Thursday, October 24, 2013

William L. and the Distilling Wellers of Kentucky

There were no more distinguished early distilling families in Kentucky than the Wellers and William Larue Weller, the man credited with inventing “wheated whiskey,” was the giant of the family.  Even today the widely marketed “W. L. Weller Bourbon” bears his name and carries his memory.

Seen here in a modern drawing,  Weller in 1825 was born into a family that traced its origins back to Germany.  His grandfather, Daniel, had come to Kentucky on a flatboat in 1794,  purchased land near Bardstown and by 1800 was running a distillery there.  After his death in 1807 his estate included three whiskey barrels, two stills, mash kettles and drying kegs.  These were conferred on William’s father, Samuel, who continued to engage in the distiller’s trade.

As William grew up he sought new adventures.  In 1844 he moved to Louisville where he may well have worked in one of the many liquor enterprises that characterized that city.  In 1847 he joined the Louisville Brigade and with other Kentuckians served his country during the Mexican War.  At the conclusion of that conflict, William returned to Louisville and in 1849 opened his own business trading,  rectifying, and selling whiskey wholesale in collaboration with his brother, Charles.  They called their enterprise “William Larue Weller & Brother.”  They used the slogan, “Honest whiskey at an honest price.”

During this period Weller is credited with inventing “wheated whiskey,” that is, a proprietary blend that employed corn, malted barley and wheat, rather than rye.  The result was a smoother tasting whiskey that seemed richer on the palate than the traditional bourbon.  Legend has it that Weller’s liquor was so popular that he had to put his thumbprint in green ink on all invoices and barrels of whiskey he sold to assure his customers that they were getting the real stuff.

About the same time,  William, now 25 years old, was financially secure enough to marry.  His bride was Sarah B. Pence of Shelby County, a woman five years his senior.  Over the next 16 years they would have seven children,  four boys and three girls.  Weller also raised as his own son a younger brother, John, after their father and mother died in 1854 during a typhoid epidemic.  A Louisville City directory of the time lists Weller as a wholesale and retail dealer in foreign and domestic whiskey.  His business was located on the east side of Eighth Street between Jefferson and Green (now Liberty).

The advent of the Civil War wrought many changes for the Wellers.   William’s younger brother John joined Kentucky’s Confederate “Orphan’s Brigade,”  rose to the rank of captain and was wounded at the Battle of Chicamaugua.   Another brother went under arms to serve the Confederacy in Georgia.  William’s brother and partner, Charles, while in Tennessee in 1862  to collect debts and reported to be carrying a large amount of cash, was robbed by two gunmen and murdered.

After the Southern defeat,  John Weller came to work for a time with brother William in his company.   As his sons gained maturity,  Weller also began to take them aboard.  An 1876 city directory listed the business as “W.L. Weller and Son.”  His eldest, George Pence, was the partner.   William Junior was working as a clerk.  The company was now located on Louisville’s Main Street,  the very center of America’s liquor industry.  By 1887 the company was known as “William L. Weller & Sons” as other of his boys arrived.  The Wellers purchased whiskey on the open market and later contracted for large lots from distillers, including the Stitzel Brothers in Louisville and the Old Joe Distillery in Anderson County.

The company featured a blizzard of brands.  They included: "Boss Hit,” "Creedmore,” "Gold Crown,” "Harlem Club,” "Kentucky's Motto,” "La Rue’s Malt",  "Old Crib,” "Old Potomac,” "Potomac,” "Quarter Century,” "Rose Glen,” "Silas B. Johnson,” "Stone Root Gin,” “Old W. Weller” and "Uncle Buck.”  Their flagship labels were “Mammoth Cave,” and “Cabin Still” bourbons. Unlike many of their competitors, the Wellers trademarked most of their brands, beginning in 1905.   They advertised their whiskeys vigorously and provided generous giveaway items to favored customers. Those included back-of-the-bar bottles, some with label under glass, and etched shot glasses.

In 1893 William Weller made a highly significant move when he employed as a salesman the 19-year-old Julian Van Winkle,  who came to be known as “Pappy.”  Weller is said to have told Van Winkle never to take a drink with a customer, rather:  “If you want a drink, you’ve got samples in your bag and you can drink in your room.”  By now there were four sons in the business with their father.  George and William Junior were partners.  John C. and Lee Weller were listed as clerks.

In 1895,  apparently beginning to feel his age at 75,  William Weller filed his will with Jefferson County.   A year later he retired, leaving the business to George and his brother John, even though the latter had been working elsewhere.  In March 1899 William died.  The cause of death was given as “chronic spasmodic asthma with heart complications.”  With his grieving family gathered around, this acknowledged whiskey pioneer was buried in  Louisville’s Cave Hill Cemetery,  the resting place of many whiskey “barons.”

After his death some observers doubted William’s claim to have originated wheated whiskey.  One critic said his research found no evidence of the Wellers even making wheated bourbon.  He cited a contract between the company and Stitzel: "To make 500 barrels of bourbon for Weller using a mash bill that was rye and not wheat. Weller was not a large company at that time and 500 barrels represents a large portion of their yearly sales so I found it hard to believe that Weller was making a wheated bourbon at the time.”   Still other observers continue to credit Weller for this acknowledged advance in bourbon.  No other claimant, to my knowledge, has come forward.

In any event, the firm continued prosperous under Weller family management until 1909, when the sons sold out to “Pappy” Van Winkle and another company salesman,  Alex T. Farnsley.  Although they maintained the original name, the new partners adopted a new business strategy. In order to insure a more secure supply of raw whiskey, they saw the need to own at least a part of a distillery and invested in the Stitzel plant.  By the time Prohibition arrived in 1920,  Van Winkle was president of W.L. Weller and Sons and secretary/treasurer of Stitzel Distillery.    Stitzel was the president of the distillery and secretary/treasurer of W. L. Weller and Sons and Farnsley was the vice president of both companies.  As a result  they were able to piggyback on the Stitzel license to sell “medicinal whiskey” during National Prohibition.  Their Mammoth Cave brand was one of the bourbons offered to pharmacies during the “dry” era in America.

After repeal, the Stitzel plant operated as the The Stitzel-Weller Distillery under control of the younger members of the Van Winkle and Farnsley families.  As the years have rolled on a number of corporate changes have erased the distillery name but a Weller brand bourbon has continued to be sold.  Today the W.L. Weller Special Reserve is a prized and pricey whiskey, produced by the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky.  Naturally it is a wheated bourbon.

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