When I started as an archivist at United Distillers, one of the purposes for the archive was to use it to support the heritage of the brands produced by U.D. The other main purpose was to use the history to revive old brands for new markets. During my time U.D. revived several old brands including, James E. Pepper and American Pride for the Eastern European markets and Jos. E. Finch and Henry Clay as “Rare Bourbons” in the United States market. United Distillers became Diageo and lost all interest in these brands and let the trademarks lapse. It has been 22 years since they closed their archive and new people have acquired the trademarks for James E. Pepper and Henry Clay.
If a company does not produce a certain number of bottles in a designated period of time, then the trademark is considered abandoned and is open for grabs. There are many labels that I worked on at United Distillers that have been revived with new ownership. Besides the ones I mentioned Cream Of Kentucky, recently revived by Jim Rutledge, Old Elk is being revived by a Colorado businessman for a distillery he is building, and Green River was acquired by an Owensboro native who at one time wanted to sell it to Angostura when they briefly owned the old Green River/Medley Distillery.
Other companies are looking at their old brands and reviving them. Wild Turkey has recently revived the Old Ripy and Bond and Lillard brands. Brown-Forman revived the King of Kentucky brand as a Bourbon instead of a blend. Buffalo Trace revived O.F.C., bringing it back from Canada. More and more old brands are being given new life, often in new homes. I am glad to see these brand reappear and saved from the dusty, lonely halls of history where only a few people like myself ever see them.
There are many reasons to revive an old brand. These brands often have a bit of name recognition as people remember the brand from their youth. Of course, if the brand was abandoned for over 50 years, that is less of a factor. However, even those brands long abandoned will often still have brand recognition if they were large brands that advertised a lot. Green River is one such label in that it virtually disappeared from the market in the early 1960s, but in its pre-Prohibition days they did a lot of marketing in the form of bar signs, tokens and jugs that featured the slogan “The Whiskey Without A Headache”. These items are often found in antique stores across America. Old brands come with their own name recognition and heritage.
This heritage is one reason many start-up distilleries look at reviving an old brand. The distillery may be located at an old distillery site where such a brand was made in the past. The distiller, such as Steve Beam at Limestone Branch or the Nelson Brothers in Nashville, may have a personal connection to an abandoned brand. Or it could be as simple as the distiller wants a brand with some history for their new distillery. This is the case for Old Elk, a brand created by Stoll, Vanatta & Co. in Lexington, Ky. in 1888. Stitzel-Weller bottled the brand after Prohibition, having picked up the trademark during Prohibition, but it was abandoned when the distillery was sold in 1972. When this Colorado businessman wanted to open a distillery in his home state he looked for a brand that would reflect the Colorado Mountains, but still has a history. Old Elk fit the bill.
To acquire an old brand that has been abandoned is not expensive. A few hundred dollars to register the trademark allows a distillery to revive the brand. The distiller can get a lot for that small investment. Besides brand recognition and heritage, they have the imagery of the old labels and advertising of the old brand. Consumers are impressed with brand heritage and that can influence their purchase of whiskey. The fact that the brand is made by someone new is not very important because that has been the case of most brands through their history.
I am happy to see whiskey brands revived and offered to consumers. The revival of old brands helps save the rich heritage of all whiskey. I look forward to seeing more and more old brands back on the market.
Images part of the public domain