History of Rebel Yell in America

Rebel Yell is one of those old throwbacks. A “wheated” Kentucky bourbon. And yes, it was manufactured at Stitzel-Weller Distillery in Louisville beside whiskeys that were bottled by the Van Winkles. The brand has changed hands and recipes, but it is a part of American bourbon history.

The brand was established after Prohibition in the 1940’s. The bottle may claim 1849, but that was when W.L. Weller & Sons company was founded. Charles R. Farnsley (a former mayor of Louisville) created the brand for the Stitzel-Weller company, with an aim to distill it in limited batches for exclusive distribution in the south. Lucky for him, his uncle was co-owner of the company, Alex Farnsley. It seems he originally created the whiskey for himself and to give as gifts, but the label went public in the 60’s to commemorate the Civil War’s centennial. At this point, Rebel Yell was a 5-year-old, 90 proof bourbon.

Rebel Yell remained a Stitzel Weller product from the 60’s into the early 90’s. In the 70’s and 80’s, it was a 6-year age stated bourbon and was a very desirable whiskey, albeit limited in distribution. Supposedly, Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones was a big Rebel Yell drinker, and Billy Idol saw Richards and his bandmates drinking it backstage at a concert. Billy Idol wasn’t familiar with the brand, but he thought it had a great name and wrote “Rebel Yell” into his song. A year after Billy Idol’s “Rebel Yell” song was released (1984), United Distillers dropped the whiskey’s proof to 80 and widened it distribution. Rebel Yell was now available nationwide.

When United Distillers (Diageo) moved production to Bernheim from Stitzel-Weller in 1992 (effectively shutting down production at S-W), Rebel Yell began production there along with all the other wheated bourbons. Just 7 years later, United Distillers sold its Bernheim distillery (to Heaven Hill) and the labels produced there. Rebel Yell’s brand and assets were sold to the David Sherman Corporation in St. Louis (now Luxco).

Luxco recently updated the Rebel Yell labels and is giving attention to the brand again. There is no Rebel Yell Distillery as the label might suggest. It is produced for Luxco by Heaven Hill Distillery in Bardstown. The new attention to the brand is a welcome one, especially in the Rebel Yell Small Batch Reserve. Here, Luxco has raised the ABV to 45.3%, but kept the age at no more than 4 years. The Rebel Yell bourbon may have a pretty new label, but it’s still the young, uninteresting bourbon it has been for years. The Small Batch Rye is interesting (90 proof), but so are all the ryes sourced from Indiana (MGP). At least they’re being honest about it’s source!

Wouldn’t it be nice to see that 6 year old version of Rebel Yell again? Those old bottles from Stitzel-Weller were full of dark and complex spirit. Wheated bourbons seem to need a bit longer to mellow out in the barrel. It’s a wonder to me that advertisers seem to have a love for concocted brand histories when selling products, but don’t focus more on brands with ACTUAL history…

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