A canopy of electric lines webs above fast food joints, auto shops, and sundry businesses and residences that flank the heavily trafficked Dixie Highway. Less than a half-mile off this south Louisville thoroughfare, structures from an entirely different era loom: multistoried bourbon aging warehouses. This tiered system of barrel ricking was patented in the latter part of the 19th century by Fredrick Stitzel, one of the many whiskey pioneers whose history is being revived at the Bulleit Experience at Stitzel-Weller Distillery.
As the name implies, Bulleit Bourbon’s new visitors center is housed at the historic distillery, which opened on Derby Day 1935. Whiskey production ceased there in the early 1990s, although the facility still holds in its rickhouses thousands of barrels of aging bourbon, including Bulleit. Brand ambassador Bobby Burk says the property was once the second-largest whiskey storage facility in the state, housing an estimated 22,000 barrels in each of its 22 warehouses.
The attraction, of course, shares the Bulleit family story and provides an opportunity to sample its whiskeys, but reverence also is paid to Stitzel-Weller’s history, even though the bourbon brands it once produced are now distilled by the competition. “People don’t recognize that there’s a brotherhood among the industry,” Burk says.
Burk provides a preview tour of the attraction, which is centered around what used to be the Stitzel-Weller administrative offices. The building’s façade is modeled after Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. The front door has etched upon it five keys, a symbol that for Julian P. “Pappy” Van Winkle Sr.—who, along with partners A.Ph. Stitzel and Alex Farnsley, built the distillery perhaps most famous for Old Fitzgerald bourbon—signified both the bourbon-making process and hospitality. “They made whiskey, and they gave back to the industry,” says Burk of Van Winkle and his partners. “This was a friendly, open and hospitable place—that’s what we want to be.”
The Bulleit Experience at Stitzel-Weller offers an impressive collection of artifacts and memorabilia, including the old cooper’s shop in its entirety. The building, although moved from another part of the facility, seems as if untouched for decades. There are rusted metal barrel rings and coopering tools, a patinaed barrel repair table, a massive Fairbanks scale (for weighing the barrels both before and after their broken staves were mended, to ensure the amount of bourbon inside remained constant, explains Burk), and substantial light fixtures that would be enviable today in an industrial modern kitchen.
Relics inside the beautifully appointed main building include old bourbon bottles—Mammoth Cave Bourbon and a Hilton Hotel’s private label among them—wooden bottle proofs, earthenware jugs and a Civil War-era still. There’s even an archives room, where some of the items of what Burk calls “a massive archiving project” of the ephemera found at Stitzel-Weller can be shared. “There are literally millions of pieces of paper saved since the 1930s,” says Tom Bulleit.
There’s also a Hall of Fame room, dedicated to displaying Bulleit Bourbon’s accolades, which include numerous gold medals from spirits competitions. The room has white walls now, but Burk can envision a time when not a speck of that white will be visible because of the awards yet to be bestowed, the photos of people yet to visit—all evidence that Bulleit Bourbon is weaving its history firmly into the industry’s storied tapestry.
If you go …
The Bulleit Experience at Stitzel-Weller Distillery
3860 Fitzgerald Road, Louisville
The attraction opens on Monday, Sept. 15. Regular hours of operation are Wednesday - Sunday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., with the last tour beginning at 2 p.m.