19th Century Distilling Papers at The Filson
By Michael R. Veach
Many historians state that the 19th century starts with the French Revolution and ends with the Great War. It can also be said that the 19th century distilling industry starts with the whiskey rebellion and ends with prohibition, covering roughly the same time period.
Since we looked at “Early Distilling Papers at The Filson” in a previous issue (Vol.5, No.3, Summer 2005), we will start here in the 1830s.
The distilling industry in the 1830s was beginning to shift from the farm to the city through “rectifiers” – merchants who bought whiskey from farmer distillers and “rectified” it to sell as their own brand. This process could be anything from simply aging the product to adding sugar and other flavoring agents to the alcohol to make a product more appealing to consumers. Most whiskey was sold by the barrel but many companies started bottling their product to sell to the consumer in the 1830s. The Filson has a scrapbook of labels produced by printer Henry Miller in the 1840s and 50s that include many labels for bourbon and rye.
The distillers in the first half of the 19th century used pot still technology and The Filson has a Henry Clay legal brief that gives a description of a typical pot still. Clay is representing his cousin Green Clay in a case against George Coons and John Cock for failure to deliver his still. The invention of the column still in 1830 by Aeneas Coffey in Ireland created a method of distilling large amounts of whiskey for a small amount of money. This allowed larger distilleries to locate in cities and towns with their supply of grain coming to them by railroad. It also allowed them to produce higher proof spirits that could be blended with whiskey by rectifiers to create cheap products.
In the 1830’s James Crow became the distiller for Oscar Pepper at his Woodford County distillery. Crow started using scientific methods to measure such things as pH and temperature during the distillation process to document the process and its changes. The measurements made it easier to duplicate the process and make a consistent product. It was Crow’s quality of whiskey that E. H. Taylor, Jr. wished to produce when he entered the business after the Civil War. The Filson is fortunate to have records pertaining to E.H. Taylor, Jr. in the Taylor-Hay Family Papers.
Before entering the distilling business, Taylor took a tour of distilleries in Scotland, Ireland, Germany, and France to see for himself the most modern processes and distillery layouts. Upon his return to Kentucky his first project was helping with the design of the “Hermitage Distillery” for Gaines, Berry and Co. who owned the Old Crow brand at the time. A few years later he purchased an old distillery on the Kentucky River and rebuilt it as the “OFC Distillery” which started production in 1870. The Taylor-Hay Family Papers include Taylor’s correspondence from this period along with business receipts, letterpress books and distilling ledgers.
The “OFC Distillery” was an “Old Fashioned Copper” distillery that used pot stills and small mash tubs to make a true sour mash whiskey. Taylor was a straight whiskey distiller and saw the rectifiers as his main competition. Taylor and others believed that the rectifiers, who produced an imitation bourbon using neutral spirits and flavoring in less than a day, were damaging the tradition of quality aged Kentucky whiskey. He was not the only distiller who took this attitude. Other distillers who agreed with Taylor testified before Congress and argued for the increase of the Bonding Period for whiskey. The Filson has his testimony as recorded in the Congressional Record for 27 July 1888 in the library pamphlet collection. In this pamphlet, distiller John Atherton states that it is understood in the industry that Kentucky Whiskey is made for the purpose of aging and most often sold straight. He also goes into detail on how the whiskey is made and aged.
In the late 19th century most whiskey was sold by the barrel to a liquor store, druggist or tavern. The whiskey was then sold to consumers who would often bring in their own bottle or jug, but distilleries and rectifiers often offered jugs for sale to the consumer. The Filson has the J. D. Barnett Collection of stoneware jugs that are fine examples of typical 19th century whiskey jugs. Taverns would serve the whiskey to their customers by filling a bar decanter from the barrel when needed. Individuals could also purchase a full barrel and decant the whiskey as needed. The Filson Museum also has several nice examples of 19th century decanters.
After the Civil War there were many changes in the distilling industry. In 1879 Fredrick Stitzel patented the system of barrel racks that is still used in bourbon warehouses to store barrels today. The Filson has his patent model in its museum collection. In 1870, George Garvin Brown created the Old Forrester brand of whiskey and decided to sell it only by the bottle in order to guarantee the consistent quality of the whiskey for the medical trade. Brand names became a very important part of the industry and advertising for these brands began to appear. The Filson has some of this advertising art in its museum collection including an “I. W. Harper” hunting scene on glass, an “Old Dixie” oil painting and a W. L. Weller “Mammoth Cave” silk banner. Letterheads are another source of advertisement and The Filson has several collections with examples of distilling letterhead. The papers for the 1895 Grand Army of the Republic Encampment and the Taylor-Hay Family Papers are both rich with examples of distillery letterhead.
The library at The Filson is a very good source for information on 19th century distilling. Louisville City Directories have ad- dresses and often advertisements for distillers and rectifiers. In the Rare Books collection, there are also several Louisville Business Directories that give the location of Louisville businesses including distilleries and a brief description and history of firms. These volumes are indexed by firm names and personal names. This index was compiled by retired Filson Librarian Dorothy Rush. Also in the Rare Books collection is a copy of the book A History of Kentucky Distilling Interest published by the Kentucky Distillers Bureau of Lexington in 1893 that has descriptions and brief histories of distilling firms throughout the state.
The end of the 19th century saw the passage of the Bottled-In- Bond Act of 1897. E.H. Taylor, Jr. played a significant role in getting this law passed and then promoting Bonded Whiskey in the U.S. market. “Bottled-In-Bond” whiskey must be all from the same distillery, made in the same season, aged at least four years, and bottled at 100 proof. At the time this law was seen as a model for future Pure Food and Drug laws. The Taylor-Hay Family Papers have three scrapbooks put together by E H Taylor, Jr. with many articles dealing with his efforts to promote Bonded Whiskey in the early 20th century.
The distilling industry played an important role in the 19th century Kentucky economy. Kentucky had hundreds of distilleries and rectifying companies who provided jobs and paid taxes, thereby helping to support the government before there was an income tax. The 20th century saw a huge change in the business leading to the companies and brands we know today. The Filson has many sources including both published materials and original manuscripts, as well as artifacts that are of interest to anyone researching 19th century distilling in Kentucky.
The Filson Historical Society