J.W. McCulloch entered the American whiskey industry as an employee of the Internal Revenue Agency, collecting taxes in the Owensboro, Kentucky region. In the late 19th century, the Owensboro region of Kentucky rivaled Bardstown, Lawrenceburg, Frankfort and Louisville for both the quality and quantity of distilled spirits produced. McCulloch felt that he knew enough about the whiskeys being produced that he could make a top notch whiskey himself. In 1891, McCulloch introduced Green River Whiskey. He built a distillery in Owensboro, made whiskey and started advertising. Green River quickly became the most advertised whiskey in America.
McCulloch focused upon two themes in his advertising. The first was the front side of the label featuring a horseshoe and the slogan “The Whiskey Without A Headache”. The other theme was a piece of bar art featuring an African-American man leading a heavily laden mule and holding a jug of Green River Whiskey, with the slogan “She Was Bred In Old Kentucky”. McCulloch used these two themes to create bar art, bar tokens, jugs, and print advertising to sell his whiskey.
McCulloch also entered his whiskey in as many competitions as he could. As soon as 1893, Green River Whiskey won a medal for Excellence at the World’s Fair. In 1900, Green River won a gold medal for quality at the Paris Exposition. In 1905, Green River Whiskey was awarded the Grand Prize at Exposition Universelle de Liege and the Grand Prize at the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition in Portland, Oregon. The brand achieved another Grand Prize in 1906 at Esposizione Internazionale in Milan, Italy. The 1907 Jamestown Tercentennial Exposition in Jamestown saw the brand win another Grand Prize. At each of these events, McCulloch placed displays of the brand, furthering the market exposure of his whiskey.
However, the year 1918 was a disaster year for Green River Whiskey. First, wartime Prohibition forced the distillery to stop making beverage alcohol in order to produce high proof alcohol for the war in Europe. Then a fire destroyed the warehouses containing the aging barrels of Green River Whiskey. Even though the war ended in November of that year, the wartime Prohibition was extended until the 18th Amendment was passed in January 1919, so the distillery had no chance to rebuild the warehouses and replace the aging whiskey. Prohibition forced the distillery out of business.
After the Repeal of Prohibition, the Green River trademark is picked up by the Oldetyme Distilling Corporation. They had two distilleries – Limestone Springs Distillery at Chapeze, Kentucky (the former Wright and Taylor Old Charter Distillery) where they made Green River, and a rye distillery at Cedarhurst, Maryland, where they made Three Feathers Rye. They used the fact that Green River was so well advertised before Prohibition to their advantage.
They had to change the slogan “The Whiskey Without A Headache” to “The Whiskey Without Regrets”. Changes in regulations made the medical claims in advertising whiskey a forbidden subject. The company sold out to Schenley in 1940. Schenley picked up the brand but turned it into a blended whiskey during the war. After the war, the brand became a regional brand for Schenley and by the end of the 1960s, it was no longer in the market.
Schenley became part of United Distillers in 1989 and when United Distillers was looking for a brand to sell in the opening markets of Eastern Europe, they looked at reviving the Green River brand. However, surveys showed that the name “Green River” had a negative connotation in these markets because of rivers polluted during the communist regimes of these nations. The Green River brand was shelved and United Distillers went with the James E. Pepper and Rx Bourbons for those markets, but soon abandoned even those brands.
After Prohibition, the old Green River Distillery was purchased by the Medley family and was the home of their distilled spirits. When the Medley Distillery and brand were sold to Glenmore in the late 1980s, the distillery was mothballed and sat idle. Charles Medley was able to purchase the distillery from United Distillers in the mid-1990s but never was able to distill whiskey there. He eventually sold the distillery to Angostura, who then got caught up in the financial crash of 2008. The distillery changed hands again and became the O.Z. Tyler Distillery for a brief time. Today it is returning to its origin and being renamed the “Green River Distillery” and will start making Green River Whiskey once again. History has come full circle.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller