Driving south on the Dixie Highway, you never even know you've left Louisville until you start seeing the store signs. Shively Motors, The Bank of Shively, Shively Center. The suburb of Shively, Kentucky is perhaps not as shabby as the edges of Louisville we've just driven through, but it's been around long enough that its post-war sparkle has faded more than a little bit.
A sign on the left side of the road says you're passing the driveway that leads back to the very-much-alive Early Times distillery, and then you're at Ralph avenue and little more than a right turn away from one of the bourbon world's most beloved icons...
The end of World War II brought with it an end to the rationing and restrictions that kept beverage alcohol production at a minimum. The post-war prosperity and expanding popularity that bourbon saw in the Fifties and Sixties were some of the best times the industry ever had. Optimism about the future, and a fear of being under inventoried as they were after prohibition fueled a fury of overproduction. Unfortunately, by the end of the Sixties, the popularity of bourbon whiskey had begun to level out and the Seventies and Eighties were tumultuous years in the American whiskey business. In the summer of 1972, the Stitzel-Weller Distilling company of Louisville, owned by the Van Winkle family and opened by its beloved patriarch, Julian P. "Pappy" Van Winkle on Derby Day 1935, just after the repeal of National Prohibition, was sold to Norton Simon for $20 million. Norton Simon later sold it to Guinness of London, operating as United Distillers. United, which owned several Scotch whisky distilleries, went shopping in the USA the same way you might shop at a supermarket. They took a little of this, all of that, some more of this other one, until they had accumulated no less than seven American distilleries. In 1991 they built Bernheim, a modern, state-of-the-art facility at 17th and Breckenridge Streets in Louisville and closed down everything else. Even in their new plant, they only made whiskey for about seven years before selling Bernheim to Heaven Hill in 1999 and getting out of the bourbon-making business entirely. "Out of the bourbon-making business" isn't the same, however, as "out of the distillery business". In the wonderful world of bourbon, many parts of the whole process are considered legally separate, and they're often marketed that way. The "business" is distinct from the buildings and equipment, as are the brand (label), the formula for making the brand, the yeast, the rights to sell (in various places), and other factors. Including, of course, existing stock. Which is often further complicated by the fact that distilleries usually produce several brands from different ages and mixtures of the same stock. The way it worked with Stitzel-Weller was pretty simple for the sale to Norton Simon and to United Distillers; the seller took the whole package. The sale of Bernheim, however was more complicated, because it was divided among at least three or four buyers, plus the seller retained portions. Of the Bernheim brands that had been Stitzel-Weller, Heaven Hill bought only the Old Fitzgerald label (and probably the formula and yeast). The Old Weller brands were sold to Buffalo Trace, where they will now be produced. Rebel Yell went to the David Sherman Company in St. Louis, Missouri. The existing stock of all those brands is warehoused all together at the Stitzel-Weller facility in Shively.
One ironic feature of the time lag in the way that bourbon is made and aged is that many of the longer-aged brands associated with Stitzel-Weller (Old Weller Antique, Centennial, Old Fitzgerald 1849, Very Special Old Fitz 12 year old) were actually made at Stitzel-Weller. And there's still enough old stock that we'll all be drinking the nectar of that abandoned old all-copper still for years to come.
As we round a slight curve on Ralph street it's pretty obvious where the distillery is. The seven-story warehouses are easy to spot, as is the famous brick chimney with "OLD FITZGERALD" displayed upon it. We make a right turn on Fitzgerald Road (another slight give away) and soon find ourselves in front of the main gate.
When we first laid eyes on the remains of Old Crow, we had no idea what to expect. We hadn't seen any old abandoned distilleries before, and there weren't really a lot of photos. Seeing Stitzel-Weller is a different matter altogether. This was a working distillery at the time when most of the books we learned from were written. Among more recent works is Sally Van Winkle Campbell's delightful memoir, But Always Fine Bourbon. Pappy Van Winkle's granddaughter intended to write a grown-up story about her father and grandfather, and how they built a proud business by making a fine product the best way they possibly could and just letting the world know it. But the book manages to go way beyond that, presenting a little-girl's view of growing up in a time when families were proud of what they'd taken two and three generations to build -- whether a railroad, an automobile company, or a distillery. The book is beautifully published, with thick covers, carefully selected and laid typography and a variety of papers including translucent leaves. It is also blessed with some of the most gorgeous photography imaginable, rivaling the best of Ansel Adams' work. There is such a beauty and a life to the pictures...
...And such a sadness and despair to the scene in front of us. The front door of the distillery building itself hangs open, allowing us to see into the abandoned interior. Gray paint peels from the clapboard siding in huge flakes.
There were signs and slogans here once, all over the property.
"NO CHEMISTS ALLOWED!
Nature and the old-time 'know how' of a Master Distiller get the job done here...
This is a Distillery - not a whiskey factory
"Just a taste is all we ask...
it's all we've
We make fine bourbon
At a profit if we can
At a loss if we must
They're nearly all gone now. The one that inspired the title of Sally's book remains, cast in a bronze plate mounted on stone at the main entrance,
The metal-clad warehouses had always been black, to emphasize the temperature extremes for making better whiskey. So the black yeast mold that covers the buildings at Old Crow and Old Taylor isn't so obvious here. But the long streaks of red rust are. And these warehouses aren't even abandoned. They're still full of lots of barrels of fine, aging Stitzel-Weller and Bernheim bourbon. A sign at the main gate suggests that trucks enter through the back gate on Tucker Avenue. And that's where we head next, turning at the Shively Rod and Custom Shop, where '58 Chevvies are still lowered and fitted with lake pipes, frenched headlights, and tuck'n'roll upholstery. There is a guard at this gate, and that's the only person we see. But trucks still move barrels out of here, although now that Heaven Hill owns the Bernheim distillery they probably no longer move them in.