It’s Bourbon Heritage Month and when I reflect on the long history of American whiskey, I often come back to the legendary Stitzel-Weller distillery and its impact on the bourbon world of today. Stitzel-Weller is best known as the distillery that was co-owned and managed by the iconic Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle. Stitzel-Weller exclusively produced wheated bourbon under a variety of brand names that you probably recognize including Old Fitzgerald, Cabin Still, Rebel Yell and W.L. Weller among others. The distillery operated under Pappy’s direction until shortly before his death in 1964. Pappy’s son, Julian Van Winkle Jr., took over management of the distillery from 1964 until 1972, when other family co-owners all but forced him to sell the distillery to Norton-Simon. The distillery changed owners over the next few decades thanks to various sales and mergers and eventually found itself under the ownership of Diageo, who own it to this day.
Over the years, Diageo sold most of the brands associated with Stitzel-Weller to a variety of stakeholders in the industry but always retained control of the facility itself, which ceased distilling operations in 1992. Along the way, much of the remaining unsold Stitzel-Weller stocks were bought and bottled by other brands as the bourbon industry began its slow recovery through the late 1990s and early 2000s.
The Blade and Bow brand was introduced by Diageo in 2015 in the midst of this latest market boom and as a part of the brand launch, they released a 22 Year Old expression containing some of the last whiskey distilled at Stitzel-Weller. The Blade and Bow brand is tied to the “5 Keys” concept that was practiced during the operating days of Stitzel-Weller. As described on their 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.
The 22 Year has been re-released several times over the years including this latest iteration from 2023. Unlike the early versions of the 22 year, the 2023 release mentions distillation in Kentucky and both aging and bottling at the Stitzel-Weller distillery, but gives no indication of any Stitzel-Weller-distilled stock in the product. There’s no way to confirm the exact source of the barrels in this expression, but we can make a few assumptions based on the brands Diageo has owned over the years. Blade and Bow 22 Year is bottled at 46% ABV. How does this well-aged Kentucky bourbon drink compared to other high-aged whiskies on the market?
|Nose||Caramel corn, bright fresh apricot, toffee, hint of pie crust, allspice, mixed fruit jam, slightly herbal, green apple. Water brings out some punchier spice, oatmeal raisin bread, and the old oak that I honestly expected a lot sooner.|
|Taste||Much richer flavors than on the nose, figs, leather, deep oak, cherries jubilee, butterscotch, a bit of ginger. Water deepens the sweetness almost to the point of molasses and lets the wood tannins come out a lot more.|
|Finish||A blast of herbal spice followed by Luxardo syrup, flaky apple pastry, more apricot, old oak, and some burnt sugar. With water, a touch of leather, shortbread, and wood smoke. There’s a bit of astringency that comes from spending 22 years in a barrel, but it’s not present enough to be a distraction.|
|Overall Thoughts||This reminds me a lot of Rhetoric 22 Year (another Diageo product from the Orphan Barrel seres). Blade and Bow 22 year is a fairly balanced offering considering the age. The all-but-expected old oak notes aren’t overpowering and allow the corn sweetness, stone fruits, and herbal undertones to make their presence known. Super high aged bourbon isn’t usually my thing and while I enjoyed this, this isn’t the kind of flavor profile I usually reach for. If you liked most of the high-aged bourbons from the Orphan Barrel series, this should be right up your alley.|