Diageo, Back In Bourbon Business, Makes Up For Lost Time

By Maggie Kimberl / June 23, 2015

Diageo, which owned Stitzel-Weller under the name of United Distillers, is infamous for shutting the historic distillery down in the early 90s, getting completely out of the bourbon business for nearly a decade.  It re-entered the bourbon market with the acquisition of Bulleit around 2002, but has seemed content to have only one bourbon whiskey in its portfolio since then.  (To date, this is the only bourbon that shows up in their brand portfolio online.)

In the last year, however, we’ve seen Diageo releasing both new and old bourbon brands at a breakneck pace.  First came the “Orphan Barrel Project,” wherein extra-aged bourbons distilled at multiple distilleries and aged at the then-defunct Stitzel-Weller facility were released every few months.  There were some great releases- Barterhouse and Lost Prophet were among my favorites from this line- and some not-so-great releases- I’m looking at you, Old Blowhard.

The bourbons from Diageo's Orphan Barrel series. (image copyright The Whiskey Wash)

The bourbons from Diageo’s Orphan Barrel series. (image copyright The Whiskey Wash)

Before these releases could even collect dust on the shelves of collectors, Diageo re-released I.W. Harper into the U.S. market.  This historic brand helped Isaac W. Bernheim make his fortune in Kentucky, the fruits of which we in Kentucky still enjoy in the form of Bernheim Forest.

Right on its tail was Blade and Bow, shrouded in mystery and folklore.  According to the website, “Named after the two parts of a skeleton key, the blade shaft and the ornate bow, the Blade and Bow brand is a tribute to the five keys that once hung on the door of the Stitzel-Weller Distillery.  These keys represented the five steps of crafting bourbon—grains, yeast, fermentation, distillation and aging.  But more importantly, they grew to symbolize the southern traditions of hospitality, warmth and enjoying the finer things in life.”

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Each bottle contains one of five keys- a collectable item similar to Blanton’s horses.  It also utilizes a “Solera aging system” in which barrels are never fully drained.  This method is supposed to ensure the old stock is “present in every sip,” though one could argue pouring liquid back into used barrels violates TTB standards for the definition of bourbon.

There’s no doubt Diageo will continue to grow its bourbon portfolio.  They have already opened the Bulleit Experience at Stitzel-Weller, complete with an artisanal distillery.  They’ve also broken grounds for the enormous Bulleit Distillery in Shelby County, Kentucky.  Look for another surge in bourbon releases from Diageo in the next 5-10 years as stocks from the new (not yet open) distillery build.  It took a while for them to catch on, but Diageo is finally starting to take the bourbon boom seriously.