Bourbon, like barbecue, is a topic made for debate and often unwilling to lend itself to consensus. But where most discussions over the use of water or rocks boil down to personal preference and remain good natured, it seems that the quality of Beam-Suntory’s Basil Hayden’s can divide camps quicker than putting a brown sugar sauce on an eastern Carolina hog. The softest of Beam-Suntory’s “ultra-premium” offerings—including Booker’s, Baker’s, and Knob Creek—Basil Hayden’s has the ability to light up message boards with polarized opinions, and while others find much to question here, I find much to like.
Basil Hayden’s, as many of our readers may already know, is oddly not the only bourbon named after Basil Hayden. The other, named by his grandson R.B. Hayden, is Old Grand-Dad. But the two share more than a namesake: they share a high-rye mash, and some of the controversy comes from consumers who eye suspiciously BH’s mellower proof and higher price. Another issue—something running rampant in the entire industry these days—is the recent elimination of an age statement. BH once proudly announced it was 8 years old; now it is simply “artfully aged.” While there are plenty of quality NAS bourbons out there, not knowing whether BH is aged any longer than OGD has lead many detractors to assume that it isn’t, and that the only discernible difference between the two is the water used to drop Hayden’s proof. (If you’re curious how “concerned” we are at B&B about these “controversies,” we were more than happy to recommend BH as a holiday gift last year.)
While I can’t comment with a distiller’s authority on that issue, I can say that the “watered down” charges won’t be rebutted by Basil Hayden’s color. It is the yellow brass of many light wheated bourbons, rather than the brisk copper that draws most drinkers. The nose is light and enjoyable (an appropriate description for the entire sample) with allspice and black tea and mint. It hits the tongue a little flat with an oakiness that I didn’t find in the nose and maybe a drop of vanilla with little sweetness or sting. Like those of you reading, I was prepared for the finish to leave gently, and was pleasantly surprised when it did not. It’s the real draw here, when that high rye mash finally brings some cool-spice and a peppermint that lingers after all the other flavors have checked out. It’s like Ali not throwing a punch for 8 rounds and then delivering a KO. You think, Man, I want to see that again.
It probably goes without saying that I like Basil Hayden’s neat, and those I’ve shared it with agree. The low proof would get drowned by melting ice or branch water—though some people will like how easily that goes down—but it also allows that spicy rye finish to shine through and provide some of the bite that is missing in an 80 proof selection. While many Jim Beam loyalists will advocate Baker’s and Booker’s over BH, I’d recommend it over Knob Creek and the Signature Craft offering anytime.
Value: Medium-High—Like opinion regarding it, Basil Hayden’s price seems to run the gamut. I’ve seen it for $54.99 and $38.99, and while the former almost excludes it from consideration, the latter can easily put it on your shelf.
Drinkability: Highest—The light body and low proof will appeal to almost everyone, and while it won’t become the nightly dram for cigar-chewing aficionados, they too will find a time and place to enjoy it.
If you’ve followed Bowtied & Bourboned for long, it’s no secret that we’re fans of WhistlePig. NDP controversies duly noted (I still don’t care, in case you’re wondering), the WP10 scored a stellar 9.1 and the Boss Hog (2014) scored a very respectable 8.8. This offering, dubbed Old World, is a 12 year rye that more than holds up against its two highly-rated siblings. But unlike WP10 and Boss Hog, which came in at 100 and 120 proof, respectively, OW12 is bottled at a tamer 86 proof—but bear in mind that proofs can be deceiving.
The nose is an inviting carousel of rye spice, dry fruit (raisins and apricots), rich cherry, and buttery caramel—undoubtedly the result of OW12’s unique cask finishing process, which equals out to 30% French Sauternes, 63% Madeira, and 7% Port. I mentioned that proofs can be deceiving. Well, so can scent profiles! I can almost guarantee that your first sip of OW12 won’t be what you expect. Be ready for a significant but pleasant burst of spice and a lingering heat on the tip of the tongue. This fleeting shot of rye will give way to traces of slightly mellower caramel and dry chocolate. Despite the obvious fruit notes emanating from the wine finish, almost none of those smells will translate into the first taste. If you’re disappointed, fear not, their absence doesn’t last long. OW12 hits the back of your tongue with a flicker of black pepper and then that whole range of light, floral wine flavors opens up with background hints of caramel, wood, and dark cherry cough drops.
The finish on OW12 is relatively short, which surprised me given the initial wallop of hot spice, but by the time its hitting the back of your throat, all of the dry fruit flavors and that hidden woodiness have had a chance to commingle and mellow things out. And what the finish lacks in duration is more than made up for by a very nice, floral aftertaste and a lip-smacking, syrupy sensation left over from OW12’s thick, velvety texture. To make a long story short, if you’re a rye fan, you really, really want this stuff; if you’re a fan of dry, aromatic bourbons and ryes (think Michter’s US*1 or 1792 Port Finish), you still really want this stuff; and, if you’re just a fan of unique flavor profiles in general, you should still probably want this stuff—or at least a taste of it.
Value: Med—Retailing at $120 to $130 (that is, when you can actually find it in stores), this is definitely priced to be a top-shelf whiskey. In my estimation, it drinks like a top-shelf offering, with a flavor profile you just aren’t going to get anywhere else—but it’s just inevitable that anything in the $100+ range is going to restrict access.
Drinkability: Very High—Incredibly soft texture and a very rewarding second half; maybe the biggest change in flavor from front to back I’ve ever tasted. This is going to be great for anyone willing to take the first 1-2 seconds of heat—but in my house, it’s only coming out for championship games, holidays, and special guests!
Overall Rating: 8.9—The only thing holding this back 2-3 tenths of a point is the price. If you can swing the cost, this is a fantastic addition to your bar.
**Thanks to the folks at WhistlePig for graciously providing a review sample**
Harry Truman was famous for enjoying a snort of whiskey, but my favorite story about imbibing in his White House is not about him but his wife, Bess. The straightforward First Lady, who according to the staff would “stand no fakers, shirkers, or flatterers,” knew her mind well and wasn’t shy about letting others know it, too. As befits our vision of the mid-century White House, she and Harry often enjoyed a cocktail in the residence sitting room before their evening meal. The first time Bess ordered an old fashioned, head butler Alonzo Fields fixed the drinks in classic style: an ounce of bourbon over orange slices, a teaspoon of sugar, and a dash of bitters. Too sweet, the First Lady pronounced, and the following night Fields tried a new recipe.
The next morning, Bess Truman found Fields’ boss and let fly with the kind of unflattering superlative usually associated with her “Give ‘Em Hell” husband. The drinks had been the worst to ever pass her lips, more like fruit punch than a quality cocktail. Alerted of her displeasure, Fields was ready that night when Bess again ordered an old fashioned. Pouring her a stiff double bourbon on ice, he stood by in case of disapproval. Taking a sip, Mrs. Truman smiled. “Now that’s the way we like our old fashioneds,” she said.
Bully Boy Distillers, owned and operated by two brothers in Boston, has its own historical tale, replete with a family farmhouse cellar stocked throughout Prohibition with illicit local spirits. Committed to following tradition but improving quality, Will and Dave Willis— who named their distillery after a favorite farm workhorse (are farm animal namesakes a rising trend in the liquor business?)—now produce rum, vodka, whiskey, and their bottled old fashioned. The latter, I’m afraid, would likely draw the ire of one Bess Truman, but drinkers who like to taste the difference between neat bourbon and a craft cocktail should give this a try.
Bottled cocktails are a tough sell, primarily because half the fun of having a cocktail is in the tradition and lore of the preparation. This could be doubly true of the old fashioned, which is, by Mr. Fields’ tried and true recipe above, one of the simplest to prepare, particularly when compared to a multi-step, multi-glass drink like the sazerac. There are no rinsed glasses, no one-part-this to three-and-a-half-parts that, no flavored syrup that needs to be prepared ahead of time. But that complexity is what mixologists—particularly the amateur ones—love about cocktails, which could also make the uncomplicated old fashioned the ideal pre-prepared potion. And, if I may, allow me to tout Bully Boy’s ingredients—whiskey, bitters, sugar—as equally uncomplicated in the face of infamous extracts and the “carrot coloring” dustup.
Bully Boy’s old fashioned is made with the distillery’s American Whiskey, an 84 proof spirit, but the cocktail is bottled at 71.4 proof, a significant drop that we can chalk up to simple syrup and flavorings. If you’re used to making old fashioneds with 100 proof rye, you will immediately miss the bite of the base spirit. The orange tones come through in the nose as they should, and are joined by the bitters on the palate and in the mild finish with hints of dried apricot. This is a really sweet and syrupy drink, and while Bully Boy suggests muddling an orange wheel and maraschino cherry in the glass, I found those flavors already prevalent and that an extra dose of bitters suited my taste more. They also recommend serving over an ice cube; I will admit that I enjoyed this without adding anything that melted, chilled but neat. The copper-red color itself is intoxicating.
While I’d like this with a bit more kick, allowing for the whiskey to shine without hiding its subtleties, I’m excited about what the brothers at Bully Boy are doing and what this portends for a quality prepackaged cocktail market. I can see keeping this on hand for when you want an old fashioned but don’t bring home an orange, and particularly serving it as an option at your next get together for guests who would rather drink and mingle than mix and muddle.
Value: High—A suggested retail of around $35 puts this craft in a lower price point than some of its big name competitors, and on par with buying a bottle of whiskey to fix old fashioneds yourself.
Drinkability: High—Sweet and straightforward, this will be attractive to many drinkers who would turn down a neat bourbon.
Overall Rating: 8.2
**Thanks to the folks at Bully Boy Distillers for providing a sample for review**
If you want to hear three different pronunciations of “Michter’s,” just ask three different Kentuckians how to say it out loud. You’ll probably get a mix of “Mick-ter’s,” “Might-er’s,” and “who the hell cares just pour me a drink.” I’ve read in more than one place that the name is a fusion of Michael and Peter, hence, it should be pronounced “Mike-ter’s.” Then again, I’ve heard company employees featured on well-known bourbon documentaries refer to the brand as “Mick-ter’s.” (Think Mick as in Rocky Balboa’s trainer.) However you choose to say it, the name isn’t the only thing currently debated concerning the various Michter’s labels; as my bottle of US#1 Small Batch Bourbon indicates—and will continue to indicate for the foreseeable future—its contents were bottled at the Michter’s Distillery in Louisville, but not actually produced there. *Cue the dramatic music*
So yes, full-disclosure: much like WhistlePig, the Michter’s whiskey currently sitting on store shelves was contract distilled. (Most people guess by Brown-Forman based on its flavor profile. It’s also worth mentioning that the company has established a functioning distillery in Louisville, joined the Association, and is in the process of producing their own distillate—it’s just going to take a while to be properly aged and available for sale.) As usual, I’m here to tell you that when it comes to really judging the whiskey itself, there’s more to high quality than just on-site distillation. So stressing over Michter’s NDP status is as pointless as being hung up on a name. But for the folks who can’t get over it (and they’re easy to find on bourbon message boards), there’s always response number three above…
The nose on US#1 Small Batch (hereafter US#1SB) is a mix of sweet caramel, corn, black pepper, and just a hint of vanilla. Despite the sweetness, US#1SB has a unique “dry” quality—almost like you’d expect from a bottle of fine Merlot. The texture is thick and velvety, but not granular. The first taste isn’t anywhere as sweet as one might expect based on the caramel-dominated nose. The tip of your tongue will be inundated with a burst of corn and vanilla (the caramel is largely absent now); following that initial shot of pretty standard bourbon flavors, a robust mix of dry fruit and black pepper begins developing on the middle of the tongue and strengthens all the way to the back. Think fruit candies topped with pepper and rye instead of sugar.
The finish on US#1SB is relatively short and very smooth. Virtually no heat, which may not please folks who’ve been surviving the winter on Booker’s, 107, or Boss Hog, but this is a perfect bourbon to sip neat or straight up. Rocks simply aren’t necessary and only dilute some of the fruit flavors. (Whiskey stones wouldn’t be an issue, though.) It’s also highly recommended as a mealtime bourbon. Because why should the wine drinkers get to have all the fun, right? The dry quality, the lack of vapor trail, and the pleasant aftertaste of fruit and hearty oak make this a solid pairing for red meat and other wild game.
Value: Very High—In the $30-$40 range, you’ll be hard pressed to find a better all-around drink. This one works in the decanter for company—or for hording in your study/office.
Drinkability: High—As long as you’re not looking for a very sweet bourbon, or massive heat, this should be accessible to a wide range of drinkers. The short, painless finish is perfect for beginners while the dry, gradually-developing flavor profile is a welcomed change of pace from your average small batch.
Overall Rating: 8.5—If you haven’t tried this already, do yourself a favor: forget about the NDP-related nonsense or whether the linage actually goes back to Pennsylvania circa 1753 and buy a bottle (or two or three). The price on this is only likely to go up…
** Special thanks to Lillie O’Connell at Michter’s for providing review samples. **
REVIEW: Bowen’s Whiskey
“A Small Batch Handcrafted American Whiskey” Bowen’s Spirits, Inc. (Bakersfield, CA) – 90 Proof
I came here looking for something
I couldn’t find anywhere else
Hey, I’m not trying to be nobody
I just want a chance to be myself –The Streets of Bakersfield
Merle Haggard may be considered Bakersfield’s most famous son, but it was Dwight Yoakam and Buck Owens who opined that “you don’t know me but you don’t like me” on its streets. Today those streets are running with more than country music and oil, and if you don’t know Bowen’s Whiskey, I’d counsel you—as Dwight and Buck did—not to sit and judge, but to get to know a whiskey that’s not trying to be something else, just itself. That famously independent and unique Bakersfield sound may just be giving way to an equally independent and unique Bakersfield taste.
Bowen’s brandishes these qualities proudly, advertising somewhat indefinably that it’s meant for “trailblazers that seek and value true guts, quick wit, and a smooth finish.” While these tastes aren’t the standard ones to land on a drinker’s palate, Bowen’s doesn’t seem to mind. Their entire brand is built on boldness: “It just is what it is,” they say, and “you either like it or you don’t.” Bold and uncompromising is a great way to build a brand, but it can also be alienating, and Bowen’s is careful not to push too many people away: “We’re known as the whiskey that both scotch and whiskey drinkers appreciate.”
