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So what happened to Old Crow to take it from top seller to bottom shelf dweller?

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Show Notes

After Dr. Crow and Oscar Pepper passed away, the history of Old Crow would take a dramatic turn. James E. Pepper would be the new generation taking over the old distillery, but Old Crow would move on, with a little help from Colonel E.H. Taylor.

In this episode, I'll take a look at 130 legendary years that followed this tumultuous period. And I'll talk with David Meier of Glenn's Creek Distilling, the current owner of the Old Crow Distillery ruins, about what he is doing to preserve the legacy of Dr. James C. Crow.

This Episode Includes:

  • Post Civil War and Old Crow
  • Oscar Pepper dies and the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery is leased
  • Colonel E.H. Taylor and James E. Pepper get involved
  • The move to the Old Crow Distillery (and what of Hermitage Distillery)?
  • Debunking a theory of how Dr. Crow gained his consistent product
  • A new Old Crow due to Coffey.
  • Mark Twain and a cast of characters
  • The Prohibition medicinal shuffle
  • Seton Porter and National Distillers
  • The teatotalling years of industrial alcohol
  • The mistake (or was it) that sent Crow to the bottom
  • Jim Beam takes over
  • David Meier talks about OCD #5 and this other tribute to Old Crow, Cuervito Vivo
  • What is the future for the vernable old brand?

Transcript

Last week on Whiskey Lore, we heard the story of a young Scotsman, whose timely decision to immigrate to America likely changed the course of bourbon. After honing his skills at the Grier’s Creek Distillery, Dr. James C. Crow took his scientific process for making whiskey to Oscar Pepper’s distillery on Glenn’s Creek. It is there that his barrels of Old Crow whiskey would develop a legendary status. But when Dr. Crow and Oscar Pepper passed away, the whiskey would enter a time of uncertainty. 

Yet it wouldn’t be long before a certain legendary Kentucky Colonel would come along - and help Old Crow a cathedral worthy of one of the most respected and high in demand whiskeys in the nation. And later, we’ll hear from David Meier, the man who is playing caretaker to the ruins of that great cathedral and we’ll hear how Old Crow went from top seller to bottom shelf dweller.

It was 1865. The American Civil War had finally been settled, leaving a weary nation to pick up the pieces. Two months after the tragic assassination of President Lincoln, the owner of one of Kentucky’s most successful distilleries, Oscar Pepper passed away.  

Oscar owned a fair amount of property and had several sons, so there was surely enough to go around. But in the case of the property that included the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery, that somehow ended up going to Oscar’s infant son Presley O’Bannon Pepper and this threw the responsibility for the distillery into the hands of Oscar’s wife Nancy. With no one to run the family business, Nannie, as she was known, decided to lease the distillery to a firm called Gaines, Berry & Co. A company who had as one of its founders, none other than Colonel E. H. Taylor. The future of the Old Crow and Old Oscar Pepper brands would be under his care for at least a couple of years. But as with many things relating to Old Crow, the details of this ownership are few and far between. 

As is the early relationship between the Colonel and Oscar’s oldest boy James E. Pepper. It is said that Taylor was the boy's guardian, but there is little in the record to show how this came about. But whatever the circumstance of the guardianship, it would play an important part in the future of Old Crow. As would the expiring lease Gaines, Berry, & Co. had on the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery. 

The first couple of years of the 1870s would introduce great change along the banks of Glenn’s Creek. Colonel Taylor would leave Gaines, Berry, & Co. The company would then change its name to W.A. Gaines & Co.

Then young Presley O’Bannon, the heir to the Pepper distillery, passed away at age seven. James was likely running the day to day of the distillery by then, but his mother wasn’t ready to give up control. With the help of Colonel Taylor, James was forced to sue his mother to gain control of the business. 

He eventually won in 1872, and thus began a short term partnership with Colonel Taylor, who was at least temporarily committed to the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery. The pair set about making some improvements and they easily persuaded Dr. Crow’s old assistant William Mitchell to stay with the Pepper distillery. 

Yet Pepper and Taylor didn’t hold onto the Old Crow brand. That remained with W.A. Gaines & Co. and it needed a new home and a new distiller. So Gaines made an offer to Mitchell’s assistant Van Johnson, who jumped at the chance to leave the Pepper Distillery and head up production of Old Crow in its new home up the road - a home whose origins, just like the brand and namesake it carries, are deeply shrouded in mystery. 

The Old Crow Distillery that Johnson moved to still exists today, although time and decay have taken their toll on the stone structures. David Meier’s Glenn’s Creek Distillery currently occupies the distillery’s old bottling house.

Ask David and he will place the creation of the distillery around 1878. Distillery registrations didn’t start until around 1882, so that further complicates things. There is a theory that W.A. Gaines may have built it as early as 1868 for making the Hermitage brand, and that when the lease was up at the Old Oscar Pepper, Gaines moved Old Crow to the distillery and built a new home for Hermitage on the banks of the Kentucky River. While others say that Old Crow was always made there.

What makes the late 1860s date the logical choice is the fingerprint E. H. Taylor left on the distillery. And since he was gone from Gaines by 1870, that fingerprint wouldn’t have been possible at any later date. 

Another logical conclusion, according to David, is that the methods of distilling at Old Crow were to be altered drastically from Dr. Crow’s old methods because of a major feature change between the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery (today’s Woodford Reserve) and this newer Old Crow Distillery.  For the first time, Old Crow would be produced in a mass production Coffey or column still, rather than being presided over batch by batch through use of a traditional pot still. 

Putting an end to the theory that Dr. Crow’s reputation for consistency was somehow aided by the age of the column still. 

David: Now the Coffey Still was invented in Europe prior to his death, but I don’t think he ever saw it.  What I tell people is I don't know this to be fact but I said look at the size of Woodford based on the size of the buildings they never had a continuous still. These things require massive infrastructure. 

There's a photo there that was taken of Colonel Taylor and based on what they were fermenting in wooden vessels that look like a large barrel, like about 80 gallons or so. And they're mashing in and in the old days they literally mashed it like mashed potatoes. And based on those fermenters I’m saying there's no way that fermenter could supply continuous still. That's a hungry beast. That continuous still has got to feed it constantly you got to take away from it constantly and it consumes a lot of mash. I mean they did 150,000 gallons of mash here a day!

Drew: So I’m guessing in the 1940s and 50s from when Old Crow was still a popular brand, it could have been the same formula, but it wasn’t going to be the same whiskey. 

David: Not the same at all. 

So the venerable old brand was in for a process makeover, and whether it was Dr. Crow’s apprentice William Mitchell or his assistant Van Johnson, someone was about to change the secret formula and for the next 130 years, Old Crow’s reputation would live or die by the critical choices to be made. 

Enter the golden era for Old Crow. Basking in the glow of its superior reputation, its fans included Mark Twain, who was so enamoured with it, he actually visited the The Old Crow Distillery in 1880 (although future ads would incorrectly show pot stills in the facility instead of the massive column still). Walt Whitman and Jack London were also fans. And lore suggested that presidents from Andrew Jackson to Abraham Lincoln to Ulysses S. Grant were frequenters of the spirit - although there is no evidence to support this. 

Yet, with all the fame surrounding the brand, its namesake was disappearing into obscurity. Sometime after the Civil War, Old Crow was no longer was synonymous with the doctor who created it. Instead, he had been replaced by a mascot. Some say the image of a black crow flanked on both sides by barley grains represented the bridge between the North and South during the American Civil War. But others wanted to commander the whiskey for their own means. There is a story about a Pennsylvania Union brigade that suggested that Old Crow was the only good thing to come out of the south. They were said to be so passionate about the whiskey, they penned a letter to President Lincoln proclaiming that "We must not let the fine gentleman Old Crow escape. Remember Mr. President, the crow with the sharpest talons holds on to barley forever."

The venerable old brand kept its stature through thick and thin. Even Prohibition couldn’t stop it, as W.A. Gaines & Co. sold the brand to American Medicinal Spirits - thus, providing a suddenly sickly nation with plenty of pints of Old Crow elixir. 

In the late 1920s a man named Seton Porter saw the potential for an ending of Prohibition and he encouraged his company, National Distillers, to start stockpiling pre-Prohibition whiskey. National Distillers was a remnant of the old Whiskey Trust. The Wathen family, which owned American Medicinal Spirits, sold Old Crow to National Distillers.

Coming out of Prohibition, when all of the other distillers were looking for investors and trying to rebuild what they had torn down, National Distillers came out of the gates at a full gallop. It didn’t take Old Crow long to easily reclaim its fantastic sales numbers. And as with today’s conglomerates like Diageo, Moet Hennessey, and Beam Suntory, National Distillers embraced the brands heritage. Ads featured Henry Clay, Mark Twain, and they also revived the story of the whiskey’s creator Dr. James C. Crow. 

But in 1949, Porter left the leadership of National Distillers and unfortunately for Old Crow, his replacement was a teetotaler named James Bierwirth. If Bierwirth had his way, National Distillers would have divested itself of most, if not all of its consumable alcohol. The company diversified heavily into chemicals and industrial alcohol production.

