The James Crow Chronicles: Part 3 (Crow in America)

By Chris Middleton / November 5, 2020

Editor’s Note: This is the third in a nine part series chronicling the life of James Crow, an extremely important figure in the history of American whiskey. A chemist originally from Scotland, he is credited by some as having invented the sour mash process. Watch this time slot on Thursdays (11am Pacific Time) for the other articles.

The America James Crow found on arrival was an unregulated liquor industry with no excise duty and no laws governing the manufacture of whiskey. He observed distilleries employed a range of different grain mashes, embraced new patent steam stills with unique fabrications and materials, and modified their biological processes to accommodate the climatic conditions and local microbiota. In Philadelphia, he found the maritime coastal States used mainly rye with a corn base; when he moved to Kentucky, the western States were predominantly corn mash.

Crow arrived when whiskey had become America’s most popular alcohol beverage, with cider trailing behind in volume consumption. Over the coming decades, whiskey’s share of liquor consumption continued to rise steeply directly propelling Crow’s career so by the time of his death in 1856, America produced two-thirds of the world’s whiskey.

A year after his Edinburgh studies, James Crow disembarked in Philadelphia in 1823, although there is no record of his arrival, place of residence or employment. Whether a member of the Crow family drew him, his wife and eleven-year-old daughter to immigrate to America, or his rumored financial distress forced him to seek a new life; his motivation to leave Scotland remains a mystery.

For a man educated in brewing and distilling, Philadelphia was the ideal city to find employment. The town had a dozen distilleries making rum and whiskey, with four distilleries processing 800,000 bushels of corn and rye a year, representing two million gallons of whiskey. When Crow arrived, Philadelphia was America’s second-largest city, the most industrialized and modern metropolis in North America. Famed for its educational institutions and publishing, medicine and science, foundries and factories, coppersmiths and cooperages, it was a natural magnet for Crow’s ambitions and training. The city attracted luminaries such as Benjamin Franklin (including his tract in 1765 Poor Richard’s Almanac, ‘How to manage distilling a spirit from rye, and other grains’), it was a hotbed of distilling inventions and innovation for America’s fledgling manufacturing industries.

The Woodford Reserve distillery of today sits at the site of the former old Oscar Pepper Distillery, where James Crow spent a number of years distilling. (image via Brown-Forman)

In 1778, Irishman Christopher Colles installed America’s first Newcomen-style steam engine at a Philadelphia distillery to pump water. Pumps for mashing, cleaning and moving charges between vessels saved a third on labor costs. While it proved unsuccessful, it was the first steam engine put into use at a distillery.

America’s whiskey distilling roots went back to Jamestown Virginia and Joseph Finch in 1621; however, whiskey distilling lagged behind rum until the 19th century. West Indies sugar plantations produced large surpluses of cheap molasses used by New England distilleries. Colonial orchards yielded an abundance of fruit for brandy distilling—applejack in the north, peaches in the south, plus small volumes of pear, grape and maple spirit across the Colonies. Spreading western farmlands began to produce large quantities of cheap grain to fuel the insatiable consumer demand for whiskey as America’s population increased fivefold from 1800 to 1850.

In 1823, Pennsylvania was the premier state for distilling. A national survey on industry statistics in 1810, Tench Coxe revealed Pennsylvania was the largest distilling state with around 3,594 distilleries producing 6,552,284 proof gallons of rum, fruit brandy and whiskey. In 1824, Lafayette wrote of Pennsylvania ‘a great deal of liquor distilled from peaches, corn, rye, maple sugar. Etc.’

Kentucky in comparison produced 2,552,773 gallons at 2,000 distilleries. America led world production and consumption of spirits with a population of 10.5 million, distilling 37.5 million gallons and with imports American consumed 45.5 million in spirits. Britain and Ireland, with 21 million people, produced 9.2 million gallons of spirits and consumed 13.2 million gallons.