There’s a reason they say “scotch and whiskey” rather than “scotch and bourbon.” Using techniques from a fifth generation moonshiner, Bowen’s starts with a 100% corn base and ages with “reclaimed, fire ravaged oak” from California’s own forests. The result, every bit as inimitable as Wade Bowen, founder, could hope for, is exactly what you would expect if a corn liquor moonshiner made scotch. It has the bite of a young corn spirit with the smoke and earth of the Old World.
But not, I have to say, immediately. The first glass you pour from the bottle is sweet, much more American than Scottish. Let it open up a little and it jogs memories, like the smoke that lingers in your flannel shirt after a night around the bonfire. Put a cube of ice in there and you’ll swear you’re still sitting on a stump swapping stories and cooking hotdogs. The more time this stuff has outside the bottle, the more like a scotch it becomes. The nose is unsurprisingly woody, like freshly split oak and bittersweet chocolate. And the first sip is smooth—very little spice up front, a bit more pine than oak, and truly earthy. The finish is coppery and smokey and dense, even at 90 proof. There’s more spice at the end than at the start, and all that smoke and spice lingers.
If you came here looking for something you couldn’t find anywhere else, Bowen’s is trying real hard to be that something, and coming damned close.
Value: High—at $39, this is a really attractive craft offering at a mainstream price.
Drinkability: Medium-High—Scotch fans will find this subtle and familiar with its own character, but it will challenge those who favor bourbons and ryes.
Overall Rating: 8.3
**Special thanks to Jo Bowen at Bowen’s Spirits, Inc. for sharing a sample of their whiskey with us.**
The theme of the 2016 Buffalo Trace Classic Cocktail Party, the third event of its “Craftsman Series,” was the Sazerac. We entered the second floor of the Elmer T. Lee Clubhouse at 7pm to a live jazz duo (tenor sax and piano) and passed hors d’oeuvres—seared tuna on flatbread and pimento topped with mango salsa. Cocktail attire had been requested and, with very few exceptions, party-goers came dressed to impress. This promised to be a cocktail party of the sort that doesn’t happen often in the age of the selfie-stick.
In the middle of the room, a large circular table held an impressive assortment of fruits, cheeses, crackers, peppers, jams, and salsas. At the bar, self-described mixologists—bartenders to the unhip—from Old Bourbon County Kitchen were cranking out Sazeracs from scratch, mixed with none other than Buffalo Trace’s semi-elusive Sazerac Rye Whiskey.
After roughly thirty minutes of mingling time—in which most folks thought more about mingling than actually doing it (we befriended and sat with a very nice couple from Indianapolis)—hosts from Buffalo Trace offered an official welcome followed by a very (very) brief history of the Sazerac and Thomas H. Handy. (The billing for the event had promised a “historical presentation”; the talk we got didn’t quite live up to those expectations, but RCP has us covered on the history of the original Sazerac and the man who invented it anyhow.)
Before each of the three area kitchens—Dudley’s on Short, Local Feed, and Bourbon on Main—started offering up their main dishes, we were also given a brief explanation from OBC’s chief mixologist as to how and why each dish had been paired with its cocktail for the evening. After this, we were essentially given the green light to sample each dish/cocktail pairing in whatever order we pleased. Most people, including us, booked it over to Dudley’s on Short and weren’t disappointed.
On the whole, the food was excellent and, in my opinion, actually overshadowed the cocktails. I’m a fan of whiskey sours, so the Buster Brown was right up my alley, but at an event like this—with one all-time classic, the Sazerac, already on tap—I was hoping for something still historical, but a little more “off the beaten path.” Dudley’s on Short had by far the tastiest dish of the evening, and the best bourbon in the house (E. H. Taylor SB), but also the blandest cocktail. Bourbon on Main’s Blackberry Smash was the standout cocktail of the evening.
Dudley’s on Short Slow Cooked Prime Rib Eye
Smoked Potato Puree
Radish Arugula *Paired with Manhattan
Local Feed Chicken Liver Mousse
Pear Chip and Pickled Onion *Paired with Buster Brown
Bourbon on Main Grilled Halibut with Orzo and Fonduta *Paired with Blackberry Smash
Buster Brown 1 part honey syrup (infused with ginger & thyme)
2 parts lemon juice
8 parts W. L. Weller Special Reserve
2 dashes Regan’s orange bitters #6
Shake or stir ingredients with cracked ice. If clarity is desired, double strain. Garnish with twist of lemon.
Blackberry Smash 1 part sweetened blackberry syrup
2 parts lemon juice
6 parts Buffalo Trace Straight Kentucky Bourbon
“Smash” two blackberries and a sprig of mint in shaker with muddler. Add blackberry syrup, lemon juice, and bourbon to tin. Shake vigorously with cracked ice. Double-strain into cocktail glass with crushed ice. Garnish with speared blackberry and mint.
Manhattan, Medium 1 part allspice dram
3 parts ruby port
8 parts E. H. Taylor Small Batch B. I. B.
1 dash Peychaud’s bitters
1 dash Regan’s Orange Bitters #6
Combine all ingredients into mixing glass. Stir with cracked ice. Strain into cocktail glass neat. Garnish with twist of orange.
Overall, the 2016 Classic Cocktail Party was well worth the price of admission—and I understand now why tickets sold out so quickly. That said, given the cost, at least one drink featuring either Buffalo Trace’s Sazerac 18 or Thomas H. Handy Antique would have been an elegant touch, especially as online promo materials for the event featured images of these sought-after (read: impossible to find) labels. Liquor snobbery aside, our only other suggestion would be the addition of a few more high tops for guests to hover around while eating and drinking. Because we skipped the pre-party distillery tour, we arrived on time at 7pm, but after approximately 75% of the other guests—meaning virtually every sitting table or high top had been taken. Given their scarcity, once a table was occupied, it was likely gone for the rest of the evening. (As I said before, we did end up with a small table, but only because we were willing to befriend strangers. Most larger groups kept to themselves.)
Food Rating: 9.1 – No complaints here. I’d also like to point out that the kitchen crews and wait staff were exceptionally friendly.
Cocktail Rating: 8.3 – Would have replaced the Manhattan and/or dipped into the Antique Collection labels on this front. (Sure, some folks will scoff at the idea of mixing such an expensive whiskey. But we’re not talking about whiskey and coke, here, and I’m a firm believer that if you’re going to make a cocktail, make a cocktail.)
Worth the Price: Yes – Though most guests didn’t mingle, so your best bet might be coming with a larger group in the first place.
Boss Hog Rye 2014 – “The Spirit of Mortimer”
Approx. 120 Proof – WhistlePig
The 1300 fertile acres of WhistlePig Farm could, in the spring, stand in for the rolling hills and pastures of Hazzard County, but the similarities probably stop with the landscape. You’re unlikely to see the General Lee kicking gravel this far North, just a few miles from Lake Champlain, and if the Duke boys tried to unload a trunk of clear corn liquor at this stop they’d be laughed back to Uncle Jesse’s farm. You won’t find any mason jars here: the liquor at WhistlePig is Straight Rye every time, aged to a beautiful copper for no less than ten years. At nearly fourteen years, their oldest iteration was barreled when Flash was a pup, and shares the name of the Duke’s love-to-hate-him rival, County Commissioner Jefferson Davis “Boss” Hogg.