And then, in the late 1960s, something strange happened. Something that helped tear down a 130 year old brand with a stellar reputation.  And as we’ve come to expect from Old Crow, that something is shrouded in mystery and conflicting stories. And whether it was a mistake or calculated maneuver, the memory of this event has left an indelible mark on the industry.

David: One of the things that causes fear and the industry is the story of Old Crow. I don't know if you're aware but the brand took a serious decline and there's two there's two possible stories at least that are out there. One is that during a renovation in 1964 somebody miscalculated the size of one of the tanks of fermenting or cookers or something and so the recipe got thrown off kilter. And the employees recognized it in the taste of the distillate and said hey this isn't working. And they were told to do it anyway and you know then the four years later or whatever discover your stuff doesn't taste as good. I think it's just as likely in this I don't have facts if your business is in a decline what do you do you try to cut cost you you know and if you're looking a way to cut costs you cut corners or different things perhaps and then it might affect the quality. so you know whichever one of those is true I don't really know but but certainly people will tell you that the quality of the product somehow declined over time.

Drew: So the interesting thing about the Old Crow story is that I’ve also heard that after they found out that it wasn’t good anymore they kept making it. And if that’s the case, then it goes much closer to the cost cutting theory. Because if you make a mistake then someone would try to fix it.

David: It's interesting the gentleman who used to be superintendent here he comes and visits us and he tells the story that what they figured out was they couldn't keep up with the supply at the dry house where they were drying the grains. They were getting excess liquid everyday and that's how they figured out that the recipe had kilter, because you know it manufacturing when you create processes you try to create processes that have balanced capacity. So if I'm distilling X amount of liquid everyday and grain everyday I got to be able to dry that grain and get rid of it everyday and and there's you know there's no accumulation of it. If you’ve got 260,000 lb of corn coming in every day you got it you got to get rid of it. You don't just throw it to the hogs like they did back in crow's day because they were doing what we do I generate about we generate about 12 to 14 55 gallon plastic barrels a week of spent grains. So on our scale which is what the stories were before the Continuous Still came into being you know you had your own animals and that's what you fed you know and that's how you got rid of your your by-product. But yeah I'm kind of like you and like tell you, you're trusted employees tell you that what you're producing doesn't taste right you might stop and correct that. Something's wrong what is it let's figure it out and and it got corrected I think at some point but then it was maybe too late which is the other thing that can happen. I don't know if that story is true or not I mean I've heard it, I can’t validate it.

And so in an ironic twist of fate, a product created by a man who prized quality, accuracy, and consistency, was done in by either a mistake or an attempt to go for quantity over quality in a cost cutting measure. 

Old Crow hobbled on. And playing into the cost cutting story, there was a whiskey depression in full swing in 1987, and National Distillers began divesting itself of its whiskey brands. And that is when Jim Beam came in and bought the brand, the distillery, and the warehouses. But it wouldn’t be long before the distillery was no longer needed and they left it to the elements for nature to consume. 

Old Crow continued to be made, but over the years, it has basically become a 3 year old 80 proof version of Jim Beam’s flagship white label. And sadly, while other old brands like Old GrandDad, Old Forester, and Early Times are seeing bottled-in-bond versions and are being elevated with special editions, the brand that was synonymous with quality bourbon for well over 130 years sits quietly waiting on the dusty bottom shelf.

But it's not without its fans. A $10 a liter and featuring a light watered down character, it can make for an easy drinker.

As for the nearly 150 year old distillery, in 2013 David Meier happened upon the historic old property and soon started developing a vision for its care and revitalization. He has also embraced the legacy of Dr. Crow, naming one of his homemade stills after him, and creating whiskeys that pay homage to him. One of those whiskeys even utilizes a natural asset that was found in one of the old distillery’s fermentation tanks.

David : OCD well you know we don't own the brand old crow but we certainly on the building old crow So originally it was going to be called OC number five for old Crow and I got to looking at it and I thought well I will play on words there OCD old pro distillery perhaps maybe But yeah if you look at my business card it says old cranky Dave on it if you look at John's it says obsessive compulsive distiller and Joe has overly cautious distiller and Stewart has old cool dudes and so we've got a long long list of what OCD might stand for but you know and the number 5 we caught yeast in the fermenter back there in the decilli from enter number 5 and so that's what we use to ferment with and that's where the number came from people asked was there a batch for No it's not Is there going to be a 6 No for a minute or 5 is where we caught yeast and that's that's where the number comes from 

