The first time I came across Stone Castle bourbon, I thought it was a refilled Michter’s bottle with a home-printed label. I’d probably still think that if it hadn’t resurfaced a few years later at a world-renowned auction house with a hefty price tag. There was clearly something different about this bottle.
To understand Stone Castle bourbon we need to go back to 1887 and the opening of the Old Taylor Distillery in Millsville, Kentucky. The details of the distillery are well documented so I won’t cover them here except to say that the centerpiece of the 113-acre property was a stunning stone castle constructed from beautiful hand-cut limestone blocks.
The distillery thrived until 1917, when Prohibition shut it down. It re-opened for business in 1935 under National Distillers’ ownership and continued to expand until the bourbon bust forced it to stop operations again in 1972. Some of the rickhouses continued to store and age whiskey, but little else happened on the property.
By the time Jim Beam bought National Distillers in 1987, the Old Taylor Distillery was essentially abandoned. When Jim Beam finally decided the property was no longer needed and put it up for sale in 1994, it was starting to show signs of neglect.
It was about that time that a former National Distillers maintenance worker by the name of Fulton “Cecil” Withrow enters the story. As he watched many iconic distilleries close their doors and follow Old Taylor’s path into oblivion, he decided to intervene. He set his sights on saving the Old Taylor distillery (which he referred to as “Stonecastle”) and vowed to turn it back into a working distillery and spring water plant.
And that is where our story really begins.
By most accounts, Cecil wasn’t in any particular hurry to finish the renovation project. But he loved bourbon history, had a great whiskey palate, and could repair just about anything you’d find in a distillery. Armed with those skills and a dream, he secured $100,000 of the $400,000 needed to buy the property. To fund the remaining amount, Cecil brought on Robert Sims, a local developer, as a partner. Together, they formed a company called “Stone Castle Properties” and purchased the Old Taylor property with the hope of returning the site to some of its former glory.
Around that same time, Cecil purchased some barrels of young whiskey from Buffalo Trace (likely low rye mash bill #1) and started aging them in his Old Taylor warehouse with the intention of bottling them as single barrels one day. Over the following years, he would share samples from these barrels with guests and before long rumors started circulating about Cecil’s honey barrels.
Unfortunately, Cecil’s newly purchased distillery wasn’t aging as well as his bourbon.
As the story goes, Cecil’s dream quickly outgrew his resources and progress slowed. To bring in money, Cecil rented out some of his warehouses to Wild Turkey and Jim Beam to store and age their excess bourbon. He then used that money to fund renovations. In 1997 he converted the old bottling hall into a small arts, crafts & antiques mall and opened it to the public to bring in some more revenue. But despite these efforts, the site wasn’t making much money and proved to be too big for one family to effectively manage. Consequently, the distillery’s decline accelerated and the renovation plans, including the spring water plant, were eventually abandoned.
With the chances of reopening the distillery slipping away, Cecil refocused on his other dream of releasing his own branded premium bourbon. His original plan was to let his sourced barrels age 10 years before bottling, but he decided to bottle them a few years ahead of schedule when the renovation plans fell through.
With the help of his son, he picked up a few thousand empty bottles, had some basic yellow labels printed up, and began filling the bottles by hand and labeling them as single barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. His son hand-wrote each label with the lot number, proof, and bottler’s initials (“MW” for “Michael Withrow”, Cecil’s son). The finished bottles were for export only and were sold in Japan, although some did make their way back to retailers in the United States. In the end, there were at least 10 lots produced, totaling about 1,500 bottles. Each was bottled at cask strength and sold at a premium price point. Unfortunately, because Cecil had so few barrels to start with, not every single barrel he bottled was a winner. Some of them were really amazing and others were just okay. The honey barrels that bourbon enthusiasts look for are the ones bottled at 106 proof.
Although the bottle looks like modern Michter’s limited release bourbons and ryes, Stone Castle bourbon was actually the first to use the bottle design and pre-dates Julian Van Winkle’s use of the same bottles for his first Michter’s release bottling. There was likely some relationship between Julian Van Winkle, Chatham Imports/Michter’s, and Cecil Withrow over the bottle design, but I haven’t found proof of that beyond some forum postings that hinted at Stone Castle providing the barrels and bottles used for the early Michter’s limited release bottlings.
Sadly, just after Cecil completed this first bottling run, tragedy stuck. On November 26, 2000, Cecil Withrow had a massive heart attack and passed away. He was 53 at the time and left behind a wife, son, sister, and grand-daughter. The single barrel Stone Castle died with him and was never bottled again.
A year after Cecil’s death, his son Michael Withrow did one final tribute bottling to his father under the Stone Castle name. It was a ten year old small batch bourbon made by marrying a set of barrels distilled on 11/26/1991 and then bottled exactly ten years later on 11/26/2001. The distilling and bottling date of November 26 had significance to the family, as that was the month and day that Cecil passed away the prior year.
The provenance of the tribute barrels isn’t fully confirmed, but it is widely believed to be sourced from Wild Turkey, which makes sense since Stonecastle / Old Taylor had a warehousing relationship with Wild Turkey at the time of Cecil’s death. The tribute bottling was a small batch because Michael Withrow needed to find barrels that were distilled on the exact date of 11/26/91 and that significantly limited the number of good barrels he was able to find and purchase. In the end he found a few that were excellent when combined but likely wouldn’t have been as good if bottled as single barrels.
The Tribute bottle can be recognized by its slightly different label that reads “Stone Castle Special Reserve – Old No. 53” and has an illustrated photo of Cecil overlaying an image of the Old Taylor castle. The No. 53 on the bottle represents the government’s Distilled Spirits Plant number for the Old Taylor Distillery (DSP-53) and was also Cecil’s age when he passed, so it has significance to the family and the history. There was also a small hangtag booklet tied to the neck of the original tribute bottles with some details about the bourbon and Cecil.
The actual number of tribute bottles released isn’t confirmed, but is rumored to have been about 500.
Single Barrel Bottles
- Barrel 1, 113 proof, ~7yrs, ~250 bottles
- Barrel 2, 111 proof, ~7yrs, ~250 bottles
- Barrel 3, 106 proof, ~7yrs, ~150 bottles
- Barrel 4, 108 proof, ~7yrs, ~150 bottles
- Barrel 5, 107 proof, ~7yrs, ~168 bottles
- Barrel 6, 106 proof, ~7yrs, ~168 bottles
- Barrel 7 (still hunting!)
- Barrel 8 (still hunting!)
- Barrel 9, 106 proof, ~7yrs, ~168 bottles
- Barrel 10, 106 proof, ~7yrs, ~150 bottles
Small Batch Tribute Bottle
- Lot 1, 108 proof, 10 yrs, distilled 11/26/91, bottled 11/26/01
- 1887 – Old Taylor Distillery built in Millville, KY
- 1917 – Old Taylor Distillery shuts down due to Prohibition
- 1935 – National Distillers buys Old Taylor Distillery & restarts production
- 1960’s – Old Taylor Distillery producing up to 1,000 barrels of whiskey a day
- 1972 – Bourbon bust arrives & Old Taylor Distillery stops distilling
- 1986- Old Taylor Distillery is sold to Jim Beam
- 1994 – Old Taylor Distillery sold to Cecil Withrow & Robert Sims for $400,000
- 1998 – Cecil turns Old Taylor Distillery bottling hall into flea-market space
- Oct/Nov, 2000 – Cecil Withrow bottles “Stone Castle” single barrel with son Michael
- Nov 26, 2000 – Cecil Withrow passes away at age 53
- Nov 26, 2001 – Michael Withrow bottles “Stone Castle Special Reserve Old No. 53”
- 2005 – Old Taylor Distillery sold to Scott Brady for salvage wood
- 2014 – Old Taylor Distillery sold to Peristyle LLC; renovated into Castle & Key
- http://tanida.cognacfan.com/my_home_bar/Whisky_bourbon.html (Google translate)