John McDougall Atherton was a prominent distiller in the 19th century. He built several distilleries, including the one in Athertonville, Ky. that later became part of the Seagram distilleries in Kentucky. He was also a leader in promoting education in Kentucky. To my knowledge, he is the only distiller in Kentucky to have a public high school named for him. 

John was born in 1841 to Peter Atherton and his wife, but Peter died while John was an infant. His mother and step-father, Marshall Key, raised him. His father had had a distillery, but it went silent after his death. John re-established the distillery in 1867 and soon became a well-respected distiller. The distillery made 7 barrels a day and prospered. John soon purchased a half interest in another distillery and quickly acquired the other half, buying out his partners. This distillery was known as the A. Mayfield and Co. distillery. Between 1880 and 1882, John built two more distilleries – Windsor and Clifton distilleries. His brands were:

  • Atherton 
  • Mayfield 
  • Windsor 
  • Howard 
  • Carter 
  • Kenwood 
  • Baker 
  • Clifton

In 1870, Atherton was elected to become a Kentucky State Legislator and soon became the chairman of the Democratic State Central Committee in Kentucky. He married Maria Farnam, the daughter of a professor at Georgetown College. He continued to grow his business and by 1899, he had a total production at all four distilleries of 350 barrels a day and warehousing for over 200,000 barrels.

John Atherton was well respected in the industry and in 1888, he testified before Congress as they dealt with increasing the excise tax on whiskey and extending the bonding period from 3 to 8 years. Atherton favored the increase in the tax. He believed that it would prevent overproduction and a fall in the price of barrels of whiskey. He did not believe the extended bonding period was necessary. He sold much of his whiskey to rectifiers – George Garvin Brown purchased his whiskey for Old Forester for example, so he was selling barrels within the then current 3 year bonding period. 

In 1899, Atherton sold all four of his distilleries to Kentucky Distilleries and Warehouse Company, part of the “Whiskey Trust”. He did not believe the “Trust” would succeed politically, but he sold anyway. Atherton was correct and soon the United States Government started breaking up trusts with the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. The trust would eventually become part of American Medicinal Spirits, which eventually became National Distillers.

Most of his distilleries did not survive Prohibition. The Atherton Distillery at Athertonville, became part of Seagram in Kentucky. With the Four Roses Distillery in Lawrenceburg, the Henry McKenna Distillery in Fairfield, the Four Roses Distillery in Louisville and the Seagram Distillery in Louisville, the Atherton Distillery made whiskey to support the Seagram blended whiskeys and supplied one of the five yeast strains they use today.

He moved to Louisville and with his son, Peter, entered the real estate business. He continued to have interest in the spirits industry and published several articles against Prohibition in the early 20th century. He also championed education in Kentucky. In the 1920s, the Louisville School Board decided to name a High School for him. Several local preachers protested this move since he had made his money in the distilling industry, but for every preacher who objected, there were several preachers who supported the idea. They recognized the good work Atherton had done for education in Kentucky.

John M. Atherton died in 1932. He left an impact on the industry that rivaled any of the other Bourbon Barons of his time. He was a leader not only in the industry, but also in politics and education.