J. D. was a moonshiner before he took up—as they say in Hazzard—politickin’, but it would be as disingenuous as the white-suited man himself to suggest that Boss Hog Rye Whiskey was named after him. Its subtitle, “Spirit of Mortimer,” is a more honest moniker. While WhistlePig Farm does grow acres of hardy rye for their own use, they do not grow rye exclusively, and the farm is home to honey bees, maple trees, goats, occasional ducks and, until recently, a proud Kune Pig named Mortimer, to whom the 2014 Boss Hog is dedicated. (Future barrels of their product will come from their own home-grown grain, but their distillery, though built in a refurbished 19th century barn, is brand new; thus, what you see on shelves presently was sourced. This has been a controversy for some, though, as mentioned in a previous post, not for the bowtie-clad proprietors at B&B. If you have any questions about the grain to glass process at WP, I recommend heading to their website, where even a cursory perusal reveals that they take quality at all stages very, very seriously.)
WP takes pride in how unique their whiskey is, and each bottle of Boss Hog is the product of a single barrel out of only 50 barrels released. Considering the age and single barrel bottling, even this limited batch leaves room for extreme individual expression, an independence that Vermonters have historically approved of.
I could tell the “Spirit of Mortimer” I was fortunate enough to try was a rye from across the room. There is no waft of corn in the nose, none of the mixed bouquet you get in a bourbon. I got a hint of peppermint, but also felt it was equally notable for what it lacked: no eye watering, high octane diesel fumes. If it announces rye immediately, it whispers 120 proof in hushed tones, if it reveals it at all. The palate is equally impressive in this regard. It’s surprisingly mellow, easy and spicy at the same time. I don’t get a baking spice like cinnamon, but warm pepper and butter with fall flavors like cloves and a pinch of orange peel.
The rye spice continues through the finish, lingering like a mild hot sauce after you swallow, with the after taste of a good cigar.
My glass was empty before I even considered adding ice or water.
Value: Medium—Though representative of the craftsmanship and limited quantity, the suggested retail of $189/bottle is staggering and severely limits the audience. This is a wedding night whiskey, not a Wednesday night whiskey.
Drinkability: High—I’d even invent a new category—“Surprisingly High”—for the Boss Hog. You won’t believe the mash or the proof when you sip this, though you’ll believe every bit of the age. A rye you can drink neat is a rye to be savored.
*Special thanks to Lana Gersten and the folks at WhistlePig for kindly providing a review sample.
There’s a war coming. Strike that. It’s already here—and I’m not talking about humans vs. mutants. (Though, if Professor X and Magneto could’ve just talked things out over a dram or two of the good stuff, who knows what might’ve been?) In the bourbon world, nothing gets a forum riled up faster than a discussion of traditional, mainstream distillers (that is, the “big boys”: Heaven Hill, Buffalo Trace, Jim Beam, etc.) vs. “the crafts.” From Florida to Vermont to California, new craft distilleries seem to be popping up all over the place. That said, we all know the one thing all solid bourbon has in common is age. But time is precisely what a new operation doesn’t have as much of when just getting started. So almost without fail, this debate will circle back to the fact that many craft labels begin life with sourced distillate, making the operation an “NDP,” or, “non-distiller producer.” Breaker Bourbon Whisky is one of these products—and they aren’t interested in hiding it.
The nose on Breaker is sweet and airy; secondary hints of vanilla, spice, oak, and smoke all swirled in a primary base of rich caramel. Despite the sweetness and its solid 45% ABV measurement, the distinct smell of corn that often comes with younger whiskey is largely absent. As it turns out, this lack of corn on the nose is also an indicator of flavor. The first sip of Breaker is a rush of caramel with a perfect, fleeting note of rye spice and black pepper on the tip of the tongue. The sweetness will linger upfront as more rye and oak (and more of the former than the latter) are released on the back of the tongue. The finish is exceptionally smooth. It’s a mix of oak and mellow smoke. This is a soft, pleasant warmth—not a burner by any means. In other words, if you’re looking for the “oomph” of a Noah’s Mill, Antique 107, or Booker’s, this is just a different can of worms.
Two things struck me as I completed the second tasting of Breaker for this review. First, this is a bourbon with a complex flavor profile, but they seem to have released in sequence. The nose made perfectly clear that caramel would seize the first sip—and it did. The nose also presaged that, eventually, I’d be hit with smaller clusters of vanilla, rye, oak, and smoke. To me, the caramel overtones mask most of the vanilla—you sort of have to work to find it—but the rye and then the oak/smoke also appeared in order toward the back of the tongue and then on the finish. The second striking feature of Breaker is the texture. I cannot overemphasize the silkiness of this bourbon. From start to finish, this is utterly smooth stuff—something I’ll fully confess to not expecting from a five year old product. (Note: for anyone already familiar with Breaker, my bottle was #1646 from batch #19.)
So how did a bourbon that started life in the Ohio Valley but was aged and bottled on the Central Coast of California turn out so well? The short answer is that while distilling is unquestionably an important part of the production process, so too are aging and blending. And when it comes to aging and blending, the folks at Ascendant Spirits know what they’re doing. As I mentioned above, Breaker is aged five years after being twice distilled (copper pot) and each batch is then culled from eight barrels (as opposed to the dozens or even hundreds that might be included in a small batch from a much larger distillery). This is where a relatively smaller operation can put size to its advantage and hone in on flavor in very small batches. Plus, with a little help from Cal Poly (praise science!), I think it’s fair to say that Ascendant has figured out how to maximize Buellton’s temperature fluctuations and put their natural climate features to work.
Will a high-quality “NDP” like Breaker Bourbon Whisky help end the feud between mainstream and craft, new operations vs. old powerhouses? Can it ultimately bring balance to the Force? Probably not. And that’s actually OK. The bottom line here is that we, as drinkers, should probably be more worried about the quality of what comes out of the bottle and how it tastes than in endlessly nitpicking the process—so long as the people putting it in the bottle are honest about how it got there. This maxim seems to work just fine for NDPs like Willett, Jefferson’s, Blanton’s, High West, Michter’s, and the Van Winkle line, so why not relax a bit and take a chance on one of the new kids?
Value: High—At around $40, this is a can’t miss addition to the bar.
Drinkability: Highest—this is a recommended pour for anyone but, owing to smoothness and sweetness, also a great introductory pour for new bourbon drinkers.
Overall Rating: 8.9
Special thanks to Kyle Herman at Ascendant Spirits for providing a review sample. Also stay tuned for wheated and port barrel finished incarnations of Breaker—coming to B&B soon!
A new whiskey is making its mark in an area best known for its illegal booze and Al Capone. This time, it’s nice and legal.
Deep dish pizza. Steak. The Sears tower. Fires, floods, freezing temperatures. Not to mention reversing the flow of a major river. Chicago is famous for more than its chip-on-the-shoulder, “Second City” attitude. But while its culinary and tourism scenes have rightly had their own draws for centuries, until recently its alcoholic beverage offerings were considered fodder for a Boardwalk Empire side-story. It wasn’t the city for craft drinks, but was instead well known as a place where Prohibition and organized crime made Al Capone the king of the underground.
