John E. Fitzgerald

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Fitzgerald was Distillery Owner

The history of John E. Fitgerald is one full of mystery and intrigue, with tall tales dating as far back as 1870. Then that name was canonized when the Stizel-Weller Distillery named one of their main brands Old Fitzgerald, after him.

According to one folklore, John E. Fitzgerald built a distillery with his own hands on the banks of the Kentucky River in the 1870s and sold his finest Bourbon ONLY to rail lines, steamships, and private clubs. Since the brand was supposedly shipped all over world and only to exclusive clubs, the average person could never find a bottle to actually try. It became scarce and people always wanted what they couldn’t have or find. The reputation of the brand continued to soar. The actual “Old Fitzgerald” brand was first registered in the 1880’s by Solomon C. Herbst and produced in such limited quantities that it was very difficult to find outside Franklin County, the county in which it was produced. It would be considered a Craft Distiller today.

“Old Fitzgerald” is one of the truly iconic names in the whiskey trade. Another legend or tale that has been tied to this liquor first was produced by an Irish Master Distiller whiskey-maker named John E. Fitzgerald at a distillery near Frankfort, Kentucky. Solomon C. Herbst, a Prussian-born wholesale wine and liquor dealer in Milwaukee, knew the tale well. In fact, Herbst actually wrote the script for the story himself when he bought the distillery. Like many wholesalers, Herbst looked for a guaranteed the flow of supplies of Bourbon. Around 1890 he found and bought a small distillery located outside Frankfort on Benson Creek. The locals called it the “Old Judge Distillery” for its flagship brand. In Federal parlance it was known as Registered Distillery #11 of the Seventh Revenue District.

Now owning his own plant, Herbst began to fashion a myth for it. He recognized that giving his own name to the distillery might not resonate far in Kentucky, so he spun a story, which is still perpetuated by some, that the distillery had been run by an Irish master distiller named John E. Fitzgerald who then sold the facility and the recipe to him. Fitzgerald then had moved to Hammond, Indiana, to run another distillery, so the story went. 

The brand was eventually sold to Julian P. “Pappy” Van Winkle during Prohibition when the distillery could not produce any whiskey. Pappy moved production of Old Fitz to his distillery where it became the first great wheated Bourbon and eventually one of the most famous Bourbon brands in the entire world.

Fitzgerald’s actual identity was revealed in a family biography of the Pappy Van Winkle’s family, the book titled “Always Fine Bourbon,” by Pappy’s granddaughter Sally Van Winkle Campbell. In that book it is revealed that John E. Fitzgerald was not actually the man he had always been portrayed to be. He was not a Distillery Owner that built his distillery with his own hands and he was an innovative Irish Master Distiller that crafted the world’s finest bourbon. He was in fact a bonded U. S. Treasury Agent, who at the time were the only people legally allowed to carry one of two keys to the barrel storage rickhouses. Being resourceful Fitzgerald purchased the distillery’s first key from an employee before he left the employment
of the distillery, so he possessed both keys to get in the bonded warehouses.

Mr. Fitzgerald apparently had a particularly discerning palate for fine Bourbon, and would use his rickhouse keys to gain access to the best barrels. The Stizel-Weller warehouses stood seven stories in Shively, Kentucky. Fitz had an affinity for the fifth floor and occasionally an employee would find a hidden whiskey thief under or behind barrels. Those lighter barrels would eventually becoame known around the distillery as “Fitzgerald barrels”. Herbst, and then Pappy, immortalized the man who had both the keys and the fine taste by naming the brand Old Fitzgerald.

Despite William Larue Weller’s attempts to convince sophisticated whiskey drinkers that wheated Bourbons were better, the brands of Old Rip Van Winkle and Old Weller were limited in success and confined to a niche audience. It wasn’t until Old Fitz became a common household brand throughout the middle class that a wheated bourbon was actually considered a favorite.

The Stizel-Weller distillery produced brands such as W. L. Weller, Old Fitzgerald, Pappy Van Winkle, Old Weller, Old Rip Van Winkle, Rebel Yell and Weller’s Cabin Still. When the distillery closed in 1972 closure, Rebel Yell was sold to The David Sherman Company which evolved in LuxCo, sold W. L. Weller, Old Weller, Pappy Van Winkle and Old Rip Van Winkle to the Ancient Age Distillery that would eventually be distilled by the Buffalo Trace Distillery under the Sazerac family’s ownership, and then sold both the Old Fitzgerald brand and the Cabin Still brand to the Heaven Hill Distillery. In of 2017, the owner of the old Stitzel-Weller Distillery, Diageo restarted bottling Bulleit Bourbon at the site.

Much of this article taken from Larceny Bourbon Web Site courtesy of Heaven Hill Brands