American Whiskey: A Character Guide

While it's always been common with American whiskey to name a product after the person who created it, historical labels have never been more fashionable. If there isn't an actual vintage brand name available to resurrect, whiskey companies will create a legend of their own. Stories abound as to why these men were so important and why they're now being glorified upon a bottle a whiskey, but do we really know who these people were? Right now there's a cast of characters on our liquor shelves more complex and widespread than an episode of Game of Thrones. I've been writing up some informational sheets to help educate the K&L staff about our selection, so I figured why not share that info here as well? Let's get to know some of these folks, shall we?

E.H. Taylor Jr. (Buffalo Trace label) - You've probably heard of Old Crow whiskey. It's now a label owned by Jim Beam, but back in the 1830s it was made the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery in Woodford County. The whiskey was named for Dr. James Crow, a Scotsman trained in chemistry who emigrated to Kentucky and used his scientific knowledge to improve the quality of his distillates. When Crow died in 1856 he left no heir to his brand, which was subsequently sold to man named W.A. Gaines. Gaines would form a firm that employed a young E.H. Taylor Jr., who was immediately sent to Europe on a research mission. Taylor's job was to visit every distillery he could and bring back information about modern distillation. Upon his return a new distillery was built for Old Crow using the knowledge Taylor brought home with him. He eventually purchased his own distillery in 1869, where he used pot still distillation like he had seen abroad. His attention to detail and his modern marketing methods were far ahead of their time. Taylor's branding of Old Crow brought the whiskey national attention.

George T. Stagg (Buffalo Trace label) - While the Buffalo Trace website will tell you that George T. Stagg "teamed up" with E.H. Taylor, Michael Veach's book paints a bit of a different picture. Due to difficult financial times and "an overproduction of whiskey," Taylor lost control of the OFC distillery to the firm of Gregory and Stagg from St. Louis. Taylor would go on to build another distillery and market his own Old Taylor brand, but the OFC distillery would be modernized and upgraded by Stagg, later rechristened to bear his name in 1904.

Elmer T. Lee (Buffalo Trace label) - Elmer T. Lee was the master distiller at Age International, which would eventually become part of Sazerac. Lee was pretty much the first person to market single barrel whiskey, taking a page from Colonel Albert Blanton (Buffalo Trace) (let's kill two birds with one stone here), the former manager for George T. Stagg distillery where Lee got his first job, would bottle high-quality barrels on their own and use them as gifts for important visitors. Lee introduced Blanton Single Barrel Whiskey in 1984. Buffalo Trace would eventually name their own single barrel whiskey after Lee who still continues to advise the distillery and help with cask selection when needed.

William Larue Weller (Buffalo Trace label) - Born in 1825, W. L. Weller was one of the early figures in the Kentucky whiskey business, yet records show that his grandfather Daniel Weller had a license for a still as early as the year 1800. Weller is credited by some as the first distiller to used wheat instead of rye as the flavor grain in the mash, debuting his wheated Bourbon in 1849, but it's more likely that one of the Stitzel family did it first.. When Prohibition hit the U.S. in 1920, only six companies were allowed to keep distilling for medicinal purposes, one of those being the A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery, upon whose license the company W. L. Weller & Sons functioned.

Pappy Van Winkle (Van Winkle/Buffalo Trace label) - After Prohibition, the companies of A. Ph. Stitzel and W. L. Weller & Sons merged in order to stay afloat during the difficult period. According to Michael Veach, they needed a product that tasted good in the short term to keep fresh product on the market, so they used a wheated formula that became quite popular despite its youth. Julian "Pappy" Van Winkle ran the Stitzel-Weller company along with a man named Alex T. Farnsley. After Farnsley died in 1941, Van Winkle was in sole control and his marketing ideas included cask-strength and extra-matured releases that have become the norm today. Cabin Still, Old Fitzgerald, and Weller Reserve were some of the brands Van Winkle championed under the Stitzel-Weller banner before a decline in sales forced the Van Winkles to sell the company in 1972.

