The brand Kentucky Tavern has a rich heritage. You would not know this by the reputation it has today as a bottom shelf brand made at the Barton Distillery. However, this was not always the case.
The R. Monarch Distillery in Owensboro, Kentucky was to become the home of Kentucky Tavern. Their brands included Glenmore, Kentucky Club and T. J. Monarch Bourbons. The distillery experienced a fire in 1893 and was rebuilt as the largest distillery in Kentucky at the time with a production of 720 barrels per day. However, the distillery went bankrupt in 1898 and was sold to James Thompson & Bro. of Louisville, Kentucky in 1901 for $30,000. James Thompson, a cousin of George Garvin Brown and former partner in Brown-Thompson, had established his own liquor company with his brother Francis in 1891. Francis Thompson passed away that same year. The purchase of the R. Monarch distillery was their first distillery and they changed the name to Glenmore Distillery as it was the brand that everyone knew in the market.
The brand was first trademarked in 1903 and soon became their flagship brand. James Thompson placed his brother-in-law, Harry S. Barton in charge of the distillery in 1912 and he oversaw many improvements to the distillery. They featured in their advertising a “Kentucky Colonel”, and had the tag line of “Ask any Colonel”. The brand quickly gained a national reputation as a top shelf Bourbon.
During Prohibition, James Thompson and Bro. acquired a license to sell medicinal whiskey and Kentucky Tavern was their main brand. James Thompson passed away in 1924. Joseph Englehard became president of the company, but James’ sons were still part of the business. In 1927, the company changed its name to Glenmore Distillery. They survived Prohibition.
In 1933, Frank Thompson, James’ son, was part of the team of distillers that helped formulate the new liquor codes for the industry. The following year, Glenmore introduced the first holiday packaging for a Bourbon bottle. It was a paper mache’ snowman holding a broom, which fit over a bottle of Kentucky Tavern. In 1938, a spectacular fire destroyed 33,000 barrels of whiskey and a large portion of their bottled spirits, but the distillery was saved. For several years, Kentucky Tavern was in short supply. The Second World War came in 1941 and the brand was still in short supply during the war. However, with the end of the war, it soon became their flagship brand once again.
In the 1950s, Glenmore added an 86 proof version of the whiskey as the public wanted lower proof whiskeys. In the 1980s, they lowered the proof again to 80 proof. The bottled-in-bond versions were still available for those who preferred higher proof whiskey, but at that time, the trend was toward lower proof whiskey.
In 1983, Kentucky Tavern started to release bar mirrors featuring the Kentucky Derby. The first mirror featured the race, but soon, they began to feature the winning horse. Glenmore was a major distiller in Kentucky, but fell prey to the decline in whiskey sales in the 1980s. In 1992, James “Buddy” Thompson sold the company to United Distillers. United Distillers, for a few years, put Stitzel-Weller Bourbon in the bottle as there was not enough Glenmore-made Bourbon to fill the need. The brand had fallen in sales and was no longer considered a premium brand. Kentucky Tavern became part of the brands sold to Barton in 1994, along with the Glenmore Distillery. Barton is now owned by Sazerac. Kentucky Tavern has a rich heritage, but has fallen upon hard times today.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller