Old Timer for the Ages

Old Timer for the Ages

We met the man who created a Bourbon legacy

People | 05 Feb 2014 | Issue 117 | By Fred Minnick

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Walk into your local liquor store and look at the Bourbon shelf. Touch the bottles, read the promotional tags and imagine pouring two fingers over a thick chunk of ice. The sharp sounds of the ice cracking are music to your ears, but the aroma caroming off the glass and into the nose; that's what we live for with a good glass of Bourbon. Now, count the brands. Are there more than 50, 100, 200 or 300? Do you see signed bottles, flavoured lined extensions, T-shirts, flasks, shot glasses and other stuff? That other stuff didn't exist in 1981.

Welcome to the modern world of Bourbon, where line extensions are paramount to the financial virtues of a brand and distillers enjoy their greatest run since Prohibition, maybe ever, with Bourbon demands continuing to soar. But, the modern master distillers are a hybrid—half distiller, half marketer. They spend quite a bit of time signing bottles, travelling to bars and conducting classes. Today's Bourbon distillers have their own corporate credit card, a company car (or access to one) and a PR coach to remind them about their brand talking points. That's all new, a necessity to the growing interest in Bourbon.

Google any major master distiller's name and you'll find hundreds of interviews, photos, etc., of these folks talking Bourbon, their brands and life. Their biographies are public for all to see. They are faces of their respective brands. A generation before this era's master distillers, they weren't even called master distillers. They didn't travel; they just tested yeast and mashes and tasted distillate and occasionally yelled at Johnny Production Worker for being late. "The only bottle I signed was for Julian Van Winkle and that's because he asked me to," says Edwin Foote, 78, the former master distiller of the Old Fitzgerald Distillery, commonly referred to as Stitzel-Weller.

'Sputnik days'

Although Foote no longer drinks Bourbon for health reasons, his legacy put him in the Bourbon Hall of Fame in 2008 and his hands perfected the greatest wheated Bourbons ever made. Every ounce of the so-called Stitzel-Weller juice in the 1980s and 1990s came under Foote's reign. This would be used for the Old Rip Van Winkle, Rebel Yell, Old Fitzgerald and Weller lines. After Old Fitzgerald ceased operations in the 1990s, the leftover stock would be used for an occasional other brand, such as the recent Jefferson's Presidential Reserve 18 Years Old wheated Bourbon from "Stitzel Weller." Like many distillers, Foote lucked into the business. He graduated from Western Kentucky University in 1961 with a major in mathematics and a dozen or so hours in chemistry. "Those were the Sputnik days and all science and mathematics majors were going be making a mint," Foote remembers. "Being married and having a second child, I had to get one of them big high paying jobs and none were around." Instead of big money and discovery, Foote found himself teaching maths. Foote saw an ad in the paper for a Seagram's distillery management trainee position in Fairfield, Kentucky. He was hired and became the beer chemist for the Henry McKenna Distillery. Foote analysed fermenter samples for two distilling seasons before Seagram's transferred him to the Louisville office, where he analysed samples from Seagram's five Kentucky distilleries: Calvert on Seventh Street Road, Old Lewis Hunter, Athertonville Distillery, Henry McKenna and Old Prentice (now Four Roses). "Human senses can be so acute. Seagram's had a whole library of yeast. I could tell what the samples were based on the distiller's yeast profile," Foote says. Speaking of yeast, Foote goes off on a tangent here about marketing in the industry and it's worth sharing, because, well, Foote needed to get this off his chest. "When talking about yeast, it's like talking about trees. You've got pasture and grass and trees. It's as much science as it is art," he says, building up to the good part. "In the fall, yeast is either going to rot or ferment. If the raw bacteria gets started, it's going to rot. If yeast gets started, it will ferment. Yeast strain is a very expensive and delicate operation. I don't believe for a minute that every distillery claiming that their papa brought it from Cornwell between his toes. That's not the same yeast. That's more marketing than real life." For the record, no current distillery claims its papa brought yeast between his toes from Cornwell. But, like many characters in Bourbon, Foote has no shortage of sayings and he loves the occasional F-bomb when referring to marketers and accountants. But, nothing gets him going quite like a distiller saying they're using a 100-year-old recipe.

"I hate it when somebody says they're using a 100-year-old recipe and nothing has changed," he says. "My first thought is everybody is using hybrid corn, so the very main part of what we were making Bourbon out of is different. Our ground water wasn't exactly what it was like 100 years ago either. So, that's just all bullshit." He also doesn't like computers running distilleries. "If everything is controlled by one man at a monitor, what's he going to do if you tap him on the shoulder?" Foote asks a fair question.

'Like going to Heaven'

It's easier to get Foote to wax poetically about the BS in whiskey than it is for him to talk about his whiskey. For one, they didn't write tasting notes then and their modest approach was very different than today's beat-your-chest ways. But what Foote remembers well are the people. When with Seagram's, Foote worked with many Bourbon legends, such as distillers Charlie Beam and Oba Heaney; and future legends, such as Al Young, Four Roses brand ambassador who wrote Four Roses: The Return of a Whiskey Legend. After Foote took the Old Fitz distiller job in 1982, he invited his old pal Charlie Beam to lunch, "because the distillery had the best cafeteria in South Louisville," Foote says. "At some point, Beam looks up from his cornbread and sees a picture of Will McGill, the former distiller at Stitzel Weller and says 'that's my uncle,' Charlie said. 'He was my mom's brother.' These whiskey families are all related somehow." More than just the good food, Foote was sitting upon a whiskey throne. "When I left Seagram's for Old Fitz, it was like going to Heaven," he says.

Foote worked with Bourbon-Hall-of-Famer Mike Veach, author of Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American Heritage; Chris Morris, the current master distiller for Woodford Reserve; and Kevin Smith, the former Maker's Mark master distiller who is now the vice president of operations for Jim Beam. One of his best friends was Butterball Darrel Anderson, an engineer on the distillery crew. "Butterball came in every morning and got the boiler going," he says.

It's this famed distillery in Shively, Ky., just near Louisville that Foote would solidify his legacy. Whiskey drinkers didn't have the Internet back then and couldn't rave about his incredible wheated Bourbons, but one day they would. "Ed was a true artist," says Eric Gregory, president of the Kentucky Distillers Association. "The product that came out of the distillery when he was there would rival any of today's super premium Bourbon. When we're in Jack Rose in Washington D. C., somebody always asks if there's Old Fitz to taste from Ed's time." Unfortunately, Foote's whiskey was made three to four decades before Bourbon commanded recognition. But, he's not sour. If anything, he's tickled his long-time friends Jimmy Russell, recently deceased Elmer T. Lee, Parker Beam and Jim Rutledge receive credit for their contributions to Bourbon's great growth. "It's pretty amazing how well Bourbon is doing," Foote says.

Our casual interview comes to a close, and he takes me back to his office to show a George Dickel advertisement. The man in the photo is Ed Foote not the Tennessee whiskey distiller. He gives a wry smile, as if he meant to become the poster boy for a whiskey he never made. As for his Bourbons, you'll find them selling for thousands of dollars in auctions. Foote didn't do much on the marketing front. He let his whiskey speak for itself. And much like the whiskey maker himself, Foote's Bourbons still have something to say.
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