Cuervito Vivo

So this one actually the newer product for us is actually more more of the Old Crow recipe you know You can you can go back into the store and I've been in manufacturing 35 years and what I do is process and so I can look at the process and make a lot of understand it fairly well just by observing it because that's what I do for a living when I'm not distilling And I know I know what that is and it's only going to be doing it now anyway there's eight grain bins back there where the grain the mill grains would go into the scale and then that drop down through the floor into the cooker okay there's eight bins they're all exactly the same number of bushels per bin okay if five of them are corn and two or rye and one is barley what is the recipe approximately Yeah approximately okay Yeah I know five parts two parts one part right So the recipe is actually a 70/20/10 * 20 Ryan 1010 barley okay And then and then you know Old Crow the barrel entry proof makes a difference in the final product They went in the barrel at 115 Taylor was pretty well known for trying to go into barrel at lower proof but there's a trade off in every decision there's a trade off just like building a still when you change the steel you get a trade off okay And and back to that story about dents and whatever if you're worried about changing a variable and that variable is going to affect your your product and your product is you're not going to find out for many years down the road it's something to be worried about And when you're cooking 30,000 gallon mass at a time here or 90,000 now in some cases you got a lot of invested in that one cook let alone the product that comes out of it okay So so there's a lot to be worried about there We don't have to worry so much because we don't have as much invested in each individual cook and you know we're cooking a few hundred gallons at a time and you know and it's pretty reliable So so we buy our corn from somewhere and they they do all that testing and so forth We don't have to do it most distilleries test the corn from moisture cuz you pay by the pound and your moisture levels higher you're paying more So it's a economic choice So so there's a lot to lose I mean there's billions when you if you think about making bourbon and say $500 a barrel for it and you're putting it away for 20 years and you've got a thousand barrels a day that you're producing over most of the year they sat down for brief time At times 20 years do the math we're talking about a lot of money a lot So you're really cautious about changing anything So for the longest time this industry really was reluctant to change anything and and the product mix reflected that You can go back 30 years and you go into the Bourbon island at 6 ft wide you know everybody had their one brand a 1 1 1 Now you go in and and it's like hold it back with everybody's got it you know everybody's got 20 versions of whatever So so yeah I I I would call it more superstitious but also this paranoia because of the expense and what you have to do with you know and you won't find out about the trouble until it's too late Yeah right And and by then then what because you can't can't go distill more and sell it the next day you got to wait those years again And so that that's really I think what drives that kind of thinking plus it's good story telling when you go to the distillery to say oh yeah we're worried about it every day

55 We did so in trying to to emulate old crow you know they bottled at 8086 and 100 They had a bottom bond at 100 We tried we cut it back to 100 to see what it was like and we didn't like it as much so we left it we left it a little bit higher

Unopenedcourt natural court will will evaporate a little bit out of it yeah but no we you know that was one of the things early on the first time we bottled OCD you know I I experimented with some different proof levels trying to cut it back see what we wanted to do and I brought it in let John try any kind of scratched up his nose and he said what did you do to that I cut it back to 100 proof and he said don't do that anymore

If you ever make your way south of Frankfort, it’s definitely worth a visit down to Glenn’s Creek Distillery to see what David and the team are doing to honor the legacy of Dr. Crow. You can also catch a glimpse of those amazing old buildings off behind the current distillery.

Drive a little further down McCracken Pike and you’ll see Castle & Key, on the site of the old Johnson Distillery where Dr. Crow might have taken his last breath and where Colonel Taylor built his castle-like distiller a couple decades later.

Head even further down toward Versailles and check out Woodford Reserve and its historic limestone stillhouse. The distillery that Old Crow built and the building where American whiskey started earning its reputation as a quality spirit. For the bourbon fan, that short drive beside little Glenn’s Creek to three historic distilleries is a day you won’t soon forget.

As for the whiskey that bears Dr. Crow’s name, who knows what the brass at Beam Suntory will choose to do with this legendary whiskey.

Yes, its name was unfortunately tarnished by a moment in time, but it is no less a tarnishing than Four Roses took when the name was stamped on bottles of light whiskey. In the bourbon world, there is always a chance for redemption. 

And in a world full of renewed legacy brands and elevated stories of founders and creators, is there anyone more deserving of a brand and image revival than the mysterious Scotsman, who narrowly missed getting sucked into the great scotch whisky revival, only to help his adopted country’s bourbon rise up and take its deserving place among the world’s greatest whiskeys.

I’m Drew Hannush and this is Whiskey Lore

Whiskey Lore is a production of Travel Fuels Life

Research, stories and production by Drew Hannush

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I hope you enjoyed hearing a bit more about a whiskey I think deserves much more esteem that it has received in recent years. 

And I had a great conversation with David Meier and love those guys rebellious spirit and passion for what they do. If you want to hear more of my interview with David, make sure you’re subscribed on your podcast app, so you don’t miss my outtakes from the interview.

And until next week Cheers and Slainte math