Becoming the Colonel:
E. H. Taylor and the Making of a Bourbon Aristocrat
This series, Becoming the Colonel: E. H. Taylor, Jr. and the Making of a Bourbon Aristocrat, will cover the life, career, and legacy of Edmund Haynes Taylor, Jr. in four installments. Along the way, we will explore the family history and social connections that “made” Taylor and helped him rise to the top of the distilling world. We’ll also assess how broader patterns within American capitalism and collisions with other titans of whiskey lore (such as the Pepper family and George T. Stagg) factored into the rise, fall, and rebuilding of Taylor’s business empire; and, we will ultimately take stock of how Taylor’s legacy continues to influence the contemporary bourbon industry – not just in Kentucky, but across the globe.
Part I: The Double Meaning of “Bourbon Aristocrat” in Gilded Age Kentucky
On July 27, 1863, Governor James F. Robinson of Kentucky released an official statement concerning the death of John J. Crittenden. The governor didn’t typically recognize the passing of constituents, especially in time of war (when many more were passing than the governor had time to commemorate), but Crittenden was no ordinary citizen; he’d twice served as Attorney General of the United States and had represented Kentucky in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Better still, Crittenden was Kentucky’s seventeenth governor, in office from September 1848 to July 1850. Of the deceased’s robust political career, Robinson had this to say:
When a great man dies, a nation mourns. Such an event has occurred in our midst, in the death of the Hon. John J. Crittenden, Kentucky’s longest tried statesman in her public service, a man faithful to every trust, one who has added, by his talents and character, to the fame of the nation, and has pre-eminently advanced the glory and honor of his native Kentucky.
Not surprisingly, the mourning festivities swelled to match Crittenden’s larger-than-life resume. A public service at the Presbyterian Church on Second Street in Frankfort would be followed by an immense procession of military escorts, political officials, business magnates, family members, close personal friends, and throngs of curious onlookers. As the governor had already hinted, it wasn’t every day that such a famous man died. So, one way or another, everyone wanted to witness, if not play a role in, Crittenden’s grand sendoff.
Given the scope of the ceremonies—which no less than three high-ranking army officers were appointed to organize and oversee—serving as one of Crittenden’s pallbearers constituted an extraordinary honor. These men would march near the front of the procession with the collective gaze of thousands glued to their every step. Only ten were selected for duty.
It was in this capacity that E. H. Taylor, a wealthy Lexington banker and land trader, and Jacob Swigert, a lawyer, county judge, and clerk of the Court of Appeals, together found themselves on the morning of July 29. The two men weren’t strangers; far from it, in fact. The Taylor and Swigert families had become closely intertwined over the years through ventures in business and at the altar. (Years earlier in 1825, the duo had even helped host a reception held in the Kentucky state capitol for the Marquis de Lafayette.) But as they shuffled alongside Crittenden’s hearse, neither likely could have imagined the critical, combined role their bloodline would play in the development of America’s national spirit—the distilled variety, that is—and the rise to power of its most influential, controversial, innovative, litigious, and ruthless “bourbon aristocrat.”
Almost anyone who knows even a little bit about bourbon has seen or heard the name E. H. Taylor, Jr.—and no doubt many have sampled the label’s Small Batch and Single Barrel offerings. (A much luckier few have laid hands on the scarcer E. H. Taylor Jr. Double Oaked or the ultra-rare Warehouse C Tornado Surviving.) The figure for who these spirits are eponymously named, Colonel Edmund Haynes Taylor, was born in 1830 in Hickman County, Kentucky. His father, John Eastin Taylor, died in 1835 and, after living for a time with his “great-uncle” Zachary Taylor (yes, that Zachary Taylor — but he was actually a second cousin, twice removed), Edmund was eventually “adopted” by his own namesake and uncle, the aforementioned E. H. Taylor of Crittenden’s funeral procession. E. H., Jr. received an education at the Sayre School in Lexington and followed E. H., Sr. into the banking industry. (Though not technically father and son, the younger Edmund took to calling himself “Jr.” to avoid confusion with his uncle as their business dealings comingled in the late-1850s; however, his name wouldn’t appear that way on a Federal Census until 1910.) The late-1850s weren’t a particularly easy time for financiers and E. H. Jr.’s first two private firms, Taylor, Turner, & Co. and Taylor, Shelby, & Co. both struggled to stay afloat.