The thirst for knowledge on the production of spirits meant thousands of homestead distillers sought advice on distillation to convert excess produce into a tradable commodity, and serve as household medicine and a recreational beverage at social occasions. For others, it was a psychoactive escape from the rigors on the harsh pioneer life. There was a pragmatic incentive to convert four bushels of grain (244 pounds on a packhorse) into a barrel of whiskey, preserving a more easily portable commodity that generated a higher return in trade.

The four most influential American books on distillation and alcoholic cordial recipes were all published in Pennsylvania: American Distiller by Michael Krafft in 1803, Practical Distiller, Samuel McHarry 1809, The Distiller by Anderson Hall in 1818, and The Art of Making Whiskey by Antony Boucheire in 1818, initially in French, later published in English in Kentucky. These practical manuals liberally referenced earlier distilling books, chemistry journals, academic papers and Government reports.

Some of the advice recycled antiquated or inaccurate information from Sir Robert Murray’s 1661 The Way Malt is made in Scotland (1661, Royal Society), Ambrose Cooper Complete Distiller (1757 London, a transcript of Steven van Esveldt’s Nieuw Ontdekte Distilleer, 1750, Amsterdam), and Dr David Cox treatise on rectification from the 1730s. Contemporary sources included William Henry’s Epitome of Chemistry (New York, 1808) and William Nicholson British Encyclopaedia (distilling section, 1809). Farmers and millers with no practical knowledge of distilling found these manuals essential guides to learn how to seasonally exploit their surplus production, circumvent grain wastage, add value to their businesses, or fortify their households with liquid medication and social lubricants.

Crow in Woodford County

Anecdotal evidence suggests Crow might have arrived in Woodford County as early as 1826. Many of Crow namesakes were early Kentucky settlers, notably William Crow, son of Danville’s founder John Crow, who built the first stone house in Kentucky in 1780. By 1840, nine James Crows’ lived in Kentucky, so familial links may have encouraged his prospects of employment, especially in the promising distilling industry.

In Philadelphia, he would have observed the center of American whiskey distilling was rapidly shifting to Kentucky and the States west of the Appalachian Mountains. By the time Crow established himself as a distiller at the Pepper farm in 1840, Kentucky had 889 distilleries producing 1.7 million proof gallons with $315,398 capital invested in plant and equipment.

Woodford County, where he worked and lived, was one of America’s and the bluegrass region’s most productive distilling counties and continued to grow in output in the coming decades. Contemporaneous recollections place him working at Willis Field’s small distillery on Grier’s Creek, about four miles southwest of Versailles in 1826.

The Field family arrived in Woodford County in 1813 and purchased Daniel Trabue’s Airey Mount farm with a grist mill, where a small distillery was later setup. Formerly known as Greer’s Creek, this area also benefited from a geological anomaly, the source of local ‘flint buhrstones’, a highly durable conglomerate rock cut by John Tanner, where he manufactured grindstones for Kentucky millers from 1797.

Another distillery where Crow allegedly worked was Glen’s Creek (sic) or Glenn’s Spring distillery, on Glenn’s Creek three miles upriver from the Pepper farm. Cyrus MacCracken owned the farm until he died during an Indian raid in 1782, after which his son Virgil erected a sawmill on the farm, later converted into a gristmill in 1789. Wiley Edwards purchased the farm and mill circa 1814 and installed a small distillery. When Wiley died in 1827 his son, Thomas S Edwards continued distilling until the 1878.

Crow worked as a roving distiller, seasonally contracted to small farmer-distillers in Woodford County. He moved the locus of his labors from Grier’s Creek to Glenn’s Creek, as the watercourse becoming a thriving distilling area only eight miles northwest of Versailles, and ten miles southeast of Frankfort. As well as Thomas Edward’s new distillery in the late 1820s, Crow allegedly found work as a distiller at Zachariah Henry’s farm where he had recently set up a small still. The twenty-five-year-old Henry settled with his young family and eleven slaves on the farm between Glenn’s Creek and the Kentucky River in 1805. Henry died in 1830 and distilling was likely suspended, his wife Lucy managed the farm before their younger son Mason took over day-to-day operations.

