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This is a high amplitude balance; the bass of oak and the treble of sweet are turned way up high.But more than this is the dark and rich tonal palette and thick mouth feel.It was a clear commitment to a perfectionist level of craftsmanship. Part of the mania for Pappy is its extremely high critical ratings - the buzz around which helped rekindle the widespread resurgence of ultra-high-end Bourbon in the mid-1990s. Van Winkle III as a brand ambassador for his family's legacy.Certainly part of it must be credited to the beautiful family history his sister Sally Van Winkle Campbell wrote titled "But Always Fine Bourbon - Pappy Van Winkle and the Story of Old Fitzgerald".But the story of Stitzel-Weller is far more than one of corporate takeovers. Pappy was the president, and while never the master distiller who actually made the whiskey, was the heart of the operation which he governed by an honest, forthright, and gentlemanly creed: After Stitzel-Weller was born as a corporation in 1933 with Repeal, they immediately began construction of a new much larger distillery in Shively, KY and it was completed in 1935. Then S-W went down the Norton-Simon rabbit hole on its path to closure. His son, Julian III went into the same business and expanded it, and created the signature expressions of Pappy Van Winkle's Family Reserve 15, 20, and 23 that have become the vanguard of the tulip mania that is high-end Bourbon today.It is the story of the personalities that built the business culture that ended up with a Bourbon that was reputed to be absolutely the best in the golden era of American whiskey distilling. They put Pappy's motto on a sign and posted it at the distillery's gates. Bottles of Pappy Family Reserve are effectively unobtainable these days and sell for many many multiples of the non-existent retail price.But even after Norton Simon's takover, the distillery continued to produce Old Fitz and the other brands at a high level of quality.Then the distillery went though a parade of hands and ended up with United Distillers (which formed Diageo later) who finally closed it in 1992 and treated the facility as a semi abandoned asset of warehouses.
Older bottlings of Old Fitz (and other S-W brands) continued to be made with S-W juice for a number of years (until the late 1990s). But the market was already heading South and with his sister and 49% of the board voting stock wanting to sell, he did in 1972 for the sake of family unity. He subsequently created the "Old Rip Van Winkle" brand and contracted to buy Stitzel-Weller whisky and bottle it himself as a NDP.
It was sold exclusively bottled in bond at 100 proof until Pappy's death when his son Julian immediately introduced an 86 proof version: Old Fitzgerald Prime.
It's significant that Sally Van Winkle Campbell chose to subtitle her history of Stitzel-Weller "The Story of Old Fitzgerald".
Stitzel-Weller, formed from the pre-Prohibition partnership of Pappy Julian Van Winkle's and Alex Farnsley's Weller (a wholesaler), and A. Stitzel's distillery, that was incorporated as "Stitzel-Weller in 1933. It ended in 1972 when it was sold to Norton Simon Inc. Norton Simon apparently purchased the great reputation of S-W for the expressed purpose of dumping a large quantity of inferior Bourbon that had been made at the Kentucky River Distillery in Jessamine County into a brand that had a market.
After the takeover they immediately began mixing this inferior whiskey with awesome S-W stocks in the base expression "Old Cabin Still" (a story with personal ramifications for me, dating back to the early 80s - but that's another post).