John E. Fitzgerald.
The man. The myth. The legend.
When it comes to the stories behind bourbon brands, some are grounded in fact, while others are pure fantasy. John E. Fitzgerald a rare character who has enjoyed a tall tale past and a factual historical background as the basis for two separate brands.
Today, Larceny is known as a smooth and tasty bourbon that can be equally enjoyed by the whiskey newcomer, the average bourbon drinker and the bourbon aficionado. And its reasonable price point means it graces the shelves of many a well-respected bourbon collection.
In this post, we’ll play the role of bourbon historian as well as give insight into the market to help you understand why this stellar wheater has become so popular in the bourbon community.
Sometimes, it’s hard to separate fact from fiction — and in the case of John E. Fitzgerald, at least part of that is intentional. Over the centuries, the truth behind the ‘Old Fitz’ brand was purposefully blurred.
Let’s start with Solomon Charles Herbst, a wine and spirits merchant and marketing wonk based in Milwaukee. When he launched the Old Fitzgerald brand in the 1870s, he cast a tall tale about a distiller named John E. Fitzgerald who build a distillery with his bare hands. The bourbon was only sold to high-end rail lines, private clubs and steamships, and an air of exclusivity — and mysticism — followed the Old Fitzgerald name.
The backstory followed the brand through the years. During Prohibition, Old Fitzgerald was one of the brands licensed to sell medicinal alcohol by prescription. After repeal, it was purchased by Julian P. ‘Pappy’ Van Winkle, and production was moved to the Stitzel-Weller Distillery — where Van Winkle added the ‘whisper of wheat’ to the mashbill.
But the real John Fitzgerald was a bonded U.S. Treasury agent — known then as a government man. You see, back then, bonded warehouses at each distillery were required to have a two-key locking mechanism to secure the rickhouses. One key was kept by a bonding agent, the other by distillery management. That way, employees were prevented from entering the warehouses and adulterating, tampering with or stealing any of the liquid inside the barrels.
But who watches the watchmen?
Fitzgerald acquired a second key from distillery staff to gain access to the warehouse at night. Then, using a whiskey thief, he allegedly stole samples of the maturing whiskey from barrels — taking pours of the best tasting barrels home with him. When the distillery production staff later dumped the lighter barrels, they called them ‘Fitzgerald’ barrels, noting their exquisite taste.
Today, Old Fitzgerald is produced by Heaven Hill Brands. When Heaven Hill wanted to offer a premium brand extension to the value-segment Old Fitzgerald offering, they tapped into this factual history. So, in 2012, Larceny Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey was launched as an homage to John E. Fitzgerald — complete with key iconography on the label as a nod to his days as a bonding agent.
U.S. regulations dictate bourbon must contain 51 percent corn in the mash bill — or list of grain ingredients used during fermentation. Larceny is a wheated bourbon, which means along with malted barley, wheat rounds out the secondary grains and takes the place of spicy rye in the grain recipe. The use of wheat offers a smoother, more rounded character.
The mash bill for Larceny is the same used for Old Fitzgerald: 68 percent corn, 20 percent wheat and 12 percent malted barley.
Wheated bourbon whiskey is all the rage these days. On the brand website, Larceny plays to that trend. The brand claims to have “5% more wheat than other Wheated Bourbons,” but they do not clarify which wheated bourbons. For comparison, Maker’s Mark has 16 percent wheat, Van Winkle and Weller contain 17 percent wheat, Rebel Yell contains 20 percent wheat and Redemption Wheated has a whopping 45 percent wheat in their respective grain bills.
Distillation & Production
Larceny is distilled at the Heaven Hill Bernheim Distillery in Louisville — the largest whiskey-making distillery in Kentucky and second only to Jack Daniel’s Distillery in Tennessee in terms of production capacity in the nation. Heaven Hill’s distillery is outfitted with modern industrial whiskey-making equipment, including three massive 60-inch stills.
By law, bourbon must be matured in new American oak barrels. Larceny has no age statement, but as a straight bourbon, it is aged for at least two years and almost certainly over four. Although the brand has claimed in marketing materials that the barrels are aged for between six and 12 years, that is not as strong as a federally regulated age statement on the label.
Larceny is considered a small batch bourbon. Although that term is not regulated by the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, Heaven Hill has stated that they use less than 200 barrels for each batch of Larceny — a considerably low number compared to other brands with similar sales volume.
Following updated regulations in the 1980s, employees no longer require a ‘government man’ to gain access to the barrel warehouses. But industry lore has it that Fitzgerald’s favorite barrels were most often on the fifth floor of the old seven-story Stitzer-Weller rickhouse. So it would be nice if a good portion of the Larceny barrels came from a similar sweet spot in the current rackhouses in Louisville.
Larceny Bourbon is part of the Heaven Hill family of brands. Heaven Hill’s headquarters is in Bardstown, Kentucky.
Heaven Hill’s portfolio lineup also includes Evan Williams, Elijah Craig, Old Fitzgerald, Bernheim Wheat Whiskey, Rittenhouse Rye, Heaven Hill Bottled-in-Bond and Henry McKenna. Evan Williams is the No. 2 selling bourbon in sales volume.
Price & Value
You can find a bottle of John E. Fitzgerald Larceny Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey for a suggested retail price of about $27 for a 750mL at 92-proof, or 46.1 percent alcohol by volume. This places the product at the high end of the standard category price range.
Although Larceny is considered a higher-end product than the flagship Old Fitzgerald, it still offers a great flavor profile at a decent price. As a result, bourbon geeks and on-premise bar managers alike have a fondness for this high-volume brand.