FEW Spirits gives a delightfully irreverent nod to that history while seeking to legitimize that reputation. Like many whiskies, it takes its name from a historical figure; unlike many whiskies, that historical figure is neither family nor famous. FEW isn’t fabricating an inauthentic lineage by borrowing the name of a long dead distiller, but instead pays humorous homage to someone who tried to put a stop to that industry: Francis Elizabeth Willard, head of Evanston’s Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. In another nod to history, their wood-block-like labels portray different attractions at the 1893 Columbian Exposition, better known as the World’s Fair. The Chicago fair scenes denote a pride of place fitting for a company that considers itself a “grain to glass” operation, buying its raw ingredients locally from farming cooperatives.
What they’re doing—from the regionally sourced rye to the tightly grained, heavily charred, low-volume barrels they use for aging—works. The bourbon is pleasantly light and airy; not much chew or heft to this one. The nose immediately jumped out as sweet corn to me, with really ethereal floral undertones—rose, in particular—and baked brown sugar that turns to definite caramel on the palate while remaining…thin isn’t the right word for it…but truly light. I’ve heard this compared to a clear spirit like gin and I wouldn’t disagree, but it’s much more flavorful. The sugar and caramel lead to a mildly peppery butterscotch finish without being too sweet or spicy, and even at 93 proof, it doesn’t sting.
This is a really nice bourbon, and a brand that I could easily see expanding in the next few years. If their overall production doesn’t increase dramatically, recent write-ups in Men’s Journal, GQ, and Popular Mechanics almost ensure that their reputation and name recognition will. Their website has a helpful “Find the FEW” page mapping their distribution, with sales clustered in the midwest and California. If you’re the kind of bourbon drinker who likes that rare bottle your friends can’t find (and I feel this qualifier is a bit redundant after the label “bourbon drinker”) this is a bottle you’ll want to have on your shelf after that next business trip to Chicago.
Value: High—at $50, this is hardly a steal, but considering its scarcity and the craft model, not to mention its quality, you’ll want to pick it up if you see a bottle.
Drinkability: High—a smooth bourbon for neat or rocks drinking, I’d be worried its mild tones would be lost in a cocktail.
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 II: Casualty of Credit: The Fall and Rebirth of the Colonel
On February 12, 1873, Union General-turned-POTUS Ulysses S. Grant signed the Coinage Act of 1873 into law. The measure—which critics would later coin, if you’ll pardon the pun, “The Crime of ‘73”—established the mint of the United States as a bureau of the Treasury Department and placed the director of the mint under the direct supervision and command of the Secretary of the Treasury. (At the time the bill became law, Secretary George S. Boutwell ran the Treasury Department, though he was replaced roughly a month later by William A. Richardson.) In practical terms, the Coinage Act changed the way Americans could spend money; and, by changing the way money could be spent, it changed the way Americans did business. As with much of Grant’s presidency, the results were controversial, to say the very least.
Section 14 of the Coinage Act essentially established gold as the metallic substance of choice for future transactions and the production of currency.
“That the gold coins of the United States shall be a one-dollar piece, which, at the standard weight of twenty-five and eight-tenths grains, shall be the unit of value.” (Section 14 of CHAP. CXXXI. – An Act revising and amending the Laws relative to the Mints, Assay-offices, and Coinage of the United States.)
Meanwhile, Sections 15 and 17 drastically devalued silver as an everyday currency by stripping the metal of its “dollar status” and setting limits on how and when it could be spent. This meant that Americans could no longer bring caches of silver already in their possession to a federal mint for striking into silver dollars. In turn, the overall, domestic money supply dropped sharply and this newfound scarcity precipitated a spike in interest rates. This was especially bad news for farmers at a time when much of the nation was still engaged in agricultural pursuits.
“That the silver coins of the United States shall be a trade-dollar, a half-dollar, or fifty-cent piece, a quarter-dollar, or twenty-five cent piece, a dime, or ten-cent piece; and the weight of the trade-dollar shall be four hundred and twenty grains troy; the weight of the half-dollar shall be twelve grams (grammes) and one-half of a gram, (gramme;) the quarter-dollar and the dime shall be respectively, one-half and one-fifth of the weight of said half-dollar; and said coins shall be a legal tender at their nominal value for any amount not exceeding five dollars in any one payment.” (Section 15 of CHAP. CXXXI. – An Act revising and amending the Laws relative to the Mints, Assay-offices, and Coinage of the United States.)
“That no coins, either of gold, silver, or minor coinage, shall hereafter be issued from the mint other than those of the denominations, standards, and weights herein set forth.” (Section 17 of CHAP. CXXXI. – An Act revising and amending the Laws relative to the Mints, Assay-offices, and Coinage of the United States.)
Now, crime or not, the Coinage Act of 1873 wasn’t enough to trigger a financial catastrophe all on its own—it needed help from American’s biggest speculative “bubble,” which was the railroad industry, broadly defined, and from irrational optimism in that industry’s future growth. In the years following the Civil War, Americans had invested heavily—crazily, even—in all aspects of railroads; they’d laid down thousands and thousands of miles of new track, chartered myriad new transportation companies, issued stock and bonds, struck deals for land and resource rights with the government, inked exclusivity contracts with individual locales, and created untold jobs (along with still more investment opportunities) in the tangential industries—like mining, timber, freight, cattle, hotels, and so on—that provided materials, services, and manpower for or in conjunction with the rail operators.
But the “Big Bang” of American railroad construction was actually too big and booming to support itself in the immediate short-term: the massive expansion of infrastructure and corporate multiplication had no way to turn quick revenue. Thus, for all of its iron grandeur, it struggled mightily to pay back investors. This was an industry that needed time to pay off. Track and steam engines weren’t innately profitable—they actually needed to carry people and products to make money. But owing to sagging currency levels and the aforementioned interest rates, debt was crushing. Dozens of otherwise impressive-looking railroads failed and thousands of ventures dependent on the railroads and their passengers for business also went under. In conjunction with this collapse and the Coinage Act came military conflicts abroad and urban disasters at home (the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and the Great Boston Fire of 1872). Historians have dubbed the collective crisis “The Panic of 1873.”
As the nation teetered on the edge of economic disaster, in 1871, E. H. Taylor, Jr. convinced Lewis Castleman, a close family friend, to invest in a new distillery with him. Castleman wasn’t a distiller—he was a grocer—and required more than a little convincing. Eventually, though, he agreed to front money for the property and the distillation equipment on the promise that Taylor would lend his name and reputation to the whiskey and spearhead the marketing campaign.
Castleman purchased property and operated a small plant, the Glenn Springs Distillery on Glenn’s Creek in Woodford County, and managed to produce a batch. But Taylor utterly failed to uphold his end of the bargain. When all was said and done, Castleman sold the whiskey at far lower prices than Taylor had promised they could secure—largely in part because Taylor did nothing to help market or move the product. Given the projects he already had ongoing at O. F. C, it’s entirely unclear why Taylor thought opening yet another distillery made any sense—save for nostalgia. According to historian Dan G. Churchill, Taylor had grown up around the legendary James Crow, who worked at a small distillery on Glenn’s Creek before migrating to the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery in Woodford County. Regardless, after a brief stint in court, it was decided Taylor owed Castleman some $7,000 in costs, but no record exists of him ever paying the debt. In hindsight, this episode marked the first public sign that all wasn’t well with Colonel Taylor’s business empire.