Born in 1833 in Franklin County, Kentucky, Daniel Swigert was the son of Jacob and Emaline Swigert (nee Miller). Though less has been written about Daniel’s early years, we do know that he didn’t inherit his father’s knack for the law; or, if he did, he chose not to make a profession of it. Instead, he turned to distilling. Luckily for Daniel, the family already had significant holdings in the industry. In 1838, Jacob Swigert and his brother, Philip, had purchased a parcel of riverine property known as the “Buffalo Trace” for $600—it came with a pre-existing operation, the Leestown Distillery, once managed decades earlier by the likes of Harrison Blanton. In the late-1850s, while E. H. Taylor, Jr. was taking his lumps in the financial sector, Daniel threw himself into work at Leestown.
If the late-1850s constituted a hard time for E. H. Taylor, Jr.’s business enterprises, the Civil War gave them an unexpected boost and helped make him the Colonel–though not in the way you might expect. (Spoiler: his “colonelcy” was entirely honorific and bestowed after the war.) Taylor managed to avoid military service (not a surprise given the influence of his uncle and friends); instead, despite his pro-slavery leanings, he profited by loaning money to the state (Union) government and served as a special cotton envoy in Tennessee, where he inevitably had a chance to conduct his own business on the side. In other words, Taylor didn’t just survive the war, he came out of it financially stronger and ready to break into the bourbon business.
E. H. Taylor, Jr. got his start with the distilling firms of Gaines, Berry, & Co. and W. A. Gaines & Co. In 1866, Taylor made a grand observation of European distilleries; in 1868, while employed by the latter, Taylor oversaw construction of two Frankfort distilleries, Old Crow and the Hermitage (now lost to urban sprawl in Frankfort), before finally purchasing the Lee’s Town Distillery from the Swigert family around 1870. He later renamed it O. F. C or “Old Fire Copper” and constructed the Carlisle Distillery on adjoining property. (Daniel Swigert quit the distilling business, founded the famed Elmendorf Stock Farm, and died very rich.) Taylor gradually consolidated control over distilling in the area, even acquiring the Oscar Pepper Distillery—today the home of Woodford Reserve.
Economic troubles stemming from the Panic of 1873 put Taylor’s over-leveraged distilling empire in harm’s way; it changed the trajectory of both his career and Kentucky’s bourbon industry as a whole—but we’ll take a much closer look at this period of Taylor’s business timeline in Part II, Casualty of Credit: The Fall and Rebirth of the Colonel. For now, we simply need to know that the bust allowed George T. Stagg, then of St. Louis, Missouri, to buy the distillery in 1878-9. Stagg kept E. H. Taylor, Jr. on to oversee operations. As it turned out, though, Taylor and Stagg didn’t get along so well (read: at all). In 1886, the former left O. F. C. entirely (it was later renamed the George T. Stagg Distillery in 1904) and partnered with his sons Jacob Swigert Taylor (named for Jacob Swigert) and Kenner Taylor to form E. H. Taylor, Jr. & Sons. E. H. Taylor, Jr. managed the firm—known nationally for its Old Taylor label—until his death in 1923 at the age of 93. (Secondary literature is conflicted on Taylor’s date of birth. In The Social History of Bourbon, Gerald Carson suggests that Taylor lived to be 90; and, in Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey, Michael R. Veach mistakenly offers 83 as Taylor’s age at death but means 93. Government records are also frequently in conflict, but Taylor himself listed February 12, 1830 as his birthday in a 1919 S.A.R. application. It’s possible even he didn’t know, but the majority of available evidence suggests 1830.)
According to biographical literature from Buffalo Trace Distillery (the current owner and producer of the E. H. Taylor and Old Taylor labels), Colonel Edmund Haynes Taylor, Jr.’s upgrading of the O. F. C. Distillery and his innovative work at Taylor & Sons “sealed his own prestigious legacy as the ‘Father of the Modern Bourbon Industry’.” Moreover, owing to his penchant for blending old techniques with new technologies, Taylor helped usher distillation into the twentieth century and ought to be “remembered as the last of a breed, a true bourbon aristocrat who was responsible for linking the classic and modern eras of bourbon making.” Those doubting whether or not Taylor represented a marriage of Gilded Age panache and modern business sense—apparently the fundamental elements of bourbon aristocracy—may look no further than the ruins of the Old Taylor facility, where state of the art equipment once cooked mash and distilled spirits amid ornate fountains, extravagant gardens, Roman columns, and a full-on turret.
