by Scott Hill
First, just the facts.
The Rebel Yell brand name is owned by the Luxco company out of St. Louis, Missouri, but is currently produced under agreement with Heaven Hill at the Bernheim distillery in Louisville, Kentucky.
The Old Rip Van Winkle brand name is owned by the Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery company, but is currently produced under a joint venture agreement with Sazerac’s Buffalo Trace distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky.
While not obvious by either brand name, these two whiskeys share a common and storied history.
The W.L. Weller company – a whiskey wholesale company – was formed by William Larue Weller in 1849. The A. Ph. Stitzel company – a wheated bourbon distillery – was formed in 1872. One of the bourbons produced by the Stitzel distilling company was a bourbon recipe developed by William Larue Weller himself (created around the same time as the creation of the W.L. Weller company), which was wholesaled through the W. L. Weller company.
In 1893, a longtime W.L. Weller employee, Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle, bought the Weller company. Then, in 1910, Van Winkle’s Weller company bought the Stitzel company, including the distillery. The transaction was a natural for Van Winkle, as Stitzel had been supplying much of the whiskey that Weller wholesaled, including the growingly popular Weller whiskey.
Just prior to prohibition, the combined Stitzel-Weller company began producing the Old Rip Van Winkle branded wheated bourbon at the Stitzel distillery. It is believed that the recipe for the Old Rip Van Winkle mirrored that of the Weller whiskey.
Prohibition then hit, lasting from 1920 until 1933, at which time Van Winkle’s company would produce medicinal whiskey at the Stitzel distillery.
In 1935, following the end of prohibition, Van Winkle again produced Weller whiskey and opened the Stitzel-Weller distillery outside of Louisville, Kentucky. Around this same time, Van Winkle purchased the Old Fitzgerald brand, and converted its recipe to a wheated bourbon (adding a “whisper of wheat”, but the exact recipe is unknown). Van Winkle moved production of the Old Fitzgerald product to the Stitzel-Weller distillery, to join production with the Weller product.
The Old Rip Van Winkle brand would be mothballed.
Around 1950, Stitzel Weller created a brand of wheated bourbons called “Rebel Yell.” The recipe purported to be a recipe dating back to William Larue Weller.
Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle died in 1965. His son, Julian Van Winkle, Jr., and other family members including Julian III, took over the company.
In 1972, Stitzel-Weller (still owned by the Van Winkle family) sold off its whiskey brands and the distillery. It retained one brand – the Old Rip Van Winkle brand.
The Old Fitzgerald brand (and the distillery itself) would be sold to the company now known as Diageo. Old Fitzgerald would be produced at the Stitzel-Weller distillery until 1992. At that time, Diageo shut down the Stitzel-Weller distillery and shifted production of Old Fitzgerald to Diageo’s new distillery, the Bernheim distillery in Louisville. Diageo would sell the Bernheim distillery and the Old Fitzgerald brand to Heaven Hill, in 1999.
The Weller brand was sold several times, but eventually was purchased by the Sazerac company. Weller branded products also would be produced at the Stitzel-Weller distillery until 1992, when the Stitzel-Weller distillery was shuttered for good. Diageo would agree to produce the Weller lineup for a period of time as well, until Sazerac’s Buffalo Trace distillery opened in 1999 (around the same time Diageo sold the Bernhiem distillery and Old Fitzgerald to Heaven Hill).
The Rebel Yell brand survived the Stitzel-Weller break-up as well and was produced using the Stitzel-Weller wheated mash bill at the Stitzel-Weller distillery, until the early 1980’s, when the brand was sold to the company now known as Luxco. Luxco contracted with Diageo for continued production of Rebel Yell at the Stitzel-Weller distillery, then with Diageo and Heaven Hill for production of Rebel Yell at the Bernheim distillery. It is still today produced by Heaven Hill at Bernheim, and sold by the Rebel Yell brand named owned by Luxco.
Shortly after the 1972 sale, the Van Winkle family resurrected the Old Rip Van Winkle brand and introduced new Van Winkle branded age-stated bourbons. These were produced under contract with Diageo using old Stitzel-Weller stock (whiskey which the Van Winkle family had produced under their ownership). The Van Winkle brand would continue to be produced with Stitzel-Weller stock well after the Stitzel-Weller distillery shuttered in 1992, until the reserves were depleted (first the 10 year, then the 12, etc.). Post 1992 production of the Van Winkle products likewise shifted to Bernheim as well. Around 2002, the Van Winkle family entered into a joint venture with Sazerac related to the Buffalo Trace distillery and the production of Van Winkle products there. Since then, all Van Winkle new distillation has taken place at the Buffalo Trace distillery.
