The 1903 Louisiana Purchase Exposition held in St. Louis played an important role in American distilling heritage. Yes, many brands, including Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7 and I. W. Harper, won gold medals at the Expo, but that is not why it played such an important role in distilling. The 1903 Exposition was the event that the Kentucky distillers of straight whiskey decided to push Bottled-in-Bond whiskey.
Kentucky straight whiskey distillers banded together to get the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897 passed in Congress to separate their aged straight whiskey from rectified whiskey in the marketplace. Unfortunately, six years later, the public was still uninformed about what it meant to be a Bottled-in-Bond whiskey and how it was different from other, rectified whiskeys. Kentucky distillers decided that the St. Louis Exposition would be the place to educate the public as to why they should be drinking bonded whiskey instead of blended or imitation whiskey. Each State was allowed a “booth” in which to showcase their industries and agriculture. They went so far as to try to prevent Kentucky rectifiers from even having a place in the Kentucky “booth”. The straight whiskey distillers lost that battle and rectified whiskey was represented in the Kentucky booth, but not to the degree that bonded whiskey was represented in the Kentucky booth.
The Sunny Brook Distillery had this exhibit made to showcase distilling in Kentucky.
The Sunny Brook Distillery was located in Louisville at the corner of 26th and Broadway. They were a large distillery with a popular brand and a big supporter of Bottled-in-Bond whiskey. They had a small distillery building created as an exhibit in the Kentucky booth to showcase the distilling side of bonded whiskey. People attending the Exposition could come into the exhibit and see, and, smell, whiskey being made. Other exhibits showcased the aging and bottling of Kentucky Bourbon.
This image comes from an article in the Wine and Spirits Bulletin of that year. You can tell from the scale of the drawing, that this was not a small exhibit. You can see people walking into the distillery. There was a coal fired boiler that heated the stills, and you can see the black smoke pouring from the building. (Black smoke was considered a good thing in that era, as it represented industrial progress.)
There are two large fermenters in the images and a tower for the column still. This all showed that Kentucky straight whiskey distillers were using modern technology to make their Bottled-in-Bond straight whiskeys pure and safe to drink, unlike rectified whiskey which could contain anything in it. Fermenting and distilling whiskey was a natural process. Nothing but pure grain, water and yeast were added to make the straight whiskey.
St. Louis was the beginning of a battle between straight whiskey producers that would heat up a few years later when the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 was passed. The question then became “what is whiskey?” Was it only straight whiskey? Was rectified products “real whiskey”? The issue was fought for three long years until President Taft issued his decision on whiskey in December 1909. Sunny Brook Distillery was in the thick of the fight on the side of straight whiskey. Unfortunately for Sunny Brook Distillery, a decade after the Taft decision, Prohibition closed down the Sunny Brook distillery. They become part of American Medicinal Spirits during Prohibition and eventually, National Distillers. The distillery came back after Prohibition and survived until the bad days of the 1970s, when National Distillers closed it down. Jim Beam purchased National Distillers in the 1980s, but the brand is no longer in the market.