Five shiny keys. That’s the first thing every visitor to this legendary Louisville, Kentucky, distillery notices. Five keys on a round holder, hanging on a stark white front door against a gold plaque meant to represent the negative space of a keyhole. Along with the message painted in black script just below, these keys hint at the history encased within these walls: “Welcome to Stitzel-Weller.”
The keys, of course, represent the five steps to crafting bourbon: grains, yeast, fermentation, distillation and aging. But over the years, they’ve also become tangible symbols of the Southern traditions of hospitality, warmth and love of the finer things in life (good bourbon among them). Today, they can be found not just on that front door, but scattered through the property—as well as on the labels of some of the last liquid to be aged and bottled here.
Stitzel-Weller opened in Louisville, Kentucky, on May 4, 1935. Quite an auspicious date, as it also happened to be the 61st running of the Mint Julep-fueled Kentucky Derby. Over the years, the facility was responsible for producing some of the most notably recognizable brands, including W.L. Weller, Old Fitzgerald and a label with such cult-like status among devotees that it’s achieved first-name recognition: Pappy, launched by Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle, Sr.
The distillery closed in 1992, only to be reopened in 2014 as part of the Bulleit Frontier Whiskey Experience. (Today, it also houses I.W. Harper and the Orphan Barrel lines.) But it’s a Diageo-owned brand launched just a few years ago that truly honors the mark Stitzel-Weller left on the bourbon world. Blade and Bow is named after the two parts of a skeleton key: the long blade shaft and the ornate handle, called the bow. The Five Keys symbol is prominent on the label, and every bottle is adorned with one of five unique brass keys hanging from a thin blue cord. (Collectors seek out all of them, each identifiable by a number from one to five; they are said to be evenly distributed between markets, but some seem to be harder to find than others.)
To be clear, Blade and Bow isn’t produced at Stitzel-Weller. But through a practice borrowed by Spanish sherry houses, each bottle of the flagship product holds within it some drops of history. “Blade and Bow Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey is born from some of the oldest remaining whiskey stocks to be distilled at Stitzel-Weller, using the solera aging system to preserve the original stocks,” explains whiskey ambassador Doug Kragel. Liquid from the five-barrel solera system is mixed with other bourbons, aged in Stitzel-Weller’s rickhouses and bottled on site. The resulting spirit has aromas of wood, caramel and dried apricot, cereal notes, and a baking spice and smoky wood finish.
Decidedly rarer and highly allocated (and not produced using the solera method), the Blade and Bow 22-Year-Old Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey is a limited release spirit containing whiskeys from undisclosed locations. Currently offered in four cities, it’s smoky and oaky, with caramel, vanilla and spices.
Even though the two expressions aren’t distilled at Stitzel-Weller, an experimental still allows staff to play around with potential future projects. “The possibilities are endless for the new craft still at Stitzel-Weller, and we’re producing whiskey that will be aged for future Blade and Bow,” Kragel says. “We’re constantly tasting new mash bills and discussing what innovations will help meet consumer demand, while staying true to our brand foundations.”
When it opened, Stitzel-Weller hoped to break down barriers and modernize the Bourbon industry. Today, it offers a glimpse of the past and a peek at the future. As Kragel puts it, “[it] has some of the most amazing stories and intriguing past that we are so proud to own.”
Blade and Bow “New” Fashioned
Image and recipe courtesy of Blade and Bow
- 1 ¼ oz. Blade and Bow Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
- ½ oz. Simple syrup
- 1 Orange slice
- ¾ oz. St-Germain
- Splash of soda
- Orange slice and cherry to garnish
Muddle the orange slice in the bottom of a rocks glass. Add the bourbon, simple syrup and St-Germain, add ice, and stir gently. Top with soda water, stir again and garnish.
Kelly Magyarics, DWS, is a wine, spirits and lifestyle writer, and wine educator, in the Washington, D.C. area. She can be reached through her website, www.kellymagyarics.com, or on Twitter and Instagram @kmagyarics.