The Legend of Dr. James C. Crow and His Whiskey
One of the most talked about but least understood legends of American bourbon and the namesake of Old Crow whiskey.
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Amazing, for all of the people who talk about him in the bourbon industry, Dr. James C. Crow's life is somewhat of a mystery. Born in Inverness, Scotland in 1789, he moved to America and landed in Kentucky. When people say his name, they usually talk about two things, his work with the sour mash process and his Old Crow whiskey. But his influence on the bourbon industry can't be understated.
Yet there are no biographies about his life. In fact, there is little written about him at all.
In the season 3 premiere episode, I'll talk about how Dr. Crow made his way to Kentucky and what happened when he got here. I'll also set up a discussion about the brand and whiskey he was instrumental in creating - a whisky that was considered one of the greatest and then suddenly lost its place among America's great bourbons. Find out on this week's episode.
Listen to the full episode with the player above or find it on your favorite podcast app under "Whiskey Lore." The full transcript is available on the tab above.
When it comes to marketing, brands are fragile things. Millions of dollars are spent to help elevate brands. And sometimes companies are so protective of their brands that they’ve been known over protect them.
Take Excite.com for instance. In 1999, Excite was the number two search engine behind Yahoo. The Excite executives felt their brand was so well positioned that when Larry Page offered to sell them his upstart search engine company Google for $750,000, Excite thought it was beneath them.
Just a year later, a fresh competitor in the video rental world - Netflix, approached rental juggernaut Blockbuster with an offer to assist them by providing an online video service, so that Blockbuster could focus on its brick and mortar business. According to Netflix CFO Barry McCarthy, "They just about laughed us out of their office."
History isn’t always kind when people are overprotective of a brand. Excite was bought by Ask.com and we all know what happened to Google. At Netflix is one of the most valuable tech brands while little plastic Blockbuster Video cards are tucked away somewhere in an old box in the attic.
But there are also cases where brands taken for granted. Take Toys R Us, for example, the toy giant was so successful year after year, they failed to adapt and disappeared. Like many stalwart retailers such as Sears or even seemingly tech savvy companies like Circuit City, Toys R Us couldn’t see past its one time dominance and failed to adapt and focus online. Another example is Eastman Kodak, a company that put cameras in the hands of the individuals, as far back as the 19th Century. They were actually one of the first to introduce a digital camera - doing so in the late 1970s. But they left the technology on the shelf, living off their name, and selling their film, until they became irrelevant.
And yes, in the world of whiskey, we have our own story about a stalwart well respected brand that lost its reputation through mismanagement and neglect.
During the second half of the 19th century, Old Crow bourbon and rye whiskey was enjoying a stellar reputation. If you were talking quality, Old Crow is likely what came to mind. And that reputation survived Prohibition, making the brand a top seller all the way through the 1950s. But somewhere along the way, Old Crow took a major turn for the worse. Customers started noticing a change in their venerable old whiskey. And that change sent a classic and respected brand right to the bottom shelf.
And amazingly, even with a whiskey boom going on, and other historic brands like James E. Pepper, Four Roses, Kentucky Owl, and Chicken Cock all being revitalized through special bottlings and special editions - somehow possibly one of the greatest and once most respected brands in bourbon continues to be tucked away below your kneecaps in the liquor store.
Well, with me being a fan of the underdog, I felt it was time to shed a little light on the history and legacy of this brand. How did Old Crow gather such a great reputation? What happened to take it from top seller to bottom shelf dweller? What’s up with that moss covered Old Crow Distillery in rural Kentucky that seems to be itching to share its secrets? And what does the future hold for one of America’s first great whiskey brands?
We’ll start by learning more about the origins of the brand and we’ll dive into the somewhat mysterious history of its creator. And later, I’ll be joined by distiller David Meier, the owner of Glenn’s Creek Distillery which is located in the old bottling house of that late 19th century Old Crow Distillery. And we’ll see how he is doing his part to carry on the legacy of Dr. James C. Crow.
Do you love bourbon? Do you love travel? Then check out Whiskey Lore’s Travel Guide to Experiencing Kentucky Bourbon. On Sale now at whiskey-lore.com/shop
It was 1789 and great change was happening around the world. In America, George Washington had just been sworn in as the first President of the United States. And meanwhile out on the frontier, a Baptist preacher named Elijah Craig, was starting his new life in what would soon become Kentucky. In France, a fiscal and social crisis had led to the storming of the Bastille in Paris, igniting the French Revolution. In Scotland, the national bard and hero of scotch lovers everywhere Robert Burns ironically had just gained employment as an exciseman, collecting taxes on whiskey. And out in the heart of the Scottish Highlands, in the town of Inverness, a future pioneer of American bourbon whiskey was born.
