Cigar Pairing: John E. Fitzgerald Very Special Reserve

Cigar Pairing: John E. Fitzgerald Very Special Reserve

The legend of Stitzel-Weller continues to grow. The storied distillery in Shively, Kentucky is newly responsible for another release that explores the limits of the Bourbon stratosphere in John E. Fitzgerald Very Special Reserve, a 20-year-old being sold at $300 per 375-milliliter bottle.

The very limited release (12 barrels) comes to us by way of Heaven Hill. The whiskey is part of a stock that the Bardstown distillery received when it bought the Old Fitzgerald brand from Diageo in 1999. Old Fitzgerald had been the flagship brand of Stitzel-Weller, a facility that Julian "Pappy" Van Winkle headed from its opening in 1935 to until his death in 1965.

Heaven Hill took possession of a number of barrels of the wheated Bourbon at the time of the brand sale and transported them to its Bardstown headquarters. Most were dumped and sold as part of the Old Fitzgerald bottlings that Heaven Hill was starting to produce. Twelve barrels were placed in the cooler confines of the first floor of Rickhouse Y. The torrid climates that Bourbon is typically aged in can cause over-maturation if left too long. A more temperate environment can allow it to push the spirit's aging envelope. In this case, it did so quite nicely.

In 2013, the by-then-20-year-old Bourbon was dumped and put in steel containers, where maturation ceased. It was subsequently placed in some 3,000 bottles measuring 375-ml. this summer, and is now being released in select locations.

Stitzel-Weller enjoys landmark status as a producer of such other brands as W.L. Weller, Rebel Yell and Cabin Still. It is also said that Van Winkle shared his recipe for wheated Bourbon with Bill Samuels Sr. when the latter was starting Maker's Mark in the 1950s. While the Van Winkle family sold its interests in the distillery in 1972, Julian Van Winkle III, grandson of Pappy, sourced much of the whiskey for the subsequently formed Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery there. (That company now operates in conjunction with Sazerac at the Buffalo Trace distillery.)

While the distillery was shuttered in 1992, Diageo has begun issuing small batches of Bourbons still stored there under the Orphan Barrel label. Bulleit, another Diageo Bourbon (not made there), also houses its visitors' facility at Stitzel-Weller.

The new release joins such hyper-aged Bourbons as the 20-year-old and 23-year-old Pappy Van Winkle's Family Reserves, as well as Heaven Hill's 23-year-old Elijah Craig and 27-year-old Parker's Heritage versions.

The name John E. Fitzgerald has a rather wry origin and is connected to another Heaven Hill Bourbon release: Larceny. It was that same Fitzgerald that lent his name to Old Fitzgerald Bourbon, and it has been assumed that he was a distiller of some note. However, Sally Van Winkle Campbell, granddaughter of Pappy, revealed in her book But Always Fine Bourbon—Pappy Van Winkle and the Story of Old Fitzgerald that Fitzgerald was a treasury agent who held keys to bonded Bourbon warehouses in Kentucky. He had a larcenous reputation, being known to help himself to the best barrels while inspecting warehouses for tax purposes. His knack for finding the tastiest casks was such that the ones he chose to filch from were dubbed "Fitzgerald barrels" and that nickname came to mean quality Bourbons.

John E. Fitzgerald Very Special Reserve

John E. Fitzgerald Very Special Reserve (90 proof, or 45 percent alcohol by volume; aged 20 years; not chill filtered; $300 a 375-milliliter bottle)

APPEARANCE: Intensely dark amber with a reddish color that gives it the look of a tawny Port. Very slow, medium-width legs.

NOSE: A strong vanilla bouquet right out of the gate, followed by affiliations with other spirits, such as Cognac and Port. It then develops candied-fruit and caramel aromas.

PALATE: A very fruity and chocolaty component (much like Van Winkle's 20-year-old, but not as woody). Red berries are the predominant notions. Makes a spicy, tart almost cinnamon impression on the roof of the mouth before softening to the caramel and vanilla notes that the aroma suggests.

FINISH: The ending is the great delight as the bouquet and palate flavors continue up until the curtain call reveals a nutty, toasty side.

Alec Bradley Sanctum Toro

CIGAR PAIRING: Alec Bradley Sanctum Toro (Honduras; 6 inches by 52 ring gauge; $7.75; 91 points; Cigar Insider, July 7, 2015) An attractive toro that starts mild and woody but intensifies and develops into a harmonious smoke full of white pepper, cinnamon, vanilla bean and almond paste notes. We chose the pairing for the like-spice and -vanilla flavors, but were most gratified by the overtones of nut on each. The cigar brings softness to the marriage as it folds into the whiskey, toning down the latter's tartness. The Fitzgerald's nuttiness releases far earlier and creates a new dimension in the Alec Bradley as well as underscoring its almond notes. The cigar also quickly develops a fuller body. A great synergy of barrel notes with tobacco also makes for a leathery taste. A brilliant give-and-take.