So what are we to make of Taylor’s legacy? On its surface, this plot has all the makings of a classic American rags-to-riches story: a young boy loses his father, is adopted by his wealthy uncle, and gradually ascends to fame and fortune. Historically speaking, though, things weren’t nearly that simple.
In reality, the classification of “bourbon aristocrat” had a dual-meaning in the second half of the nineteenth century. In addition to tracing his ancestry back to ex-President Zachary Taylor, E. H. Taylor, Jr.’s wife, Francis (or “Fannie”), was a scion of the influential Johnson family of Henderson County. Fannie was also a relation through marriage of the Swigerts—Jacob Swigert was her step-father, which made Daniel Swigert the (step) brother-in-law of E. H. Taylor, Jr. Col. Taylor’s eldest son, J. Swigert Taylor, married the granddaughter of John J. Crittenden while Kenner, the Colonel’s second oldest son, married back into the Johnson family. These linkages, among many others, situated the Taylor family at the nexus of a kinship matrix that included several of Kentucky’s oldest, most prevailing surnames: Crittenden, Ware, Hay, Johnson, Saffell, Speed, Rankin, and Swigert. Together these relations banked, speculated in land, bred, raced, and traded in horseflesh, leased railroads, and distilled bourbon together.
So on one hand, yes, it’s fair to say Colonel E. H. Taylor, Jr., should be considered a bourbon aristocrat for his seminal role in the growth of Kentucky’s bourbon industry at a time when old and new practices collided. As an entrepreneur, an innovator, and as a savvy businessman, E. H., Jr. was among the best of the best. On the other hand, though, a much more literal meaning can (and should) be applied to the title when we consider that the cultivation of fine bourbon didn’t simply transform men into aristocrats—equally important to achieving Taylor’s astounding level of power was hailing from an aristocratic lineage. This pedigree equipped him with an elite education, social connections, political influence, access to capital, and personal confidence; it helped keep him safe during the Civil War and strengthened his business position at a time when most men were simply thankful to be alive; and, it ultimately helped enable the Colonel to reign over Kentucky’s bourbon kingdom from his castle (pictured above) in Millville.
SOURCES: United States Federal Census 1830, 1840, 1850, 1860, 1880, 1900; U. S. Civil War Draft Registration Records, 1863-1865; Maryland Births and Christenings Index, 1692-1911; Directory of Kentucky Marriages, 1802-1850; Kentucky Death Records, 1852-1963; U. S., Sons of the American Revolution Membership Applications, 1889-1970 (for E. H. Taylor, Jr.); Kentucky: Special Limited Edition (Chicago: The American Historical Society, 1922), 133-135; Mrs. George Baker, “Old Farm and Church Burying Grounds of Franklin County, Kentucky,” Register of the Kentucky Historical Society (Sept. 1918); William E. Railey, History of Woodford County (Frankfort, KY: 1938), 348-351; “Death of Mrs. E. H. Taylor, Jr.,” 15 October 1898, Frankfort Roundabout; Z. F. Smith, The History of Kentucky (Louisville: Courier-Journal Job Printing Company, 1892), 912; Mrs. Chapman Coleman, ed., The Life of John J. Crittenden (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1873), 373-375; William E. Connelley & E. Merton Coulter, eds., History of Kentucky Volume V (Chicago: The American Historical Society, 1922), 592-594; Mrs. Jennie C. Morton, “History of the Frankfort Cemetery,” Register of the Kentucky Historical Society (January 1909), 26-27; “Invitation to Ball in Honor of Gen. LaFayette,” 1825, Kentucky Historical Society, Frankfort, Kentucky; “A Sketch of Col. E. H. Taylor, Jr.,” The Wine and Spirit Bulletin Volume XXX, #11 (Nov 1 1916), 796; Veach, Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey, 52; Carson, The Social History of Bourbon, 88.
Special thanks to the Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition for providing Governor James F. Robinson’s comments on the funeral procession of John J. Crittenden (KYR-0003-027-0001). CWG-K is an innovative digital humanities project headquartered at the Kentucky Historical Society in Frankfort; it’s designed to digitize, annotate, and make keyword-searchable all documents related to Kentucky’s five Civil War governors.