Based upon the date the Stitzel-Weller distillery closed and the age statements (or approximate ages) of the various products, distillation runs up to the date of Stitzel-Weller’s closing would have produced Rebel Yell through the mid ‘90s (Rebel Yell then being a bottom shelf product), Old Fitzgerald up to around 1997 (a roughly 5-6 year bourbon), and Weller products until approximately 2000 (for the Old Weller Antique). The various Van Winkle lines (ranging in dates from 10 to 23 years) would deplete the Stitzel-Weller stock in stages, up to approximately 2015 with the final bottling of 23-Year Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve (rumor has it that those bottles of 23-year were blended with Stitzel-Weller and Buffalo Trace/Bernheim stock over the final few years). The 10-year Old Rip Van Winkle couldn’t be produced with Stitzel-Weller stock after around 2002. Weller, Old Fitzgerald, Rebel Yell and the Pappy lineup would share Bernheim production from 1992 until 1999 or 2002 (with bottling dates as late as 2007 for Weller and 2011 for Old Rip Van Winkle).
From this history, at least during the Stitzel-Weller days, Rebel Yell and Old Rip Van Winkle likely shared a common recipe (one common with the Weller lineup and likely even the Old Fitzgerald lineup). Today, the Buffalo Trace distillery wheated mash bill is believed to be 70% corn, 16% wheat and 14% barley, and stored in a #3 charred barrel (incidentally, the same mash bill that Maker’s Mark is said to use). Heaven Hill’s wheated bourbon mash bill is purported to be 68% corn, 20% wheat, 12% malted barley (although there is disagreement on the interwebs on this), and stored in a #3 charred barrel. Luxco claims Rebel Yell is produced under “the original time-honored recipe,” but we know that Rebel Yell sources from Heaven Hill and the Bernheim distillery.
Could this mean that Heaven Hill uses two wheated mash bills – one dating back to William Larue Weller (for Rebel Yell) and one developed by the Bernheim distillery for Old Fitzgerald products (and now, Larceny)? Are the purported mash bills wrong, and in fact all these wheated bourbons have an identical recipe? Or is the “original time-honored recipe” marketing purely fluff?
Before we get into the tasting, I do recognize that a mash bill alone doesn’t make a whiskey. Yeast plays an important part, as does the still and distillation and entry proofs. The char of the barrels makes a difference, as does the location and age of those barrels. Even these later statements are probably oversimplified. The point of this article is that even with a common past, two whiskeys can take separate paths.
And now, the subjective evaluations.
Nose: Rich dark fruit, orange, whipped vanilla cream and subtle oak; sweet and complex. The nose is brilliant and powerful, yet soft. The vanilla lingers on the nose. Not even a hint of alcohol burn.
Palate: More initial burn than I expected at “only” 100 proof. Once the heat fades, orange and vanilla cream appear, along with oak and a bit of that same rich dark fruit from the nose. A bit of spice and cocoa at the tail end.
Finish: Initially too oaky with light cocoa along with some spice, but fades to vanilla, caramel and sweet fruit; the finish concludes very slowly, leaving only that sweet fruit behind.
Overall: This is an incredible bourbon. The nose is ridiculous. The flavor is rich and fruity, and the tail end of the finish leaves you wanting more. There are a few week points at as the initial palate is overshadowed by alcohol burn at only 100 proof. The finish begins thin but finishes nicely.
Nose: Plum and cherry fruit, fruit leather, rich caramel, soft vanilla, some tobacco and sweet grain; sweet and fruity; lingering cherry and caramel.
Palate: Rich with incredible fruit (cherry and beyond), honey sweetness, vanilla and caramel; there is very soft oak (not a charred oak but a soft, pleasant oakiness) and the subtle Weller cinnamon spice at the end. The lack of burn at 107 proof is remarkable.
Finish: The palate fades gradually through the cinnamon spice to caramel and oak. Not complex but lingering and tasty.
Overall: This fits squarely in the familiar Weller’s wheated bourbon profile with rich fruit, sweetness, and lingering cinnamon, but the drinkability and smoothness goes far beyond expectations. There is nothing not to like here. This bourbon supports the hype.
And finally, my conclusions.
The nose on the Rebel Yell Single Barrel takes the cake. It is absolutely incredible, even compared to the rich, fruity nose of the Old Rip Van Winkle. If I had only one award to give, it would go to the Rebel Yell for its nose. But there is more to these bourbons than just their smells. The palate and overall finish on the Old Rip Van Winkle wins out over the Rebel Yell, but not without a fight. The Rebel Yell’s fruitiness and vanilla cream are amazing, and but-for the initial burn, it would win out over the Old Rip Van Winkle’s palate. The Rebel Yell begins its finish a bit too thin, but steps up before concluding. There just isn’t a week point in the Old Rip Van Winkle. If I had one to choose, I’d have to sample again :).
But back to the original question.
Are these one in the same? Absolutely not. Even if these began with the same mash bill or storied history, these have more dissimilarities than similarities. Both are fantastic bourbons, but factors beyond a mere recipe have influenced these bourbons.