Do the Stitzels Get Too Much Credit for Modern Wheated Bourbon?

The term ‘wheated bourbon’ describes a bourbon that uses wheat instead of the more popular rye as its flavor grain. As a bourbon it is still mostly corn. The flavor grain, rye or wheat, is typically 10 to 15 percent of the mash bill.

Although the term is contemporary, the use of wheat in bourbon goes way back. There isn’t much disagreement about that. In the post-Prohibition era, however, only one distillery made a commotion about its use of wheat, the Van Winkle family’s Stitzel-Weller. They were joined in the 1950s by a new distillery called Maker’s Mark.

Today, Stitzel-Weller is gone but the wheated bourbons it originated are still being made by Sazerac at Buffalo Trace (Weller and Van Winkle) and Heaven Hill (Old Fitzgerald, from which Larceny is a spin-off). Maker’s Mark, of course, is still going strong. In the last few years other distilleries, large and small, have begun to make wheated bourbon.

Maker's Mark

The Maker’s Mark whiskey line up. (image copyright The Whiskey Wash)

Last November, Mike Veach posted an article headlined: “The Stitzel Factor in Bourbon.” In it, he claimed that, “They (the Stitzel brothers) also experimented with the recipe for Bourbon, using wheat as the flavoring grain. They experimented until they found what they thought was the best ratio of grains, yeast, distillation proof and barrel entry proof. They never used this whiskey in one of their major brands, but they would pass along what they learned to Arthur Philip Stitzel when he opened the A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery in 1903.”

Before Prohibition, ‘Pappy’ Van Winkle’s W. L. Weller Company bought much of the bourbon it distributed from A. Ph. Stitzel. During Prohibition (anticipating its end), Van Winkle bought the A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery and formed Stitzel-Weller. After Prohibition, Stitzel-Weller closed the A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery and built a new one south of Louisville, which opened in 1935. According to Veach, ‘Pappy’ Van Winkle decided to use the Stitzel’s wheated bourbon recipe because it seemed to produce a palatable whiskey after minimal aging, an advantage in the immediate post-Prohibiton era.

Veach’s source is a letter written by ‘Pappy’ Van Winkle to a customer in the mid 30s. In his role as an archivist, Veach has read many documents such as this one that have never been published, so we have to take his word for what they say.

Now fast-forward 20 years. It has often been said that Bill Samuels Sr. created Maker’s Mark bourbon using a recipe and yeast given to him by his good friend, ‘Pappy’ Van Winkle. I first heard that story from a Louisville advertising executive named Claude Brock, who worked at Stitzel-Weller during the Van Winkle era.

Veach concludes that, “the DNA for Maker’s Mark is the same as that made by the Stitzel Bros. back in the 19th century. More importantly, they (sic) yeast was the same as that used by the Stitzel Bros.”

Years ago, I asked Bill Samuels Jr. about the Stitzel-Weller/Maker’s Mark connection. Here is his reply, as published in Bourbon, Straight (2004). 

“‘Dad was a collaborator by nature,’ says Samuels Jr. When he was getting started in Loretto, Samuels Sr. reached out to his many close friends in the industry, including Pappy Van Winkle and Van Winkle’s son-in-law, King McClure, both of Stitzel-Weller, Dan Street of Brown-Forman, Ed Shapira of Heaven Hill, Jere Beam of Jim Beam, and others. All of them at one time or another provided yeast samples. Van Winkle provided samples of new made whiskey so Samuels Sr. and his crew could know how wheated bourbon was supposed to taste right from the still. One useful piece of information Pappy provided was that wheat mashes cannot be cooked under pressure, as rye mashes often are. Samuels Jr. says his dad always intended to make a wheat recipe bourbon because he preferred that flavor, but he had his own ideas about how to do it. Mostly his collaborators kept him out of trouble. ‘They kept him from going down blind alleys,’ says Samuels Jr.”

Here are some other facts that tend to dilute the Stitzel influence. The first master distiller at Stitzel-Weller was Will McGill. He was the brother-in-law of Joe Beam. Both men were trained by M. C. Beam, Joe’s much older brother. In their youth, prior to Prohibition, the two men worked together at various Kentucky distilleries. In 1929, when the government declared a ‘whiskey holiday’ and allowed medicinal whiskey license holders to distill (as pre-Prohibition stocks were nearly exhausted), ‘Pappy’ Van Winkle called Joe Beam and his crew to fire up the stills at A. Ph. Stitzel. At Stitzel-Weller, McGill employed several of his Beam nephews. The eldest, Elmo, became the first master distiller at Maker’s Mark.

If ‘Pappy’ Van Winkle and Bill Samuels Sr. were so enamored of the way the Stitzel Brothers made wheated bourbon, why did they hire so many Beams and Beam proteges to make it? The Beams knew how to make wheated bourbon just as well as the Stitzels did and didn’t need any help from the Stitzels to do it.

When Elmo died he was replaced by Sam Cecil, who had worked with Samuels Sr. at the T. W. Samuels Distillery and with Joe and Harry Beam at Heaven Hill. He had no connection to the Stitzels and never credited them with pioneering the production of wheated bourbon.

Although marketers like to make whiskey recipes seem ancient and unchanging, the reality is that every master distiller makes tweaks. Surely Will McGill made some changes when he started to produce wheated bourbon at the brand new Stitzel-Weller Distillery in 1935, as Elmo Beam surely did 20 years later at the new distillery that became Maker’s Mark. In the 80+ years since Stitzel-Weller began there has not been one member of the Stitzel family in the mix but a whole mess of Beams and people trained by Beams.

Does this mean anything definitively? No, we still don’t know enough to say who is most responsible for the wheated bourbon of today, but if you want to contemplate its genealogy, consider everything.

Editor’s Note: This article is republished with permission from Chuck Cowdery.

About the author

Chuck Cowdery

Charles K. Cowdery is an internationally renowned whiskey writer, specializing in American whiskey. He is a Kentucky Colonel (Patton, 206) and a member of the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame (2009). He is the author of multiple bourbon books, including Bourbon, Strange: Surprising Stories of American Whiskey, and is a regular contributor to Whisky Advocate Magazine. Chuck is also the editor and publisher of The Bourbon Country Reader, the oldest publication dedicated exclusively to American whiskey.