I have often been asked the question, “What did Bourbon and Rye Whiskeys taste like in the 19th century?” Tasting notes and tasting descriptors for whiskey in the way that they are written today were not written and used in the 21st century, but I did find an 11 January 1870 press release in the Taylor-Hay Family Papers at the Filson Historical Society. I took the time to transcribe the papers involved in this press release from E.H. Taylor, Jr.

Taylor was the junior partner in the firm Gaines, Berry & Co. who owned the Old Crow brand and had just built the Hermitage Distillery to produce that brand. Taylor was in charge of sales for the firm and had received a letter from J.R. Thompson from the firm Paris & Allen, Importers of Brandies, Gin, Wines & ect., at 31 Broad Street, New York, who represented the brand in New York City and the northeast of the United States. 

The main subject of discussion was the proposed increase in the Bonding period and he and Taylor were both against it because of the danger of overproduction and speculation in whiskey. However, Thompson mentioned that he had received a letter from a friend that tells of a Pennsylvania judge who was visiting General Butler’s home in Washington D.C. and made the statement that he was in possession of some 20 year old rye whiskey that was better than anything made in Kentucky. Thompson wanted Taylor to send him a bottle of 15 year old or older Bourbon to challenge the assertion. Taylor did so and here is the press release Taylor wrote about the challenge.

Important decision at Washington!!

Kentucky vs. Pennsylvania

Old Bourbon vs. Old Rye

A decision has been rendered at Washington which cannot fail to be of particular interest to our readers. We give a sketch of the case as related to us.

An evening not long since at Genl. Butlers’s residence in Washington, Judge Woodward of Pennsylvania remarked that he knew of some rye whiskey over 20 years old that was made in his state which would excel any Bourbon ever distilled. The gauntlet thus thrown down was instantly accepted by the Hon. Wm. Brown of Kentucky. He wrote at once to Mssrs. W. A. Gaines & Co., Frankfort, Ky. – (owners of the celebrated Hermitage Distillery) for a bottle of the finest “Bourbon” Kentucky could produce, while Judge Wodward procured a bottle of the “Rye”.

Mssrs. Gaines & Co. after careful comparison selected a bottle of the renown “Old Crow” (of which they are also proprietors) made by the old Scotsman himself 21 years ago. As both samples were over 21 years of age, they were fully mature, and though not able to vote, were fitting representations of the States.

The Court being duly convened with the eminent connoisseur, Genl. Butler as presiding judge, the case was called. Both sides being ready, counsel at once proceeded upon the merits and ably argued. The samples themselves were more spiritually eloquent. After the evidence was all in and well digested, the judgment was rendered in favor of Kentucky’s “Old Crow” as being the most mellow, rich, full yet delicately flavored and surpassing in bouquet.

We congratulate Mssrs. W.A. Gaines & Co. on their success, which they richly deserve, as they have devoted years of study to the perfection of distillation and spared no expense in pursuit of purity and quality. The “Hermitage” Distillery, of which Frankfort is justly proud, is the result of their labors, and its product though not two years old has an unequaled reputation both at home and abroad.

I find this correspondence very interesting as it is the closest to tasting notes that I have found from that time. I wish they had said what distillery in Pennsylvania made the rye whiskey. I would have also liked to have read what the virtues of the rye whiskey were judged as by the drinkers. I do wonder if Genl. Butler ever wrote about this occasion and if so, do his papers survive? Or maybe Judge Woodward’s papers have anything about this tasting and do they survive? I would like to find out more about this challenge between Bourbon and Rye whiskeys.

Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller