The distillers in the 19th century treated their promotion of their brands in a different way than the distillers of today. They did not have television, radio and social media to promote their brands. In fact, for most of the 19th century, they did not even bottle their own whiskey, but instead sold it by the barrel to retail establishments. I thought I would look at the ways the distillers promoted their products in the 19th century.

To start, the distillers sold their whiskey in barrels, so they would “brand” elaborate designs on the barrel heads. The idea was that when a saloon or liquor dealer had the barrels lined up for the customer to see, they wanted their whiskey barrels to catch the eye of the customer wishing to fill their bottle with whiskey. Next, the distillers often supplied whiskey jugs and bar decanters to establishments with their brand printed on the container. Bar decanters, used in saloons to pour drinks, were often very colorful with the brand name being the major feature, but often they had other decorations, for example, Mammoth Cave had a depiction of the mouth of Mammoth Cave printed on the decanter and Yellowstone had a depiction of the Yellowstone Falls.

Next, they would provide branded bar and tip trays to taverns and restaurants. These were possible by the invention of the lithograph in the 1840s. Full color images could be printed on paper and sheets of metal. Now, when a customer was served their drink or left their tip for the staff, they would see the image of the brand of whiskey on the tray. This was often reinforced with branded shot glasses used to serve their drinks. These glasses were etched with the brand name of the whiskey.

The lithograph led to other forms of advertisement for the distillers. Distillers could have made printed images that could be framed and hung inside bars. These images took many forms. Old Forester has an iconic advertisement of a cowboy, with gun drawn, defending his case of Old Forester whiskey in the American west. Of course, Old Forester was an exception to the rule for selling whiskey, as George Garvin Brown created the brand in 1870 to be sold only by the bottle. These pieces could be printed on canvass, metal or even milk glass. I.W. Harper was advertised by Bernheim Bros with a scene from a hunting lodge printed on milk glass. 

Print advertisements were also used to sell whiskey. Early on they were simple black and white advertisements in newspapers. But as color printing of magazines became available, the whiskey advertisements became more elaborate as well. Print advertisements often included testimonial statements from famous people or institutions. E.H. Taylor, Jr., when promoting his O.F.C. Bourbon in the 1870s, had a collection of testimonial statements about how good and pure his whiskey was from several former American Civil War Generals and hospitals.

WHISKEY brand names often reflected idealized images with names like Cedar Creek, Echo Springs or Fountain Run. Yellowstone and Mammoth Cave were named for tourist attractions. There were brands named for the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks races. When Canadian Club became a popular brand of whiskey, hundreds of “Club” whiskey brands were created in imitation of that brand. Naming the brand after the distiller was also a popular way to sell whiskey. This was most common from distillers that had popular brands and a good reputation.

Finally, like today, they would base a lot of their advertisements on the age of the product. The brands reflected mature whiskey by using terms such as “Old”, as in Old Forester, Old Grand Dad, Old Crow and Old Fitzgerald, other such terms as Early Times. They also told of making whiskey the way it was made in the old days. Many brands used the term “old fashioned, fire copper, sour mash whiskey” in their advertising. 

Building a brand in the 19th century was a slower process than it is today. It took longer for the advertising to reach the consumer. They had several methods of promoting the brands, but they were often expensive and time consuming. By the end of the 19th century, many distillers were hiring other agencies to design campaigns to promote their brands. Whiskey advertising was moving into the 20th. Century.

Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller and from the archives of Michael Veach