The Filson Historical Society in Louisville, Ky. has a “scrapbook” from a lithographer named Miller from the 1850s. It is really a sample book of his work. There are labels of all types. Miller printed labels for perfumes, jellies and jams, wines and distilled spirits. These spirits labels were sold to liquor merchants that would bottle brandies and whiskeys to sell to their customers.
These labels are very different from the labels we find on bottles today. For example there is the label printed for Geo. Welby of Louisville, Ky. The label is a brilliant blue color with gold print and lots of fancy gold scroll work. It is called “Superior Old Bourbon Whiskey” along with his name. This label would have been glued to a bottle and sold in his store or maybe a case of bottles shipped to a customer in another city.
What is not on the label is the name of the distiller who made the whiskey. Welby was a liquor merchant in the city of Louisville in the 1850s, but not a distiller, so he was purchasing his whiskeys from other people. Most likely this was one or more distillers located fairly close to the city of Louisville. Welby may have been aging the whiskey in his store and he would definitely have barrels that the customers with their own bottles or flasks could fill them directly from the barrel.
Another thing missing from this label is any indication of the age of the whiskey. The term “Straight whiskey” was not defined at this point in time so the consumer had no idea whether the whiskey in this bottle was one year old or ten years old or a mixture of many ages. There is no indication of the proof of the whiskey in the bottle. Most distillers put their whiskey into the barrel in a range from 90 to 105 proof, but the liquor merchants could add water to reduce the proof to improve the flavor or even to have more whiskey to sell.
Some of the labels that are in the Miller scrapbook have even less information on them. They may simply say “Bourbon”, “Rye”, “Brandy” or “Gin”. Sometimes they might get a little more specific and say “Monongahela Rye” or “French Brandy”. The Brandy labels will often include well known brands of French Brandy such as “Hennessy” and “Martel”, but are often less specific such as “London Dock”, “Old Pale”, “Old Dark”, “Maglora” or “Cognac”.
Miller sold many of these labels to the many liquor dealers located in Louisville at the time. Many are very simple in their information as that made it easier to sell the labels to multiple businesses. For the most part, that is also what the liquor dealers wanted for labels. Many of the spirits they were bottling were the real thing, brought in by barrels from distant distillers located not only in Kentucky, but often other states such as Pennsylvania or Maryland. Barrels of Brandy may have been imported from France, including from the Cognac region, but not all of these labels went on the genuine product. This is the era where the rectifying business was growing strong in the United States. Many of these liquor merchants had their own recipes for making products like “French Brandy”, ”Old Cognac”, or “Monongahela Rye”. If they did not have their own recipe for these products, then there were plenty of published books with the recipes and instructions on how to make these products.
In the 1850s, consumers could purchase bottles of their favorite spirits, but they often did so at their own risk. Labels did not give the consumers much information and there were no government regulations on products. It would take about five decades to make the label an important part of consumer protection. First there was the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897 and then, the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and the Taft Decision of 1909, that gave some government insured consumer protections to whiskey. These protections were shown on the labels and are still with us to this day.
Images from the Filson Historical Society