Saturday, February 21, 2015

Rebel Yell - Past and Future

Late 1960s Rebel Yell magazine ad.: 
a romantic vision of the ante-bellum South.
(thanks Herb Allen, for finding this)
Rebel Yell is a wheated mash bill Bourbon originally sold only in the South - to personify the South.  It was light and sweet and beautiful and sort of an inside secret of the South.  I want to write about the history, but I can't do better than Michael Veach's  (Posted 04-05-2004 on - 

"Alex Farnsley worked at W.L.Weller and Sons with Julian Van Winkle in the late 1800's/early 1900's. They purchased the company about 1910 and George Weller became the President, with Van Winkle and Farnsley as Vice President and Treasurer. Farnsley also became President of the Bank of St. Helens (in what is now Shively) about the same time. Prohibition saw the retirement of Weller and the last family tie to the company."

Charlie Farnsley,
mayor of Louisville 1948-53
Congressman, KY's 3rd 1965-67
Creator of Rebel Yell
(Photo from wikipedia)
In the 1940's Charlie Farnsley became Mayor of Louisville. At the same time he started bottling a few whiskies for his own use and to give as gifts. He created the brands "Rebel Yell" and "Lost Cause". There is a label book at the U.D. Archive with a 1948 label for Rebel Yell. It is white with a cannon shooting a cannon ball. Lost Cause did not have a graphic design and was even more plain than the Rebel Yell label."

"In the 1960's to honor the cenntenial of the Civil War, Stitzel-Weller took the label to the public, but only below the Mason-Dixon line. It was a 5yo 90 proof wheated bourbon at that time."

"United Distillers decided to take the brand world wide and amde it available anywhere in the U.S. I thought this was a mistake - A better selling point in London or Paris or Sidney would have been "What can you get here that you can't get in New York City or Boston?". They also lowered the proof to 80 proof. It became part of the brand sale to Heaven Hill and Bufallo Trace in the late 1990's and was in turn sold to David Sherman."
Mike Veach

Steve Leukanech's late 70s 200ml example.
From the 1960s when it began until sometime in the 1990s Rebel Yell was a product of Stitzel-Weller distillery located in the Louisville suburb of Shively.  United Distillers closed Stitzel-Weller in 1992 and transitioned production of Rebel Yell to their new Bernheim distillery subsequently - and then sold the brand to David Sherman Corp (which subsequently became Luxco) and distillery (Berhnheim) to Heaven Hill in 1999.  I've written about Stitzel-Weller before in connection with their flagship expression Old Fitzgerald and the anchor expression Cabin Still and they have been love letters.  This is no different.  Stitzel Weller Rebel Yell is a thing of stunning beauty.  It's a lot like S-W Cabin Still, slightly lighter and sweeter than the dark tannin complexity of classic S-W Old Fitz.  It was a 6 year old age stated Bourbon for most of the 70s and early 80s - the heyday.  Full tasting notes will follow at bottom.  A number of commentators over the years have commented on the irony that a gentle and sweet Bourbon would have the fierce name "Rebel Yell" but the actual sound of the rebel yell was not the fierce, angry, deep yell you might imagine.  It was a high pitched coyote sounding cry.  There's something plaintive and haunted about it.  As evidence, I present this famous clip of Confederate veterans doing the rebel yell in 1938.  Granted they are old men - but you can see the pride they take in performing the yell.  I have little doubt they are doing it properly.  They would know.  They had been there.

1938 footage of Civil War Confederate veterans performing the Rebel Yell.

One story is that Keith Richards, legendary guitarist of the Rolling Stones, loved Rebel Yell.  According to wikipedia's article about Billy Idol's song "Rebel Yell":  

"At a televised performance of VH1 Storytellers Billy Idol said that he had attended an event where Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, andRonnie Wood of The Rolling Stones were taking swigs from a bottle of "Rebel Yell" bourbon whiskey. He was not familiar with the brand, but he liked the name and decided to write a "Rebel Yell" song."

One of the later verses goes like this:

"I'd sell my soul for you babe
For money to burn with you
I'd give you all, and have none, babe
Just, just, justa, justa to have you here by me
In the midnight hour she cried- "more, more, more"
With a rebel yell she cried- "more, more, more"
In the midnight hour babe "more, more, more"
With a rebel yell "more, more, more"
Billy Idol "Rebel Yell"

It's not articulate - but it conflates the topics of delirium, lust, desire, and disregard for financial responsibility that are at the heart of rock 'n roll and of Bourbon-mania.

When Stitzel Weller's brands were being sold off by United Distillers in 1999 Rebel Yell's proof had been dropped 80 (40% abv.) and the age already reduced from 6 years old to a NAS 4 years old in the decade before.  Rebel Yell ended up with David Sherman Corporation of St. Louis (the company was renamed Luxco in 2006 in honor of former CEO of DSC, Paul Lux, who died the previous year).  Luxco contracted for it to be made by Heaven Hill.  Heaven Hill's version of the wheater wasn't the same.  How could it be?  But it's overly simplistic to simply compare the two expressions and find the new one wanting.  It's unfair to take the apex of American Bourbon making that was Stitzel-Weller in its prime and compare it with anything else - let alone something that sells for less than $20.  Luxco's Rebel Yell can often be found for in the neighborhood of $15.  Make no mistake, modern Rebel Yell isn't the masterpiece that came out of Pappy & Farnsley's distillery.  But the new stuff has a thread in common with what came before: the wheated mash bill.  Wheat adds a sweetness and a grape quality that in the new stuff comes across like marc or young cognac.

