Most people today will recognize the “King” brand as being a limited release Bourbon from Brown-Forman, but that is not the origin of the label. The brand dates back to the post-Prohibition era as a blended whiskey in Brown-Forman’s portfolio. 

The years between the repeal of Prohibition and the 1980s saw every major distillery bottling a blended whiskey. At first, just after Prohibition, blended whiskey was a way to get a decent whiskey in the bottle while Bourbons were aging in the warehouse. Brown-Forman could take some of the aged whiskey from their “medicinal” barrels in their warehouses and mix it with grain neutral spirits and have bottles to sell and compete with the blended whiskey coming into the country from Canada and Scotland. Consumers were used to the idea of blended whiskey during Prohibition because many of the whiskeys they had been drinking were either blended whiskey smuggled in from other countries, or whiskey that had been adulterated by bootleggers and sold as a known Bourbon brand.

Even after companies started having aged whiskey to sell, blended whiskeys were popular because the consumer taste at that time preferred a lighter bodied whiskey. Then came 1941 and the Second World War. Distilleries were making high proof alcohol for the war effort, so they again stretched their mature whiskey by making blends. It is not until after the war that bottled-in-bond whiskey regained its share of the whiskey market. In fact, it never regained its pre-Prohibition standing. People did want lower proof whiskey that was not as robust in flavor that is found in bonded whiskey. Distilleries started introducing brands bottled at 86 proof to meet this consumer demand.

When whiskey sales started declining in the 1960s, blended whiskey, in particularly Seagram Seven Crown and Four Roses, became the whiskey of choice with many consumers, so blends were marketed as an alternative to vodka. Even so, they declined in sales along with every other whiskey, but their decline was much slower. The blends lost quality as the companies added more grain neutral spirits until they reached the legal maximum of 70%. Eventually, blended whiskey became known as the bottom shelf whiskey and that reputation is with it even today.

This tip tray is from the 1960s. It has across the top of the tray “A Friendly Tip”, a subtle reminder of the tray’s purpose. Then it states “Try Brown-Forman King Black Label Blended Whisky 60% Grain Neutral Spirts – 86 Proof”. The phrase “black label” is because of Johnny Walker. The black label is better quality than the red label, so it implies that this is better quality than other blended whiskey. 

Notice Brown-Forman does not use an “e” in spelling the word “whisky”. This, like Old Forester which also uses the English spelling, is paying homage to George Garvin Brown’s English heritage. This tip tray is a reminder of how popular blended whiskey was in the twentieth century. A vintage bottle of blended whiskey can be a good drink of whiskey. If you find on old bottle of King Black Label, give it a try. You may be surprised as to how much you like it.

Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller