Looking at the images and names of the bottles of Bourbon labels, I have often contemplated how the brand name was derived. Starting with the term “Brand Name”, this term comes from the 19th century when the barrel was the major package for whiskey. The distillers would brand their name on the barrel head thus giving use the term used even today. As distilleries increased reputation and production, they would put more elaborate brands on the barrel head, creating their unique trademark. These trademarks were often the distiller’s name, but often they would use some other term that was meant to attract the attention of the consumer to sell more whiskey. Names like Old Crow, Early Times, and Old Taylor were used to evoke a sense of age in the whiskey. After the success of Canadian Club, many distillers started using names with the word “Club” in their brands such as Kentucky Club and Lexington Club. They would also use animals such as Chicken Cock and Old Elk or locations such as Yellowstone and Mammoth Cave.
As grocers started providing bottled whiskey to customers the earliest labels were often very simple. In a collection of labels from a printer from the 1850s at the Filson Historical Society, many of the labels provided to customers simply read “Bourbon”, “Rye” or “Brandy”. Occasionally the name of the grocer would also be on the label. Still the primary package for whiskey was the barrel and customers would bring their own flask or jug, but distillers started providing jugs with the distiller or grocer on the jug started appearing, Bars would be able to purchase “Bar Decanters” with the names embossed in enamel on the glass for using to pour drinks or mix cocktails.
In the 1880s glass bottles became more economical as technology provided less expensive bottles made by machines, replacing the hand blown glass bottles from earlier in the century. James E. Pepper became the first distiller to bottle his whiskey and offer it to consumers in the late 1880s. With more common sales in bottles came more elaborate labels for these products. Labels would be brightly colored and often picturesque to attract consumers. Still they were often very simple in content with just the brand name and distiller or rectifier providing the brand on the label. Sometimes there would be an age statement and proof but such information was not always found. In 1897 with the passage of the Bottled-in-Bond Act, the term “Bottled-in-Bond” was added to these whiskeys and a tax stamp with the season and year the whiskey was made and the season and year the whiskey was bottled provided the consumer with additional information was added across the cork to insure that the whiskey was not tampered with before the purchase by the consumer. The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 required the brand be labeled as “Straight”, ‘Blended” or “Imitation” whiskey on the label.
After prohibition the government regulated the labeling. Information such as the Distiller or bottler and the proof of the whiskey were required. If the product was under four years old, then an age statement also was required. The labels with age statements had to have the age of the youngest whiskey in the bottle listed. The label changed very little until the 1980s when computer bar codes and health warnings were required on the labels.
Brand names were changing in the last half of the 20th century as consumer attitudes changed. There were less references to terms involving age. Not many brands were introduced with terms like “old” in their names. Often the new brands were named for people such as Even Williams, Elijah Craig, Blanton’s and Booker’s. There were also more place names like Woodford Reserve, Rock Hill Farms, and Knob Creek. Many of the names were aimed at other successful brands. Jack Daniel’s success attracted many look alike brands in square bottles and black labels like Ezra Brooks and Even Williams. Wild Turkey 101 inspired Eagle Rare 101 and Maker’s Mark inspired Benchmark.
Modern Whiskey labels have evolved over the past two centuries as technology changed the industry, but the primary purpose of labels has not changed. The purpose of the label is to attract consumers and sell the whiskey being made by the distillery.