By the mid-1830s, Crow appears to have worked for Zachariah Henry’s other two sons, Newton K (Newt) and his brother Zachery junior at another small farm-distillery also in Woodford County. During the 1839 drought, Crow briefly worked at the Anderson Johnson distillery, previously known as Johnson-Yancey distillery. Formerly the land and gristmill were owned by Burkett G Yancey; his daughter Judith married Anderson Johnson, and he began working with his father-in-law at the distillery.

When Anderson Johnson died, Gaines, Berry & Company leased the distillery from his widow from 1868 for two seasons to supplement production from their other distillery lease, at Oscar Pepper’s distillery. In 1879, Edmund Taylor junior (partner in Gaines, Berry & Company 1866 to 1870) and his son Jacob Swigert Taylor bought the Anderson Johnson distillery and 47 acres from Anderson’s son James; they demolished the buildings in 1887 and built the Old Taylor distillery.

Yancey’s other daughter Mildred married Dr James Botts. Millville’s physician, James Botts owned land on Glenn’s Creek and sold it to Gaines, Berry & Company in June 1869 where they built the Old Crow Distillery. In a coda to the Anderson connections, when Crow left the Oscar Pepper distillery in 1855, he returned to work at Johnson’s distillery for his final distilling season, the place where he died.

The small familial world around Woodford County led to close, and complex networks of martial and kin relationships that intersect the Crow Chronicles over the next few decades. Crow’s fame is bound to the Oscar Pepper distillery. Twenty-one-year-old Oscar Neville Pepper took over the farm, gristmill and the small two-storey log cabin still house after his father, Elijah Pepper, died in 1830.

Elijah Pepper, initially arriving in Woodford County circa 1795, resettled his young family to live for a few years near Maysville Kentucky where his father, Samuel Pepper lived. Maysville, on the Kentucky River in Bourbon County Kentucky is one hundred miles north of Versailles and the port where the term ‘bourbon whiskey’ is thought to have originated.

The Pepper family returned to Versailles with eleven black slaves in the early 1800s, accompanied by Elijah’s brother-in-law, John O’Bannon, where they built a small distillery at a ‘gushing cave spring’ behind the Versailles courthouse. After three years, Pepper dissolved the partnership in 1812, leaving the distillery to O’Bannon, and purchased 200-odd acres at the tributary of Grassy Springs stream and Glenn’s Creek about ten miles away from Versailles. He built a log homestead, slave lodgings and sheds by the creek. He erected a wooden grist mill on the Grassy Springs stream in 1813, later adding a log house distillery where three gushing springs supplied a reliable source of water above the creek’s bank.

The Pepper’s prospered, increasing the farm to 326 acres in May 1821. Before he died an audit of his assets reveal a wealthy farmer with several buildings, reserves of grain, hemp and flax; Woodford County was one of America’s leading producers of flax and hemp for rope. His livestock herds included twenty horses, thirty cattle of different breeds for milking and beef production, ninety-five sheep and thirty lambs; the slops from the distillery fed one hundred and thirteen hogs. Pepper’s distillery held seventy-four mash tubs and kegs, six small copper pot stills. In the cellar were forty-one barrels containing 1,560 gallons of whiskey, representing the equivalent of two distilling seasons. Amongst his assets were 25 male and female slaves. He also left his wife Sarah with seven young children and no will.

As earlier as 1833, Oscar Pepper’s solicited advice from Crow, and he may have assisted or counselled Pepper in distilling operations between the 1833 and 1838 seasons; while Crow worked at other distilleries along Glenn’s Creek during the period. Pepper’s small still house produced about one and a half bushels a day, insufficient production to afford much of Crow’s attention. The mutual opportunities of a commercial marriage between Crow’s expertise and Oscar Pepper’s whiskey ambitions likely forged the relationship that inspired Pepper and Crow to upgrade the small log still house from a bushel a day to 25-bushel capacity distillery.

Crow did not re-join the Pepper distillery until the 1840 season as construction occupied the Glenn’s Creek farm site, and a severe drought affected agricultural output during these two building years. Pepper’s substantial capital expenditure involved employing the Irish stonemason, Thomas Mayhall, who constructed a large stone distillery building, stone cisterns, new stone gristmill and warehousing facility from the local limestone.

While the distillery was under construction, Crow worked for other local farm-distillers, including Newt Henry, Thomas (Tom) Edwards and Anderson Johnson’s small distilleries on Glenn’s Creek. The drought from spring 1838 to winter 1840 brought ruin to much of the Kentucky region, with crop failures and a shortage of water for distilling. Water was essential for distilling as one gallon of whiskey required more than 60 gallons of water for mashing, condensing, cleaning – only a fraction of the water came into direct contact with the whiskey.

Oscar Pepper also faced a personal tragedy, his wife Catherine died in 1839, she was of the Gaines family who would later lease the Pepper distillery in 1868, and in 1869 built the Old Crow Distillery. In June 1845, Oscar Pepper married Annette (Nannie) Edwards whose father James Edwards had a neighboring farm on Glenn’s Creek.

After Oscar Pepper died in 1865, Nannie briefly leased the distillery in 1866 to her cousin Thomas Edwards for one season. Edwards had a distillery on his farm 5 miles away on Glenn’s Creek; it was one of the area’s small distilleries Crow worked in 1856 after departing Pepper’s distillery. With construction completed, the new set of copper pot stills, flake stand with worm installed; mashing tubs, fermenters and steam engine ready to start production, the long drought broke. Crow moved his family to reside in a house two hundred yards above the new Pepper distillery. Crow negotiated his remuneration to be one-eighth of the distillery’s annual whiskey production as payment, similar to what millers took as compensation for grinding farmer’s grain.

While yearly outputs would vary by season, by the late 1840s the annual capacity was around 650 barrels (20,000 proof gallons). Making allowances for barrel soak, evaporation and outages, wholesale price movements, bulk values sold annually to dealers, Crow’s remuneration was likely a handsome $500 to $1,000 a year. In 1848, mid-way through Crow’s production contract, the average annual wage for skilled city tradespeople was $550, and Kentucky farm laborers earned $120.

Crow had a very comfortable standard of living by any rural Kentucky yardstick. Oscar Pepper also generated a healthy income for his share of the whiskey, livestock sales, any surplus grain production, as well as flax and hemp cultivation. In 1860, the Government valued his land and assets at $67,500, or $21 million in 2020 value.

After fifteen years working at the Pepper distillery, Crow left in the fall of 1855. At the beginning of the 1855 to 1856 distilling season, he worked with Thomas Edward’s at his farm distillery five miles from the Pepper farm. As mentioned earlier, Crow worked at the Edwards distillery in the late 1820s, and Crow appears to have divided his time between Thomas Edwards, Newt Henry and Anderson Johnson distilleries on Glenn’s Creek. Johnson seems to have entertained ambitions to enlarge his distilling business, attracting James Crow to his site by building the Crow family a house near the distillery.

On April 20th 1856, James Crow suffered a stroke or heart attack in the Anderson stillhouse; he died the same day in the house Johnson had built for the Crow family. Crow was buried at Versailles Cemetery, beside his grave his forty-nine-year-old spinster daughter was interred in April 1861, and his wife Eliza in September 1862.

With no heirs, the Crow trademark was appropriated by Gaines, Berry & Company in the late 1860s. For three seasons from 1868, Gaines, Berry & Company started producing Old Crow sour mash whiskey to Crow’ original specifications when they leased the Old Pepper and Anderson Johnson distilleries. In August 1869, production of Old Crow sour mash whiskey commenced at the Old Crow distillery, newly completed three miles away on Glenn’s Creek.

In part 4 next week we take a look at the state of American distilling during Crow’s time.