Fresh off of the Glenn Springs fiasco, Taylor sank between $20,000 and $30,000 into renovations at O. F. C. Most of this infrastructure spending was done on credit, and it appears that even Taylor’s daily living expenses were siphoned from loans. As the debt mounted and sales dipped, the Colonel could only pay bills by selling whiskey futures (that is, supply not yet aged enough for sale at the time of purchase) or by selling the same stock to multiple buyers and providing each with a different receipt. For obvious reasons, this scheme could only last for so long. Eventually buyers expected the merchandise they paid for to be delivered and Taylor had to come clean about his lack of capital in both cash and whiskey.
Unfortunately for Colonel E. H. Taylor, Jr., the effects of the Panic of 1873 made their way to Kentucky. Even less fortunately for Taylor, he was something of a poster-child for the sort of financial dealings that had helped bring about the collapse in the first place: inordinate debt, reckless investment, and unchecked expansion. In much the same way that railroads had spent too much borrowed money, too quickly, on structural expansion that couldn’t immediately begin to help pay down their debts, Taylor invested too heavily in mechanical and technological innovation at O. F. C. on credit. When the economy tanked in 1873, most of the nation’s budget for high end whiskey went with it. This isn’t to say Americans didn’t drink to cope with the financial crisis; rather, that Taylor’s product resided on the luxurious end of the market. This obsession with quality was what had helped make Taylor’s “Old Fire Copper” a household name. But Depression-coping booze is generally cheap, easy, and sometimes homemade. This was a lesson the Colonel had to learn the hard way.
By 1876-77, Taylor had fully tapped his local network of friends—which was really saying something, considering the wealth and prestige of his social circle—and had amassed debts to creditors ranging from Frankfort to Missouri to New York to California. Not surprisingly when we consider Taylor’s celebrity status, the Louisville Courier-Journal had a field day covering the Colonel’s fall from respectability. Taylor did himself no favors in the press; he disappeared from Frankfort for almost a week just as the most serious of the allegations came to light and left stunned onlookers wondering if he would ever come home to fulfill his obligations. (Rumors swirled that Taylor had absconded permanently to Europe to avoid prosecution for fraud.)
One article from June 3, 1877, noted that Taylor owed Gregory, Stagg & Co. of St. Louis, Missouri, $150,000 while an “examination of the books shows that receipts have been given for 7,104 barrels of whisky, whereas his actual stock does not exceed 4,722 barrels.” Another editorial of June 5, 1877, entitled “The Failure of E. H. Taylor,” estimated that the “total of his ‘larger liabilities’ is now reported to be about $485,000, with a great many smaller ones yet to be heard from.” (For perspective, a currency conversion estimate puts Taylor’s debt, which was approximately $485,000 in 1877, at around $11,000,000 in 2014.) “The creditors,” the article continued, “have placed the office and private warehouse of Mr. Taylor, on Main street, in charge of Messrs. Orlando Brown and Wm. H. Sneed, who in conjunction with Sam C. Sayers (Mr. T’s bookkeeper), are preparing a ‘statement’ to be laid before the creditors next Thursday.” Taylor’s smaller, local debts were listed as follows:
Jas. H. Graham, City Marshal, about $8,000
Adam Keenon, about $10,000 Perry, about $5,000
Ed Burnes (secured), about $1,000 S. Johnston, about $4,000
Hook & Triplett, $800
Mr. Kavanaugh, $400
Mrs. Governor Letcher, $1,300 Herincourt (minister), $3,000
Mr. Long of Bagdad, about $15,000
Oscar Farmer, of Shelby county, about $12,000
Thomas Farmer, of Shelby county, about $8,000 A. Sayres’ Bank, Lexington, about $8,000
Mr. Mitchell, cashier of the First National Bank of Lexington, $11,500
The city of Frankfort is interested to the extent of $2,500.
Later, in June 1877, at what can only be described as the ultimate insult to a man of Colonel Taylor’s once-vaunted standing in the community, the paper ran a lengthy, damning essay on his business history. After “winning the esteem and confidence of all to a degree seldom achieved by one so young” in his first position at the Bank of Kentucky (which was run by his uncle, E. H. Taylor, Sr.), E. H. Jr. was “universally regarded as the foremost young business man and manager in all this region.” Owing to this wunderkind-esque reputation, he became cashier of the Farmer’s Bank Branch at Versailles. The article opined that this was the high point, albeit brief, of Taylor’s success as a financier. The Panic of 1857 and its wake wiped out the fledgling firms of Taylor, Turner & Co. and Taylor, Shelby & Co. Next Taylor had an ephemeral but noteworthy stint at the distilling firm of W. A. Gaines & Co., which ultimately ended when “his extreme boldness in his new position alarmed some of his partners to such an extent that … he was induced, upon a ‘give or take’ offer, to sell his interest to the other partners.”
According to men who had allegedly done business with Taylor in the past, the Colonel was “an affable, princely, high-toned gentleman among his friends, on the streets, everywhere.” However, “there were nevertheless times, even when he appeared to be most prosperous, that he seemed to be the very reverse of all this—times when he seemed to be possessed by the very demon of gloom and distrust.” Furthermore, these former, anonymous associates believed he [Taylor] was “undoubtedly too daring, too venturesome, and probably too extravagant as a business man … He was an unerring judge of character and knew exactly how to approach men so as to win their confidence and high esteem as a first-class man of business. We always thought these things of him, and while, on the other hand, regarding him as carrying rather more sail than ballast, we never dreamed that he would make such a failure as this last has proved to be.” With his financial failings now a matter of public record, Taylor’s humiliation appeared to be complete. But it wasn’t…
Due to Taylor’s mysterious absence from Frankfort, a swarm of panicked creditors collectively filed a petition for involuntary bankruptcy on his behalf and the petition was initially granted. Before the proceedings were completed, however, the Colonel reappeared and agreed to explain his side of the story. In a move that must have stunned those closest to him, the serious, private, aristocratic Taylor agreed to sit down for a one-on-one interview with a reporter from the Courier-Journal—the same paper that had reveled in his plight for weeks.
The interview took place in November 1877. When asked how he would deal with his debts, Taylor replied: “What I propose is this: to examine fully my debts first; then to pay in money or its equivalent at once in full, or as nearly as possible, all that I owe, adding with this money or its equivalent any interest which may belong to my wife.” This was the response a man in Taylor’s position had to give—but the interviewer wanted details, and didn’t seem to mind jabbing at Taylor’s sore spots to draw them out.
Reporter: “One more question, sir … How did you become embarrassed? That is to say, what causes operated to bring about your troubles?”
Taylor: “Those which affected most everybody. I invested much in fine improvements. My ‘O.F.C.’ distillery was considered the finest in the world. I tried to make it better than any in the land, and its reputation, all know, has never been equaled for pure, copper whisky. Sales stopped, money became tight, and, before I knew it, interest exceeded earnings.”