Rebel Yell - new label 80 proof (40% abv.)  NAS, but apparently 4 years old Luxco (sourced from Heaven Hill, wheat mash)

Color: gold

Nose: vanilla, sawn oak, woodshop, solvent and glue, mineral dust, cut flower sap (marigold stems).

Palate: a hot and sweet entry with flavors of dilute vanilla extract, sugar, applejack, and solvent.  Fruity and spicy on the expansion with raisin and spice.  The solvent, raisin and spice puts me in the mind of VS cognac.  There's plenty of young kiln dried oak which carries some plywood notes.  This aspect of the wood puts me in the mind of young small barrel craft bourbon.  The finish is short, but sweet with plenty of char.  Repeated sips and lots of air amp up the raisins and the vanilla.

This is a young wheater and tastes it.  My first impression was negative, but as I get further down into the bottle I'm finding it charming in its brash youth.  This drinks like Craft whiskey.  For the money you can do plenty worse.  Just don't expect this to drink like regular rye-mash inexpensive Bourbon such as Heaven Hill BiB or black (it's hotter. sharper, and fruitier).  The wheat really makes this different, and the youth makes this taste different from the more mature wheaters you know (like Weller, Larceny, or Maker's Mark).  The defining signatures that mark this difference are raisins (think marc) and a starkness to the oak that reads like small barrel Craft.  The bottle opens up over the course of weeks which takes the edge off the solvent, sharp and hot notes which detract early on.  It becomes sweet, open, and lightly fruited in a way that is not at all unpleasant.

(This bottle was provided by Pia of Common Ground PR for Rebel Yell / Luxco on the occasion of the release of their new bottle design)

Rebel Yell, 1970s 1/10th pint 90 proof (45% abv) 6 year old age statement Stizel-Weller labelled "Exclusively for the Deep South".

Color: Dark coppery amber

Nose:  Big black greasy vanilla pods.  Malt. Malted milk balls candy.  Sandalwood oak. Caramelized brown sugar and apple Brown Betty. Magic.

Palate: Sweet and spicy on opening.  Vanilla extract, root beer, cherry, red hots, caramelized cinnamon loaded apple upside down cake.  Then a big swing of tannin loaded oak redolent of big dark furniture in a fancy lawyer's office.  This trends into bitterness in the finish with herbal bitters, dark oak, and then a returning note of root beer candy.  At the fade out you're left with good herbal bitters - like Dr. Adam Emegirab's Orinoco Bitters.

This is all utterly characteristic Stitzel-Weller goodness straight out of the Old Fitzgerald playbook.  It's beautiful.  It's candy and spice, heat and oak richness.  It's big and dark and brown: a flavor bomb.  I can't be objective about this stuff.  It's the classic Stitzel-Weller flavor signature and it's beautiful beyond words and all the more precious for being lost and gone.


(bottle is a mini originally from the incomparable collection of American whiskey minis of Rotem Ben Shitrit:

(These were tasted blind - with the assistance of Temma Ehrenfeld - with the original tasting notes dictated while blindfolded.  Suffice it to say, I was able to identify them correctly, repeatedly, blind).

Herb Allen's faux tax stamped
 88 glass marked bottle.
Where are the points of intersection between these two versions of Rebel Yell?  They are wheat mash and oak.  This is the old recipe made in a different way: younger, lower proof, with different oak (I'm guessing kiln dried as opposed to air cured).  These are profound differences.  Yet, for all that, there's a fruity sweetness that they share in common.

Is your bottle of Rebel Yell Stitzel-Weller or Heaven Hill?  Stitzel-Weller closed in 1991-92 and David Sherman Corporation bought the brand in 1999.  What if you have a bottle from within that transitional period?  Bourbon brands transitioned to different distilleries in different ways.  Stitzel-Weller had a ton of whiskey aging in it's rickhouses when it closed and the S-W expressions continued to be bottled with S-W juice for a number of years afterwards.  But by the late 90s things definitely did transition. One way to tell with Rebel Yell is to look at the UPC code (and if there's no UPC code the bottle pre-dates the 1990s which shows it's S-W juice). 88508 UPCs generally indicate Stitzel-Weller. Later bottlings have 88076 or 88352 codes which generally indicate Heaven Hill. Another way to try to gauge is to look at the color. The S-W stuff is generally much darker than the Heaven Hill stuff.  (More on this in a follow-up post to come).

Every time I think about Stitzel-Weller's closing and the trading away of its brands I can't help but feel it's a parable about America.  Ultimately Stitzel-Weller went out of business because it was a niche distiller, undiversified and holding fast to an uncompromising notion of excellence at a time when Bourbon was fading in popularity.  It was truly excellent.  The new Rebel Yell is something of a parable for American whiskey's rebirth - with whiskey bought bulk from a distiller that isn't the brand's producer.  But the whiskey itself still tells an American story, high and thin like the rebel's yell itself.