For about a year, I’ve worked to develop relationships and connections with many of the reputable liquor stores in Wichita. Whenever work takes me outside the office, I will try to stop into at least one store to take a peek at what is on the shelves and chat with the store manager. When work takes me out of town, I generally try to do the same.
On a recent work trip to Arkansas City, I stopped by a local store before making my return trip. A bottle on the bottom shelf, sitting by itself and priced at $19.95, caught my eye.
There are many modern expressions of Old Fitzgerald – Old Fitzgerald Prime, Old Fitzgerald Bottled in Bond, Old Fitzgerald’s 1879, and Very Special Old Fitzgerald 12-year. I’ve never tried any of them, until now.
So, why does this matter? There are several reasons.
First, good luck finding a bottle of Old Fitzgerald. Not just in Wichita. Not just in Kansas. And probably even not anywhere in the Midwest. Your best bet is probably private collectors and auction sites. Why? Well, that leads to…
Second, Old Fitzgerald is being phased out. The process is, reportedly, nearly complete. What was once used by Heaven Hill to eventually bottle as Old Fitzgerald is basically now used to bottle Larceny.
Well, bottles come and go. Discontinuing a particular brand is nothing new. So why does it matter for this one?
Third, and probably most importantly, Old Fitzgerald shares a common lineage with bourbon royalty.
The Old Fitzgerald brand existed pre-Prohibition. Not long after Prohibition was repealed, the brand was purchased by none other than the famed Stitzel-Weller distillery. Old Fitzgerald’s recipe was changed to substitute wheat instead of rye.
Stitzel-Weller, of course, is known for producing the Van Winkle line. Old Fitzgerald and the Van Winkle line are thought to share the same mash bill (more on the history of the Stitzel-Weller distillery here).
Around 1992, the Stitzel-Weller distillery ceased production. Old Fitzgerald continued to be distilled at the Bernheim Distillery. Ed Foote, a highly regarded master distiller, oversaw the transition of production from Stitzel-Weller to Bernheim, including that of Old Fitzgerald and the Van Winkle line. Ed Foote retired shortly after the year 2000.
So, back to this particular bottle. This particular bottle was released in 2000 or 2001, based on the information contained in the label. This means that, although it was not distilled at the Stitzel-Weller distillery, it would have been distilled and partially aged (because it is bottled in bond, it must be at least four years old) under the direction and supervision of Ed Foote at Bernheim.
Because of my lack of experience with this line, the best I could do for context was to pull out some other wheated Heaven Hill products for comparison – Larceny and Rebel Yell 10-year. All are thought to have the same mash bill. The Larceny is not age stated. The Old Fitzgerald Bottled in Bond is at least 4 years old by law, but not specifically age stated. The Rebel Yell was released by Luxco this past year, but sourced from Heaven Hill. It is obviously 10 years old.
After pouring the samples, the color difference is striking. In the middle, the Old Fitzgerald is noticeably darker than the others. This was at least somewhat expected in comparison with the Larceny, but not so much with the 10-year old Rebel Yell.
On the nose, the Old Fitzgerald was much richer in caramel and oak than the Rebel Yell, and with less burn.
The taste mirrored the nose. I’ve always liked Larceny, but thought that Rebel Yell 10-year enhanced Larceny’s positive qualities in every way. It was like Larceny’s potential was realized in the Rebel Yell. But the Old Fitzgerald elevated even the Rebel Yell and took it into a different direction. The rich, creamy palate brought forth more oak and eventually caramel and dark chocolate.
And for the finish, the oak lingered for quite some time, along with some dried fruit.
I’m left pondering what Old Fitzgerald does to produce this result. It is presumably younger than the Rebel Yell, so why is it darker? Because it is bottled in bond, it cannot have any added coloring. How does it have more oak qualities than the presumably older Rebel yell? How is it more full bodied? These will likely remain unanswered questions.
I got lucky in spotting this bottle. At $19.95, for a liter, this was quite a deal. The problem I now have is that I want to try the other Old Fitzgerald offerings, and I know that won’t be as friendly on my wallet.