E.H. Taylor, Jr. believed the best whiskey in Kentucky was being made in the Kentucky River Valley region of the State. He also believed that McBrayer was making some of the best whiskey in that region. Today, there are very few people who know who Judge McBrayer was, but that is going to change. One of his descendants is getting back into the distilling business and reviving the McBrayer name and brands.
William H. McBrayer was born near Lawrenceburg, Ky. on December 10, 1821. His father, Andrew, was a prominent citizen of Anderson County and served terms as the State Representative for the County. William was educated locally and entered the distilling business in 1844. In 1851, McBrayer was elected to the office of County Judge for Anderson County. He served as County Judge for three years, and in 1856 he was elected as State Senator for Anderson and Mercer Counties. The people continued to call him “Judge” McBrayer, long after he left public office.
McBrayer quickly received a reputation for making excellent whiskey. In 1870, McBrayer owed some back taxes and wished to sell some of his barrels to raise the money to pay the debt. He wrote to E. H. Taylor, Jr. on 10 November, explaining the situation and described some of the details of his distilling operation. Taylor, who had just purchased a distillery, was more than happy to purchase barrels from McBrayer because of the quality of McBrayer’s whiskey. McBrayer’s distillery was in Anderson County along the Cedar Creek. His whiskey was trademarked as Cedar Brook.
McBrayer’s major customer for his whiskey was J. Levy & Bro. of Cincinnati, Ohio. J. Levy & Bro. was a major distributor of whiskey and purchased hundreds of barrels every year, not just from McBrayer, but also from Taylor’s O.F.C. distillery and McBrayer’s cousin, John H. McBrayer, who also had a distillery in Anderson County and bottled the Old McBrayer brand. John was born in Lawrenceburg on 17 June 1826.
He was educated locally and served in the Mexican War before coming home to Kentucky and starting a distillery in 1848. In the 1899 Mida’s Criteria Register of Trademarks, J. Levy & Bro states that the Cedar Brook brand dated back to 1851. Judge McBrayer died in 1887 and there is a legal dispute over the Cedar Brook brand and McBrayer whiskey. J. Levy & Bro. ended up with the rights to the Cedar Brook brand but not the McBrayer name. The name remained as property of the McBrayer family. Even though Judge McBrayer had requested in his will that his name be removed from the brand and distillery, the family fought to keep his name associated with the distillery.
The McBrayer brands did not survive Prohibition as independent brands. Cedar Brook ended up as a brand bottled by Schenley for a while, but died out by the 1970s. Several years ago, I met one of the McBrayer descendants who told me that they were going to get back into the business and revive the family brands. The first release of their whiskey will be in 2021.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller and McBrayer Legacy Spirits