Jim Beam (Jim Beam label) - Jacob Beam was one of the first settlers in the Kentucky region known to have made whiskey. He would go on to spawn many a whisky maker within his progeny. James Beauregard "Jim" Beam, his great-grandson born in 1864, would go on to be the most famous of them. According to Chuck Cowdery, "Jim and his younger brother, Park, took over the family business in 1892, along with their sister's husband, Ablert J. Hart. They operated this distillery until Prohibition closed it. As Prohibition approached, Jim also bought a controlling interest in the F. G. Walker plant where his cousin Joe was master distiller and part-owner." When Prohibition ended, the seventy-year-old Jim, along with his sons, built a new distillery with investors at Clermont, where they resurrected the Old Tub brand, but added a new label simply called "Jim Beam."

Basil Hayden Sr. (Jim Beam label) - A devout Catholic and proponent of the church, Hayden helped lead a group of families from Maryland to Nelson County, Kentucky back in 1796 and became an early settler in the territory. When he wasn't farming or working on behalf of the church, Hayden was distilling and became known for his high-rye mashbill according to Beam, but many dispute this claim. He would pass that knowledge on to his son, who in turn passed it on to his son. His grandson Raymond Hayden would eventually build his own distillery in 1882 and call his brand Old Grand-Dad in honor of Basil. Today Beam Global owns the Old Grand-Dad label. The Basil Hayden label was created in 1988 as part of a small-batch collection.

F. Noe Booker II/Booker's (Jim Beam label) - Booker Noe was the master distiller at Jim Beam for more than 40 years before his death in 2004. His namesake Bourbon was part of Jim Beam's small batch collection and, like the story of Colonel Blanton, represented Noe's penchant for bottling high-proof, unfiltered for his own use and for gifts. He was the grandson of Jim Beam.

Elijah Craig (Heaven Hill label) - Craig was a Virginian Baptist preacher and historical frontiersman that is often credited with the invention of Bourbon whiskey. Chuck Cowdery has a great in-depth look at Craig's background in his book Bourbon, Straight. While Craig was definitely one the region's earliest distillers, his distillery was never located in Bourbon County, therefore discrediting the idea that Bourbon was named after Craig's distillery locale. Records show that Craig was more known for establishing the first fulling mill, paper mill, and rope walk in Kentucky, but no mention is ever made of the first distillery.

Evan Williams (Heaven Hill label) - While Evan Williams is known as "Kentucky's first distiller," Michael Veach's research shows that this claim does not hold up. Reuben Durrett first made this assertion in 1892, claiming that William's had distilled corn whiskey as early as 1783; however, records show that Williams did not emigrate from Londron until May of 1784.

William Forrester/Old Forester (Brown-Forman label) - The firm of Brown-Forman was originally founded by two brothers, George Brown and J. T. S. Brown Jr., back in 1870 with the release of its Old Forester Bourbon. Whiskey was still considered medicinal at the time, but according to Veach: "physicians resisted prescribing it beacuse it was mostly sold by the barrel and quality could vary greatly from barrel to barrel." The Browns decided to sell their whiskey by the bottle as a result, making Old Forester the first Bourbon to be available exclusively in this format. The whiskey was appropriately named after the Louisville physician William Forrester, but the second r was dropped from the name when Forrester retired. Veach writes, "the label was designed to look like a physician's prescription and inludes a handwritten claim to quality: 'Nothing Better in the Market.'"

James E. Pepper (independent label) - According to Michael Veach, James E. Pepper was a distiller who "attempted to thwart counterfeiters by affixing strip stamps carrying his signature across the corks in his bottles of whiskey. His advertisements warned consumers to buy only bottles with intact stamps. Otherwise, they may not be buying 'Genuine Pepper' whiskey. The concept of the strip stamp over the cork would later be taken up by the government in the form of tax stamps."

Jimmy Russell/Russell's Reserve (Wild Turkey label) - James C. Russell has been the master distillert at Wild Turkey distillery for more than 50 years. He grew up near the distillery and followed his father and grandfather into the industry.

I'm leaving out Jack Daniel and George Dickel because I don't really care about those guys. Now that we know who everyone is maybe it's time to start filming our historic television show based upon all of these characters.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll