Things have changed over the last two centuries. It is easier to document the history of the distilling industry in the twenty-first century than it was in the twentieth century. It is not that the records were not kept from early distilleries, but more of them are to be found in public records and archives. I thought I would look at the history of writing about distilling history.
In the 19th century distilleries kept records of their business and there are government records in the forms of the wills of the distillery owners and property transaction records. There are also newspaper and magazine articles about distilleries. The earlier you look for a distillery’s records in the 19th century, the harder it is to find information. There were not people writing about distilleries and their whiskey like there is today. The only printed history you will find in books about individual distilleries of that time will be found in local or state histories that discuss the industry of a place.
After the American Civil War, distilling became an industry and grew into sizable distilleries and the industry moved from a cottage industry of farmer distilleries with pot stills making a few hundred barrels a year to large distilleries with column stills making thousands of barrels per year. There were new resources at the end of the 19th century such as Sanborn Maps and trade magazines. Louisville had the Wine and Spirits Bulletin, Chicago had Mida’s Criteria, and New York City had Bonfort’s Wine and Spirits as the major trade magazines. The problem with the trade magazines is that they are hard to find in libraries and archives and when they are found, they may not be a complete collection.
The period between the American Civil War and Prohibition was an important part of the history of the distilling industry, but the records of many of these distilleries are lost to the public. If the records were not destroyed, they are often in the hands of the families of the owner of the distillery and not available to scholars. There are families in Kentucky that have donated the surviving records to public archives but they are often only fragments of what once existed.
After Repeal, the industry was reborn. Many of the old, pre-Prohibition brands and distilleries ended up in the hands of larger corporations such as Schenley, National, Seagram, and Hiram Walker. These old brands were often purchased either during Prohibition, or in the years before the end of World War Two. Often the existing records went to the new owner. The Schenley records ended up with United Distillers, now Diageo, and are in underground storage in Louisville and in the Diageo archive in Scotland. These exist, but are not readily available to scholars.
Seagram had a museum and archive in Canada where they kept their records but the museum closed in the late 1990s and even the late Al Young, who was working on his Four Roses book, could not find out what happened to the records stored there. National never had an archive and I know that many of the records from Old Crow and Old Taylor ended up in the landfill. I know this because some employees rescued some of them from the dumpster and donated them to the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History and the Kentucky Historical Society. I have never heard where Hiram Walker kept their records and if any of them are available to the public.
The end of the twentieth century and in the present age, there are many sources available for the historian to use. The distilleries themselves now see the value of their history and are creating archives to store their records and make them available to researchers. Even so, this is restricted use. More and more archives are receiving the records from families who were once in the industry. The largest collection is at the Filson Historical Society in Louisville in the form of the Taylor-Hay Family Collection and the early records of the OFC distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky.
It is hoped that the future sees more of the records of the distilling industry in public archives. It is an important piece of American history and needs to be preserved and available to scholars. It is my hope that one hundred years from now, people writing about spirits will have even more records to examine than I have had to use. If nothing else, they will have my files and books to examine when they visit the Filson Historical Society.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller and Howard Stoops