Fitzgerald whiskey which is the subject of today’s review. Those of you interested in a history of the Old Fitzgerald brand should take a look at my review of two of the modern Bottled-in-Bond expressions. As this bottle dates to 1994, this will have been produced under the auspices of United Distillers, before they became known as Diageo.
Here’s where the story gets interesting: the whiskey herein was bottled two years after United Distillers closed the Stitzel-Weller distillery for good. Assuming an age of at least four years (implied by the “straight” designation and lack of an age statement) indicates that this was produced prior to the closure of Stitzel-Weller. Those regular readers of this site will recall that I was very much in the thrall of the last Stitzel-Weller whiskey I was able to try, the Old Weller Antique 107 from 1973. Consequently, I reiterate that I am several notches above excited to try this whiskey.
Before I do, though, a few more particulars: This is Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, bottled at the lowest legally permissible strength of 80 proof (40% ABV). On its own this isn’t the most exciting dossier, however I’m hoping that some of the hallmark Stitzel-Weller notes will shine through the quotidian presentation.
This sample was another generous donation from Brian (who also took the lovely accompanying photo); he gets my heariest thanks for being a reliable source of dusty whiskey. According to Ryan Alves – my go-to guy for dusty pricing – these bottles would probably trade hands at around $200 to $300. As always, I’ll be considering the premium these fetch as collectibles and adjusting my score and recommendation accordingly.
Old Fitzgerald (1994) – Review
Color: Pale golden-orange.
On the nose: Straightaway, this presents the rich aroma of butterscotch. Beyond that, there’s a vegetal note married with the thick chocolately scent of hot fudge sundae topping. There’s a slight mustiness to this, more in the manner of the restrained funk that accompanies several-decades-old bottles of white Burgundy wine, rather than the full-bore dank note that was reputedly the effect of old-style cypress fermentation tanks.
In the mouth: This enters the mouth with a texture that is thin; I might have guessed that this was maximally diluted even without prior knowledge of that fact. There’s a faint accent of citrus and nuts as the whiskey moves toward the middle of the mouth, where the presentation shifts to a vague and watery woodiness. This evinces the most character right before the finish, with an assertive flavor of rosewater. Regrettably, this note disappears as quickly as it arrives, leaving a weak minerality and a wisp of bubblegum as the only residual reminders of this whiskey’s presence.
If the 1973 O.W.A. represented Stitzel-Weller at its most vivacious, this whiskey finds that hallowed distillery on its deathbed. There are glimpses of the characteristics that gave Stitzel-Weller the distinguished reputation it maintains to this day, particularly on the nose. However, all the flavors are drowned under so much water, which reduces this to the level of any other bottom-shelf bourbon.
While there are no glaring flaws here, there’s also not much to recommend this whiskey, even in the context of a historical curiosity. At best, it’s like the ephemeral ghost of an atrophied old man, and a sad reminder of the state of this formerly illustrious brand at the time Stitzel-Weller was closed permanently.
While affixing scores to whiskeys like this is always a questionable exercise, I’m hoping to express that there’s nothing in the bottle that would justify shelling out a few hundred bucks to acquire one of these. Therefore, I’m grading this a notch below average.