Not much is known of the early years of James Crow’s life in Scotland. In fact, for being such an important figure in the history of American whisky, it’s a little surprising that we know very little about how he lived, his personality, his theories, or even his achievements.
It leads one to speculate that this methodical thinking lover of science was likely more interested in burying himself in his work, rather than kowtowing and earning his stripes as a society man.
The most that we know is that he went off to the University of Edinburgh at some point in his youth and earned a doctorate in medicine and chemistry. With his degree in hand, he decided it was time to leave Scotland for greater opportunities in America.
This timing is not without major significance to the bourbon industry. You see, for a young doctor with interest in a career in the whisky trade, in 1822 Scotland didn’t hold much promise.
And it was all due to a greedy decision made by the Scottish Parliament in 1644. With whisky starting to take off across the country, the government saw a great opportunity to fill the national coffers with revenue from a whisky tax. But they went too far - and it forced many distillers into the shadows of illicit distilling. By 1822, it was said that over 14,000 illicit stills were being confiscated every year across Scotland. And for a young man who had just earned a valuable degree, made little sense to waste it creating illegal moonshine.
Little did he know that just one year after he left for America, the Scottish Parliament would pass the Excise Tax of 1823. A bill that would lower taxes thus bringing illicit distilling out of the shadows. That single act helped plant the seeds for the modern scotch whisky industry we know today.
As you will learn, if the law changed a year earlier, and had Dr. Crow stayed in Scotland, American bourbon might have had a very different future.
Arriving in Philadelphia, things didn’t get off to a great start for Jim. Maybe it was the expense of the long trip or perhaps he got into some bad business dealings, but there is mention of a bankruptcy that forced him to find greener pastures.
This is how he ended up in Kentucky. And with farmer distillers all around, there was certain to be plenty of opportunity. He fell into the employ of a prosperous farmer named Willis Field. Willis’ father had left his son and wife Ellen a large expanse of farmland, located on Grier’s Creek, just west of the town of Versailles and just south of the current location of Wild Turkey. This was a perfect location for distilling whiskey. With plenty of limestone filtering the water supply and the Kentucky River providing Grier’s Creek with plenty of nourishment to grow abundant grains, it was an ideal spot for Jim to begin his whiskey legacy.
For ten years, Dr. Crow took advantage of his creative freedom to start applying his scientific knowledge to the process of making whiskey.
For a rough and tumble American frontier, perfecting whiskey was likely the last thing on farmer’s minds. Instead, they would have been distilling whiskey for the purpose of making extra revenue out of their crops. For any whiskey other than corn whiskey, measurements of different grains into a consistent mashbill was likely unheard of. Distillation cuts would have varied wildly, fermentation times might have depended on the patience of the distiller, and the whiskey was either lightly aged or not aged at all - and while it is possible that the charring that gives bourbon much of its character was being used in parts of Kentucky, for the farmer-distiller, the sale was more important than the age. So there is little wonder that with this quantity over quality mentality, there was little reason to remember a brand of whiskey..
But in Dr. Crow’s world, the quality of whiskey was critically important. So he started utilizing tools that would have been foriegn to his distilling peers, but that most modern distillers take for granted. He used thermometers and hydrometers to determine temperature and the density of the spirit. His goal was to capture the very best of what was running through the stills.
While other distillers were focusing on the maximum output they could get from every run, he was focused on quality.
He used litmus paper and saccharometers to test the acidity of the mash and measure the level of sugars as the yeast was feeding.
He was adamant that his distilling equipment was kept clean and free of contaminants.
Yet for all of these advances he was making in producing whiskey, the thing he is most remembered for is his implementation of the sour mash process.
Similar to the technique used in making sourdough bread, bourbon’s sour mash process, requires a certain amount of mash to be set back until the next batch of cooked mash is ready. This setback or backset mash contains live active yeast that will help initiate the fermentation process.
There are two other reasons Dr. Crow is praised for his implementation of the sour mash process. It lowers pH levels to inhibit the growth of undesirable bacteria that could potentially ruin a batch.
And others suggest that adding the previously used mash to a new batch helps create batch consistency. But this theory was likely adopted through an association with Dr. Crow’s reputation for producing a consistently good product. But think back on all of the other skills that he was standardizing in the production of bourbon. It’s possible that sour mash may be taking just a bit too much credit for the consistency, when it was just one of many variables that he standardized.
And as to that assertion, Dr. Crow invented the sour mash process, this is more lore than truth. The best that could be said is that he helped bring it to prominence through the quality of his whiskey.
All of the quality product he was producing soon caught the attention of a nearby distillery owner Oscar Pepper. Young Oscar was a second generation distiller and the son of one of the pioneers of Kentucky bourbon, Elijah Pepper. Elijah had come to Versailles in 1797, and partnered with his brother-in-law, distilling at Big Spring. After a short time in Bourbon County, he finally settled down in 1812 on a plot of land in Woodford County, near Glenn’s Creek. The distillery he built was small and simple and for almost twenty years he went about the business of distilling whiskey. But when he passed away in 1831, the distillery passed on to his wife Sarah and she enlisted 22 year old Oscar’s help in running the distillery. Likely Oscar was in over his head, so he reached out to Dr. Crow and offered him the job of distiller. It would be the best move he ever made.
The doctor’s whiskey immediately paid dividends and it didn’t take long before product demand had Oscar creating plans for a newer, larger distillery. That resulting distillery, the one Dr. Crow’s whiskey helped finance still stands today. You will know it better as the current home of Woodford Reserve. Completed in 1838, it was then known as the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery, and it would serve as the home of Dr. Crow’s meticulously crafted whiskeys for almost two decades.
But at the time, brand names had not yet permeated the whiskey industry. So where did the name Old Crow come from and how did people know that that is what they were drinking?
Again, the records are few, but one thing we do know is that Oscar was compensating his distiller, at least partially, with whiskey. It is said that Jim got to keep at least 1 out of every 8 barrels of whiskey that he produced. And with whiskey being as good as currency in those days, it's likely that Dr. Crow easily survived financially by selling barrels with his name on them.
As for the word “old,” it is also thought that when marking barrels, the term old was used to describe aged whiskey. This has led to theories suggesting that Dr. Crow required his whiskey to be aged. However, “old” also was used to suggest the distilled whiskey had been produced by traditional methods. And in the case of the term “old bourbon,”, this is thought to be related to whiskey that came from the former territory known as Bourbon County, Kentucky. So the reason for the adoption of “old” in front of Crow will likely never be known. In reality, with the term being used on so many whiskeys at the time, it could have just become a term of endearment for any whiskey that was well liked.
However it got its name, barrels of Old Crow whiskey were garnering attention from some high profile clients. It is said that Kentucky Senator Henry Clay would take a barrel of Old Crow to Washington with him to “grease the wheels of government.”
And Kentucky Governor Robert Letcher, upon hearing that his friend Orlando Brown was experiencing a spell of bad health wrote a letter to his pal alerting him of the whiskey cure he was sending his way - saying, "That's all you need to make you well - you have been deprived of your "native victuals," and that creates a Rebellion in your abdominal regions - Old Crow will put down the insurrection."
But as popular as the whiskey became, the man behind it never seemed to aim for the spotlight. Nobody knows what day he was born. He has no lengthy biographies written about him. And to put a punctuation mark on this life of mystery, the last year of his life devolves into a lore-filled alternate ending reel that would make Mike Myers and his team of Wayne's World screenwriters quite envious.
As one story goes, Dr. Crow, concerned that his fine whiskey would live on, took the time to meticulously write down his methods and recipe for making his famous bourbon. And he entrusted it to his assistant William Mitchell, who was said to have carried on faithfully following the old master’s formula.
But another story suggests that when Dr. Crow died in 1856, Mitchell was left to pick up the pieces and had to recreate the steps and formula from memory.
Then yet another suggests that Dr. Crow’s formula actually died with him and no one knows what it was.
And one story has him leaving the Old Oscar Pepper in his final year of life, moving further up the creek to the old Johnson Distillery, which sits on the land where E.H. Taylor’s Old Taylor Distillery would be built in the future, and which is now the home of Castle & Key. According to that story, if Dr. Crow’s ghost haunts any area, it would be there, where he passed away in April of 1856.
But even if Dr. Crow did leave the Pepper distillery, it appears that the Old Crow brand and reputation continued on under William Mitchell’s care at the Pepper distillery - at least for the next decade, but the untimely death of Oscar Pepper in 1865 would bring on massive uncertainty with not only the distillery, but also with the Old Crow brand and formula.
Division of Oscar Pepper’s estate would take years to sort out and it would lead a lawsuit, the leasing of the distillery to a soon-to-be famous Kentucky Colonel, and eventually a new home for Old Crow.
Next week, I’ll dive into a tumultuous period that couldn’t stop the freight train that was Old Crow whiskey. And we’ll take a closer look at the home that Old Crow occupied for almost a century and the event that brought Old Crow whiskey from fame to misfortune.
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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Thanks for joining me for the start of season 3.
If you haven’t seen it yet, I have just launched the brand new Whiskey Lore shop with copies of my Kentucky bourbon travel guide and a beautiful Whiskey Lore podcast drinking glass. Just head to whiskey-lore.com/shop to check out the selection. And join me next week with my special guest David Meier of Glenn’s Creek Distillery as we talk Old Crow.
And until next week Cheers and Slainte math