James C. Crow came to Kentucky in 1838 and started work as a distiller for Oscar Pepper. He spent most of his career as a distiller for Pepper with only a few months working at other distilleries. Crow changed the way that Bourbon was made in that he applied scientific principles to the process – keeping track of Ph levels, specific gravity and temperature. More importantly, he wrote down his research so he could determine what made the best whiskey. He did not invent the sour mash process, but he did come to understand it and how to use it in the best manner. His whiskey became known as “Old Crow” and became the Bourbon by which all other Bourbons were judged by. Henry Clay would take barrels of Old Crow to Washington D.C. to entertain other politicians and to “grease the wheels of government.” The brand remained in the hands of Oscar Pepper after Crow died in 1856. Crow had trained a distiller who continued to make it with his method, but since Crow had kept a ledger with his notes, other people could keep the method in use long after his death.
Oscar Pepper died in 1867. The brand was sold to the firm of Gaines, Berry and Co., who decided to build a new distillery in which to make the whiskey. The junior partner, the “Company” in this firm was E.H. Taylor, Jr. Taylor was sent to Europe to learn the best methods of distilling in England, Scotland, Ireland, Germany, France, Italy and Spain. When he came home, the firm applied this knowledge to build the Hermitage Distillery in order to make Old Crow Whiskeys. The firm registered the trademark in Mida’s Criteria and even registered the Hermitage trade mark with it saying that they were “The Makers of Old Crow”.
Taylor was the marketing person and in early 1870, Taylor helped out the firm of Paris and Allen, distributing Old Crow in New York, by sending a bottle of 21 year old Old Crow, made by Crow himself, to them. It became part of a challenge at the home of General Butler. A Pennsylvania Congressman had bragged that he had a 21 year old rye that was better than any Bourbon ever made. The two whiskeys went head to head with General Butler and his friends as judges and the Old Crow Bourbon won the challenge. Later that year Taylor left the firm to found his own distillery at O.F.C.
Old Crow continued to be the most sought after whiskey in the 19th century. Paris and Allen were the main distributors of the brand and also handled an Old Crow rye made at the Hermitage distillery. Prohibition shut down the distillery but the brand was one of the flagship brands for National Distillers as a medicinal whiskey. National Distillers obtained the trademark during Prohibition and re-opened the distillery after repeal. It continued to be one of their flagship brands until they were purchased by American Brands in 1987.
American Brands also owned Jim Beam. Old Crow was Jim Beam’s biggest competitor, so in the hands of American Brands, the whiskey going into Old Crow became inferior to that National Distillers had placed in the bottle. To be fair to American Brands, National had already messed with the Old Crow Bourbon recipe by trying to produce it more cheaply. American Brands simply used that change in flavor profile to change it further by making it a three year old product. Old Crow’s reputation was at rock bottom and has climbed very little since that time.
Old Crow is a brand that has a rich heritage. Even up into the 20th century, after the repeal of Prohibition, it enjoyed a reputation as a premium Bourbon. It is a brand that needs to regain its place in history with a premium version. A six or eight-year-old version, Bottled-in-Bond would be a fitting product to help recall the heritage of this brand.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller