Edmund Haynes Taylor, Jr. was born near the banks of the Mississippi River in the Jackson Purchase region of Kentucky, near the town of Henderson, Kentucky. He was the son of John Taylor. In 1835 his father, John, died of typhus while returning to Kentucky from New Orleans, where he and his wife were living at the time. Edmund, his mother, and his sister, Eugenia, became wards of their grandfather’s brother, Zachary Taylor, who was stationed there with the United States Army. When he was old enough to be educated he was sent to his Uncle, who was also Edmund Haynes Taylor, in Lexington to be educated at the Sayer School. This is when the “Jr.” was added to his name and young Edmund was so fond of his uncle, he never dropped it from his name.
He was trained in the banking industry by his uncle, who was a banker, and in the 1850s he was a partner in a bank, Taylor, Shelby & Co., who had customers ranging from Cassius Clay to John Hunt Morgan. He travelled for the bank on business and saw some of the Lincoln-Douglas debates and met people such as William Tecumsah Sherman and other future Civil War Generals. The growing unrest of the coming war forced the bank into bankruptcy in the late 1850s and he spent the war doing trading in commodities such as cotton. He used his wife’s connections to people like John J. Crittenden to obtain cotton from the south.
After the war, he became the junior partner in the firm Gaines, Berry and Co. who had purchased the Old Crow brand. He spent a year in Europe studying distillation and came back to the United States with knowledge that allowed the firm to build the Hermitage distillery using the best methods of distillation for Old Crow. He took that information with him when he purchased a small distillery from another of his wife’s uncles on the bank of the Kentucky River and renamed it the Old Fashioned Copper (O.F.C.) Distillery.
While in Europe, he was impressed with the beer tourism in Germany and decided Bourbon needed something similar. He rebuilt the distillery using the best methods he had learned, but also to be attractive to visitors. He also had marketing skills and improved the way the whiskey was sold. He created a trademark for the barrel head that covered the whole head and would be immediately noticed by potential customers. He also used brass barrel hoops on the barrels to add to the appearance of the barrel. He took full advantage of the newly invented lithograph process to create letterhead and other color advertisements.
He also became the guardian of James E. Pepper for control of his distillery while he was still a minor. He loaned Pepper money to improve the distillery and helped him pay for his education. They were friends for the rest of Pepper’s life. Unfortunately, the panic in the economy and overproduction in the whiskey industry caused Taylor financial troubles in the late 1870s.
Taylor compounded his problems when he sold the same barrels of whiskey to two different customers. Pepper was caught in this trouble because of the money he owed Taylor. This forced the sale of the Oscar Pepper distillery at auction. The O.F.C. was saved from the auction block by the firm of Greggory and Stagg of St. Louis. This firm was one of Taylor’s best customers and they agreed to bail him out in return for control of the distillery.
Taylor remained on at the distillery, but George T. Stagg came to Kentucky to run the distillery. Taylor had different views of the whiskey industry than had Gregory and Stagg. Taylor believed in quality over quantity and believed that once a person drank his whiskey, they would be loyal customers for life. Gregory and Stagg believed in making it cheap and selling a lot of whiskey at a lower price. In 1884, Gregory offended Taylor to the point that he resigned.
Taylor had managed to purchase another distillery in the 1870s and placed his son Jacob Swigert Taylor in charge. This distillery had been retained during the bankruptcy, probably because his son was listed as the owner. In 1884 he and his sons took charge of the distillery and re-named it the “Old Taylor Distillery, E.H. Taylor & Sons proprietors.
Taylor very quickly started re-building the distillery to attract visitors. He fashioned the distillery building as a castle and added a sunken garden and pergola over the springs. It was a pot still distillery at first but he did add a column still as well. S.C. Herbst came to him in the late 1880s to have some barrels of Old Fitzgerald made there on the pot stills. Taylor once again marketed his whiskey aggressively. When bottling whiskey became affordable, Taylor designed a label that would attract attention. In the early 1890s, he changed the label to a gold color to make it stand out even more. He would pay people to place empty bottles of Old Taylor in the trash heaps of the best bars so people would think that his whiskey was being consumed by all of the best people.
Taylor was also involved in politics. He was elected Mayor of Frankfort, Kentucky, serving for over a decade. During one of his campaigns, his opponent accused him of putting a black woman in charge of his bottling line over white women. Taylor defended his position by saying he put only the best people in charge at the distillery but then denied that a black woman was in charge. This does show that he hired African-Americans at the distillery but only sometimes perceived as leaders.
He also served briefly in the State legislature and is credited with keeping the State Capitol in that city when it was decided the old State House was too small and they needed a larger building. On the national level, he was a driving force in getting the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897 passed. When the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 was passed, he was a proponent of the Whiley ruling that only straight whiskey could be called “whiskey” and all other products had to be labeled “artificial whiskey”. He lost that battle but the Taft Decision of 1909 still forced blenders to label their product as a blended whiskey and not Bourbon.
He was still active in the business when Prohibition came about. Taylor was part of the legal challenge to the law, but when it was a lost cause, he retired to raise Hereford cattle. He became a well-known cattle breeder and had several champion bulls. He died in 1923 and never saw the end of Prohibition, but he always predicted that it would come to a bad end.
Taylor was a true Bourbon Baron. He made (and lost) his fortune in the industry but came back even stronger than before his losses. He was influential in politics and the financial world. He was a well-dressed businessman til the end of his life. Everything a person thinks of as a true “Bourbon Baron”.
Photos courtesy of Rosemary Miller