I had the pleasure of attending a party at the Buffalo Trace Distillery on July 29th. The purpose of this party was to celebrate the purchase of the Old Taylor brand from Fortune Brands, the company that owns Jim Beam bourbon. E. H. Taylor, Jr. founded the OFC distillery in Frankfort, Ky. and that distillery is now the Buffalo Trace Distillery. The Filson Historical Society has the papers of E. H. Taylor, Jr. from the time that he owned the distillery in the 1870s. These papers illustrate how important Taylor was to the distilling industry in Kentucky.
Edmond Haynes Taylor was born near Fulton in the Jackson Purchase region of Kentucky in 1830. His father died while returning to Kentucky from New Orleans in 1835. E. H. Taylor spent time in Louisiana with his great uncle Zachary Taylor before coming to Lexington, Kentucky to live with his uncle Edmond Haynes Taylor. It was in Lexington that “Jr.” was added to his name to distinguish him from his uncle Edmond. E. H. Taylor, Jr. was educated in Lexington and got his start in banking in the 1850s. For various reasons the bank closed its books by late 1857 and Taylor tried his hand in various other enterprises before getting into the distilling business. After the Civil War, Taylor became the “Company” in the firm of Gaines, Berry and Co. who purchased the Old Crow brand from the Old Oscar Pepper distillery in the 1860s. Taylor spent a year in 1866 touring European distilleries in Scotland, Ireland, France and Germany before returning to America to help design the new distillery for Gaines, Berry and Co.
In 1870 Taylor took the knowledge he has gained in distillery design and purchase a small distillery on the banks of the Kentucky River and started to build it into the “OFC” (Old Fashioned Copper) distillery that is now Buffalo Trace Distillery. From the beginning Taylor had two goals in mind for his distillery. First, the whiskey made at the distillery had to be top notch quality that was equal to the whiskey made by Dr. James C. Crow. Second, the distillery would be as attractive as possible so that visitors to the distillery would know that it was not simply another Kentucky distillery. In an era when most distilleries were simple wooden buildings with iron clad warehouses and nearby hog lots, Taylor decided to build his distillery and warehouses out of bricks. He took time to add architectural details such as arched windows and keystones inscribed with “OFC”. Inside the distillery he insisted on modern pot stills and other equipment made from copper that would shine and impress the viewer. Modern steam boilers heated not only the stills, but also the warehouses in the winter. Taylor recognized the importance of packaging to consumers and during the 19th century that was the bourbon barrel. Taylor designed a fancy brand for the barrel head that included his signature and had the coopers use brass hoops in order to make his barrels stand out from other brands.
Over production of whiskey nationwide drove down whiskey prices and a run on the banks in the late 1870s caused Taylor to get into financial trouble. The distillery was saved only after the St. Louis firm of Gregory and Stagg came to Taylor’s rescue. Gregory and Stagg were one of Taylor’s largest customers and gaining control of the distillery was a way to increase their profits at the expense of the quality of whiskey. This caused E. H. Taylor, Jr. to cut his ties with the distillery in 1884 at which point George T. Stagg became the manager of the distillery.
Today, Buffalo Trace celebrates this history. Mark Brown, the President of Buffalo Trace Distillery, is familiar with the Taylor papers at the Filson and makes no attempt to hide the fact that Taylor and Stagg parted on unfriendly terms and why it is important to remember this conflict in their history. The general plan is to let the Old Taylor brand return to its roots as a super premium bourbon in the same category as the Van Winkle brands of bourbon. It is exciting to see that for Buffalo Trace, heritage does mean something other than a marketing ploy.