Reporter: “Why did you leave Frankfort?”
Taylor: “My presence would have done no good. Absence afforded an opportunity for thought and consultation.”
To his credit, Taylor refused to take the bait. His answers remained “proper” and “official” throughout. On the business front, he also explained to his interviewer that “a settlement without further procedure in bankruptcy will be of more benefit to his creditors than the course they have agreed upon. They will be enabled to have all that the courts can give them, and the expense attending bankruptcy will be avoided.” Taylor, the report continued, “proposes to surrender everything—distillery, house, his wife’s interest by law, and, indeed, everything he has.”
Though the bankruptcy proceedings were surely a sore subject for the Colonel, he certainly didn’t bring them up by accident. This read more like a message to his creditors: he was ready to sit down and bargain, but the public spectacle being carried on at his expense must stop. Immediately. Taylor knew his whiskey was still regarded as one of the finest alcoholic spirits in the country and that when the depression eased, discerning drinkers would again line up to buy it. He didn’t even have to stay fully afloat until the storm passed—he just needed to avoid drowning.
Perhaps it was the gesture of talking to “the people,” but after all of the column inches devoted to Taylor’s mismanagement and failure, but in a striking change of direction, the Courier-Journal actually shared in his optimism. “Certain parties,” the article concluded, “one firm at home, and another a foreign investment, are anxious to have him continue in business. They offer to buy everything at its highest value, the prices paid to aggregate a fund for distribution among the creditors. These firms desire then, in the event of success, to again start Mr. Taylor in business, giving him a half interest in the establishment for his services, his name, and the brands of liquor which have made his distillery so celebrated.” Furthermore, as far as the reporter could detect, “the people of Frankfort”—many of whom had personally loaned Taylor money only to see it spent with no hope of return—“are sincerely desirous of seeing Mr. Taylor effect an agreeable settlement with his creditors and to again engage in business.”
Well wishes from the public—and even a de facto endorsement from the biggest newspaper in the state—were one thing; the ability to raise a massive amount of capital to pay down debts was quite another. At this latter task, Taylor never really had a chance. But very shortly, he would have a new adversary.
Colonel Taylor’s newest foe was a man named George Thomas Stagg.
Stagg, best-known today for the Buffalo Trace Antique label that carries his name, was a partner in the firm of Gregory, Stagg & Company—which also made him Taylor’s biggest creditor. Taylor had frequently gotten the better of the men brave, or gullible, enough to do business with him, but Stagg wasn’t another Lewis Castleman. Though himself born in Garrard County, Kentucky, in 1835, Stagg was of northern, Dutch Reformed stock; his family hailed from Bergen County, Pennsylvania, where his great-grandfather, Captain James Stagg, had commanded the Bergen County Regiment of the New Jersey Militia during the American Revolution. By 1807, James’s son, Daniel Stagg, moved to Harrodsburg, Kentucky, and took up farming. George Stagg grew up on his father’s farm and married Elizabeth “Bettie” Doolin in 1858. The couple had four children live to adulthood, three of which were sons. Interestingly, only one—Frank Stagg (1873-1942)—would go on to work in the distillery business, and not until decades after his father’s death. None of Stagg’s grandchildren appear to have entered the business, either.
According to the 1860 census, George Stagg worked as the clerk of a shoe store in Richmond, Kentucky, prior to the outbreak of the Civil War—but enlisted in the Union Army in November 1861 at Camp Hobson. His unit, the 21st Kentucky Infantry Regiment, wasn’t afraid to mix things up: after working in a reserve capacity at the Battle of Perryville, the 21st saw action at the Battle of Stone’s River, at the Battle of Resaca, at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, during the Siege of Atlanta, and also took part in the fierce fighting for Franklin and Nashville, Tennessee. Over the course the war, the regiment lost three officers and 57 enlisted men in combat, while another 158 succumbed to disease. For his part, Stagg was a model soldier and rose through the ranks quickly. He was commissioned as a First Lieutenant in January 1862 and then promoted to Captain in January 1863. Additionally, Stagg served as the Regiment’s only Assistant Adjutant following the Battle of Stone’s River (the other was killed) and, in July and August 1863, he worked temporarily as an aide to General Ambrose Burnside.
E. H. Taylor, Jr. and George Thomas Stagg were both corporate alphas. But that was where the similarities stopped. Taylor was born into affluence and high social standing; he was a smooth-talking aristocrat and something of a political institution in Frankfort. Though his family had remained nominally loyal to the Union cause, the Taylor clan and their extended kinship network—stretching from Kentucky to Tennessee, Louisiana, and Texas—had owned much wealth in slaves. Generally speaking, they were what historians like Patrick Lewis and Anne Marshall have dubbed “Conservative Unionists”—and later in the war, many were undoubtedly southern sympathizers. (As proof of this latter charge, not only did Taylor help fund the Jefferson Davis statue still in residence at the state capitol, but his middle son, Kenner, was named after a Louisiana sugar magnate named Duncan F. Kenner. A real-life “Calvin Candy,” D. F. Kenner owned more than 400 slaves on his Ascension Parrish plantation, called “Ashland,” alone.)
Stagg, on the other hand, was an outsider to the Frankfort set; he’d lived for a decade after the war in St. Louis, Missouri, where he’d partnered with a wealthy merchant named James Gregory and risen from shoe salesman to commercial merchant. Perhaps more importantly, Stagg wasn’t a silver-tongued businessman, nor was his commission of the honorific variety. He was a Union veteran and an experienced commander of men, made so by real life combat. Stagg’s personal ambition combined with his Civil War experience made him highly organized, a meticulous record keeper, and entirely unafraid of conflict—even with the likes of Colonel Taylor. Stagg held the financial high ground from the moment they locked horns for control of O. F. C., and Taylor knew it.
In 1877, when Gregory and Stagg agreed to consolidate and purchase Taylor’s debt, it was a shrewd corporate maneuver. Taylor was already hopelessly indebted to the firm and this deal pushed the amount upwards of $200,000. Worse still for the Colonel, he owed nearly a quarter of that sum in unsecured whiskey. Unable to deliver a product, Taylor was forced to hand over his beloved O. F. C. Distillery as payment. In 1878, Stagg also took control of the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery (which had been in Taylor’s possession) and sold it to James Graham and Leopold Labrot. Those two men would go on to make their own mark in the distilling world, but that’s another story for another time. (James E. Pepper would also start a new distillery in Lexington—his exploits will be the subject of a future editorial.)
Stagg was a sharp businessman. Sharp enough, at least, to know that Taylor was a valuable commodity as a distiller. So the Colonel was kept on at O. F. C. to oversee production, but how much sway he actually carried in the board room is unknown. While Stagg held 3,448 shares (out of 5,000 total) of the company in 1877, Taylor himself was only given a single share.
