In the 19th century, Scotland had a fairly large number of whiskey men who created brands and made fortunes. They were not nobility for the most part, but they soon became known as “Whisky Barons” for the wealth and influence they earned by selling brands such as Johnny Walker and Dewar’s Scotch Whisky. The term was adapted in America, and in Kentucky in particular, as “Bourbon Barons” to label the people who had earned their fortune in the Whiskey business. Traditionally, this term is used in reference to pre-Prohibition whiskey men. That is the period when there were indeed a lot of people making their fortune creating brands and selling whiskey. They did not have to own a distillery, but many of them did.
Who were these pre-Prohibition Bourbon Barons? People like E. H. Taylor, Jr., George Garvin Brown, John Atherton, James E. Pepper, Paul Jones, Marion Taylor, W.L. Weller, I.W. Bernheim and many more. There were a lot of them. What they all had in common was that they began humbly and earned a fortune selling whiskey and used that money in various ways that created influence in the community.
E.H. Taylor, Jr. was mayor of Frankfort and served in the Kentucky legislature. Brown was a huge contributor to the city of Louisville in the form of charities and the arts. Atherton supported public schools, Pepper supported the horse racing industry and owned several horses, but also supported other sporting events through sponsorship. Marion Taylor was a leader in the Louisville Chamber of Commerce, but also donated to charities in his home town in Mississippi. Weller was a founder of the Baptist Orphan’s Home in Louisville. Bernheim is most known for Bernheim Forest, but also donated to the city of Louisville and the State of Kentucky in the form of public statues to honor Kentuckians as well as charities such as giving the poor of Paducah free coal when the Ohio River flooded the city.
The Bourbon Barons made their fortunes selling whiskey, but they gave back to the community in many ways. I would argue that the term should not die with the beginning of Prohibition. There are many individuals and families post-Prohibition that made their fortunes in the industry. People like Julian Van Winkle, T.W. Samuels, the Shapira family and the Kulsveens. These people have not only created brands and made money, but they have given back to the community in many ways. I would consider them Bourbon Barons of the 20th century.
As we move into the 21st century there are new distilleries and brands. People are making their fortunes in the industry and as they do so, they are giving back to the community. Often it is in small ways for many of the new businesses, but sometimes it is in much larger ways. The Brown family still contributes to the arts in Kentucky. The late Pearce Lyons and Alltech contribute to many projects around Lexington but is most famous of his support of the Kentucky Horse Park. Bourbon Barons are still being created today.
Bourbon Barons are people who should be of more interest to the fans of American whiskey. Consumers should learn more about them, the brands they created and how they spent some of that money. Therefore, I am going to start doing blogs on people who were, in my opinion, “Bourbon Barons”. My goal is to present at least five short biographies of these industry leaders done each year.
Images from the archives of Michael Veach