HISTORY: Becoming the Colonel – Part II

Becoming the Colonel:
E. H. Taylor and the Making of a Bourbon Aristocrat

MCH

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.

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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.

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Coverage of the Panic of 1873 from The Daily Graphic. (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

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.”

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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.

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Coverage of the fallout of the Panic of 1873 in Leslie’s Illustrated, 1873. (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

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.

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George T. Stagg, part of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection.

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.)

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Captain George Thomas Stagg (1835-1893)

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.

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The grounds of the Old Taylor Distillery.

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/

 

HISTORY: Becoming the Colonel – Part I

Becoming the Colonel:
E. H. Taylor and the Making of a Bourbon Aristocrat

MCH

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.

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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.”

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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.)

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This placard featuring Colonel E. H. Taylor oversees operations in the mash room at the Buffalo Trace Distillery.

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.

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The Old Taylor Distillery in Millville as it sits today. (The grounds are currently being renovated in anticipation of a new distillery beginning operations here for the first time in decades. Check back for commentary on these renovations in the coming months!)

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.

HISTORY: Not Your Grandpa’s Sazerac

Not Your Grandpa’s Sazerac (but maybe his grandpa’s):
An Argument for the Historically Accurate Sazerac

RCP

The sazerac is, according to some, not only an historic cocktail, but the historic cocktail: a frenglish word for coquetier, the cup that Antoine Peychaud first used to serve his now famous bitters in the Big Easy almost 200 years ago. We know it today as a rye-based drink—indeed, my response to the bartender who asks me upon my ordering one what kind of bourbon I’d like is “I’ll have a Manhattan, please”—but this was not always the case. If the etymology of “cocktail” is most likely delightfully apocryphal, the genesis of the title Sazerac is anything but, and therein lies the basis for the Historically Accurate Sazerac, a drink that takes us to a time of transition in post-Civil War New Orleans.

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The Sazerac.

Like the tales told by revelers the afternoon following a night on Bourbon Street, parts of the Sazerac’s history are a bit cloudy. Sources from The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink to The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture’s volume on Foodways disagree on whether it was Sewell Taylor or John B. Schiller who made Peychaud’s concoction of bitters and sugar famous, and the genesis of the absinthe rinse is recalled with about as much precision as you would expect from anyone consuming absinthe. One thing is certain: the reason you don’t walk into a bar and order a “Taylor” or a “Schiller” isn’t because imbibers forgot their bartender, or the fact that neither of these gentlemen actually made the drink that famous, but also because the original cocktail wasn’t known by its maker, but by the main ingredient, Sazerac de Forge French brandy.

It’s easy to skip over Taylor and Schiller, as Imbibe! author David Wondrich does, to focus on the far better known Thomas Handy, who purchased Peychaud’s formula from him in 1870 and paid him a salary to manufacture the bitters. In an attempt to keep up with changing American tastes—not to mention changing availabilities of French brandy—Handy was the first to swap the foreign spirit for the American one, replacing the brandy with rye. After Handy’s death his widow’s company commercially sold the sazerac in bottles bearing his name, which is now most recognizable for appropriately gracing Buffalo Trace’s antique “Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Straight Rye Whiskey.”

But, again, the dates here remain as suspect as a Huey Long election. While Handy’s famous substitution probably took place sometime in the 1870’s, it’s unlikely that it happened uniformly or overnight. Like any change in a tried and true recipe (New Coke and Guinness’s recent vegan capitulation come to mind), not all consumers were pleased with the new and improved version, and some no doubt continued to order the drink with brandy. Secondly, while rye was an old spirit—far older than bourbon, which was just reaching its stride in the 1870s—given that the legal battles for copyright protections and enforced standards that would ensure truth in labeling and quality were only just getting passed, the rye used in the drink wasn’t necessarily the smoothest, purest, best-aged whiskey available. More likely it was young and rough, and possibly distilled in New Orleans from ingredients purchased upriver, meaning it lacked even the aging that transport on a steamboat or railroad allowed.

The answer would’ve been to blend the traditional with the non-. Using both cognac and rye would’ve satisfied both old tastes and new, stretched the small supply of brandy limited by an agricultural tragedy in France, and mellowed some of the bite from un-aged American whiskey.

So while suggesting to a bartender or guest today that a sazerac be made with both French brandy and American whiskey will garner you denunciations as a heretic, remind your detractors that 140 years ago, their singularly rye-based tipple was the upstart, and you’re simply enjoying the best of both the old world and the new.

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Ingredients for the historically accurate Sazerac.

RECIPE: The Historically Accurate Sazerac

Like other variations on the sazerac, from Cure’s antebellum version in New Orleans to the Big Jones post-Prohibition version in Chicago, The Historically Accurate Sazerac embodies a specific time in the drink’s history. It also captures the culture of the city of its birth, a city with which it can never be disassociated. Sweet, spicy, and biting, part French and part southern, rinsed with absinthe and an air of expatriate mystery, the complex ingredients and artful preparation put New Orleans in a glass.

1.5oz Rye

1.5oz Cognac

Peychaud’s Bitters

Angostura Bitters

Simple Syrup

Absinthe

Lemon Peel

2 glasses

Pour enough absinthe in the first glass to shallowly cover the bottom; place in the freezer to chill. Pour the rye and cognac into the second glass, adding 4-6 dashes of Peychaud’s and 2-3 dashes of Angostura. Sweeten to taste with simple syrup (one spoonful will be relatively dry; 3 spoonfuls sweet enough for dessert). Add ice, stir, and let sit. Retrieve chilled glass and rinse by turning the glass at an angle and rotating, coating the sides with the absinthe. Leave any standing absinthe in the bottom of the glass. Strain the second glass into the chilled and rinsed one; drop lemon peel in and enjoy.

A versatile drink, it can be served ice-chilled to temper a steamy bayou afternoon, or room temperature on a fireside winter night. Adjust accordingly.

SOURCES: In addition to those mentioned in the text, consult Carson, The Social History of Bourbon, and “Handy v. Commander” in The Southern Reporter: Containing all the Decisions of the Supreme Courts of Alabama, Louisiana, Florida, and Mississippi, vol 22 (June 9, 1897-February 9, 1898): 230-236.