The company was reorganized under the banner of the “E. H. Taylor, Jr. Company” in 1879 and construction began that same year on the Carlisle Distillery—a new plant built on land immediately adjacent to O. F. C. In 1882, Stagg took yet another distillery out of the Taylor family. This time, however, it was J. Swigert Taylor, the Colonel’s eldest son, that lost his operation. Since 1879, J. Swigert had been running a small plant on the McCracken Pike in Frankfort, called the J. Swigert Taylor Distillery. Nestled on the banks of the Kentucky River, it was an ideal spot for making whiskey. Like his father, J. Swigert stayed on as overseer and manager after Stagg’s company took ultimate ownership. Though he couldn’t have known it at the time, Stagg’s purchase of the McCracken location set the events in motion that would eventually allow E. H. Taylor, Jr. to rise from the ashes of his financial failure and reclaim his place as one of Kentucky’s greatest bourbon men.
Throughout the early 1880s, Stagg gradually divested himself of personal interest in the distilleries, but remained in charge of the company that bore his predecessor’s name. By 1884, Stagg’s holdings had dropped to 2,478 shares—which still greatly outnumbered Taylor’s one, but marked a steep drop from 1877. In 1885, Taylor was listed as a Vice President of the company, but given how poorly Taylor and Stagg got along, the promotion appears to have been in title only.
By late 1886, E. H. Taylor, Jr. was desperate to escape from the distillery he’d founded and the company that owned his name. According to witnesses, most prominent among them J. Swigert Taylor, a deal was struck at the corporate level in January 1887 that would allow E. H. Jr. and J. Swigert to take back the McCracken Pike distillery if Taylor gave back his share of stock in the E. H. Taylor, Jr. Company. Additionally, Stagg and Clay Gregory (James Gregory’s son, who became an executive in the company shortly after his father’s form acquired it, claiming 1,100 shares in 1877) agreed to remove Taylor’s name from the company title and would loan the Taylors the money they needed to re-establish themselves as independent whiskey makers.
All terms of the deal to facilitate Taylor’s exit from O. F. C. were met and, in 1887, the plant on McCracken Pike officially became the Old Taylor Distillery. (After reorganizing the company with a new moniker, Stagg changed his mind about removing Taylor’s surname from the corporate letterhead. The reversal prompted a series of contentious and important lawsuits that will be the subject of Part III, Taylor vs. Taylor: What’s in a Name?) At the Old Taylor Distillery, with the help of sons J. Swigert and Kenner, the Colonel got back to doing what had made him famous in the first place: making bourbon in high style. The distillery’s sole label, Old Taylor, rose to prominence and, its grounds, dotted with ornate fountains, finely-manicured gardens, and a German-style castle, signaled to the world that the Colonel’s financial troubles were well in rear view.
Before the Panic of 1873 and what the tabloids called his “embarrassment” in 1877, E. H. Taylor, Jr. had been known as a major figure in the whiskey industry—and, it’s fair to say, as a bourbon aristocrat. But without said embarrassment, the odds are exceedingly good that Taylor never would have willingly left O. F. C. In turn, he never would have established the label, “Old Taylor,” that vaulted his reputation as a whiskey craftsman into the rarest of rarified airs—and gave him the national clout to help shepherd the Bottled-in-Bond Act into law years later. And, finally, minus the operation with his sons, the grounds of the Old Taylor Distillery would never have been renovated into the ultimate bourbon-maker’s palace—and a veritable landmark of Kentucky’s signature industry.
In a strange way, then, E. H. Taylor, Jr.’s financial failings in the 1870s were potentially the best thing that ever could’ve happened to his long-term legacy. The business model at O. F. C. in the lead-up to Stagg’s takeover was clearly untenable: the operation had simply become too big, and the economy too gnarly, for Taylor to navigate on his own. (Let alone to navigate while still focusing on the quality of his bourbon.) The necessity of Stagg’s intervention, though undoubtedly a low point in the Colonel’s life and career, actually allowed him to stay knee deep in the whiskey industry while not assuming any of the risk (that is, debt) himself.
Put another way, his time at O. F. C. post-1877 gave Taylor a chance to rebuild his reputation as a distiller, first and foremost, before eventually providing the groundwork for his return to independent-operator status. Thus, to be “reborn” as a true bourbon aristocrat, Taylor first had to fall from grace. In this light, the Colonel’s story takes on an unavoidably biblical hue. But unlike the proverbs and lessons of the Good Book, Taylor’s saga lacked a moral rooted in principle or righteousness, though it did have very much to do with saving spirits: the public would always forgive E. H. Taylor, Jr. for being greedy, reckless, or dishonest in corporate matters, for living beyond his means, and even for swindling his friends—so long as he never, ever, compromised on the quality of what went into each and every bottle.
SOURCES:From History of the Coinage Act of 1873, Being a Complete Record of all Documents Issued and the Legislative Proceedings Concerning the Act (Washington, D.C.: House of Representatives, Government Printing Office, 1900), 310-311, 313-314, 314; Milton Friedman, “The Crime of 1873,” The Journal of Political Economy 98, No. 6 (December 1990): 1159-1194; Dan G. Churchill, Ancient Age Through the Ages (1993, unpublished book manuscript held by the Kentucky Historical Society), 46-47, 54-55, 56, 57, 58, 61, 64-65, 66-67; Lewis Castleman, 1850 United States Federal Census; Duncan Kenner, 1850 United States Federal Census; Oscar Pepper, 1860 United States Federal Census; James Gregory, 1860 United States Federal Census; George Stagg, 1860 United States Federal Census; Duncan Kenner, 1860 United States Federal Census; James Gregory, 1870 United States Federal Census; Lewis Castleman, 1870 United States Federal Census; Stanley Stagg, 1870 United States Federal Census; Duncan Kenner, 1870 United States Federal Census; Lewis Castleman, 1880 United States Federal Census; George Stagg, 1880 United States Federal Census; Stanley Stagg, 1910 United States Federal Census; Frank Stagg, 1930 United States Federal Census; Thomas Stagg, 1930 United States Federal Census; Lewis Castleman, 1890 Veteran Schedule Census; “W. S. Gregory,” United States Biographical Dictionary and Portrait Gallery of Self-Made Men, Missouri, Vol. 2, 1901; James Gregory, U. S. IRS Tax Assessment Lists, 1862-1918; George T. Stagg, U. S. IRS Tax Assessment Lists, 1862-1918; George T. Stagg, U. S., Union Soldiers Compiled Service Records, 1861-1865; George T. Stagg, U. S., Civil War Soldier Records and Profiles, 1861-1865; Frank Stagg, Kentucky Death Records, 1852-1963; Stanley Stagg, Kentucky Death Records, 1852-1963; Bettie Doolin, Kentucky Marriage Records, 1852-1914; Jacob Swigert, 1860 U. S. Federal Census – Slave Schedules; Duncan Kenner, 1860 U. S. Federal Census – Slave Schedules; Duncan F. Kenner, U. S., Pardons Under Amnesty Proclamations, 1865-1869; Report of the Adjutant General of the State of Kentucky, Vol. II, Schedule D, Alphabetical List of Officers, Frankfort, KY: 1866; T. H. Stagg, Sons of the American Revolution Membership Application, 1931; “Independent Order of Odd Fellows,” Encyclopedia of Missouri History, Vol. I, 1901; MeasuringWorth.com, Relative Values – U.S. $, 1774-Present (the estimate given above is based on the real price of the commodity and the historical standard of living); On Crow’s distilling at Glenn’s Creek, also see: http://www.theruinbnb.com/history/