The James Crow Chronicles: Part 9 (Old Crow Brand)

| December 17, 2020

Editor’s Note: This is the final 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. 

The saga of the Old Crow whiskey brand

 The origins of the Crow brand started in the 1840s when James Crow marked his one-eight share of barrels by chalking C-R-O-W on each of his barrel heads. He then scratched over the chalk with an iron hook, C-R-O-W, etching ownership of his whiskey barrels, that represented his future income. In the Pepper warehouse, the whiskey was either known as Pepper’s whiskey or Crow’s whiskey; they were one and the same. Whiskey put away for more than three years gained the lingua franca, ‘old’ whiskey. 

The first recorded mention of Crow whiskey outside the distillery was a dealer order from Memphis in 1865, ten years after Crow died. The reputation of Crow whiskey superseded its place of manufacture and the more copious Oscar Pepper whiskey brand. Suggesting the dealer network who bought Crow’s small whiskey allocation placed it in better bars and grocery stores. Gaines, Berry and Taylor recognized the growing recognition and value of the Crow name in Kentucky and Tennessee when they leased the Old Oscar Pepper distillery in early 1867. They deliberately named the whiskey distilled at the distillery as Old Crow sour mash whiskey; it also served to differentiate it from Pepper whiskey, Oscar Pepper whiskey and O O P whiskey sold by the distillery.

As James Crow had no living heirs, Gaines, Berry & Company were able to appropriate the brand without challenge. Brand names were beginning to become business assets as the Government, trade and consumers recognized some distillery reputations, and Crow’s whiskey was held in the highest esteem. New excise regulations after July 1867 required distilleries to stencil on their brand, distillery serial number, gallons filled, and date, then burn the entered proof on the barrel head. The whiskey brand had figuratively and literally arrived by Government edict.

James Crow

The Old Crow we know today calls to mind its namesake and his history (image via Beam Suntory)

Gaines, Berry & Company formed in 1866 intending to manufacture and sell whiskey. After establishing the company, they sent their business partner, Edmund Taylor junior to Europe to study best distilling practices. He visited England, Scotland, Ireland, France and Germany and the ideas he brought back played a major role in their business development and the design of their distilleries, especially the obsession with quality and their specifications for all copper distilling equipment. The affinity to Crow values seems to have drawn the parties together – there was an unsubstantiated, but a plausible rumor, that Gaines, Berry & Company’s first acquisition in 1866 was Oscar Pepper’s whiskey inventory of a hundred barrels from his deceased estate. From February 1867, they secured a lease to make Old Crow whiskey at the Old Oscar Pepper distillery with Crow’s assistant distiller, William Mitchell now head distiller. They also obtained a second distillery lease at the Anderson Johnson distillery for additional whiskey volume for the Old Crow brand.

As James Crow worked at the Johnson distillery at the time of his death, the distilling procedures and whiskey were probably comparable to Pepper’s product. While they adopted Old Crow as their first whisky brand when they leased the two distilleries, the trademark was not registered until November 1870: ‘Old Crow Distillery, copper distilled whisky (sic). W A Gaines, Distillers, Woodford County, Kentucky’ registered as trademark number 102. Before 1881, America had no effective trademark laws; an earlier attempt to gain business protection under patent and copyright laws proved ineffective. Congress attempted legislating a national copyright standard in 1870 as half a dozen American states had passed varying trademark laws with no legal teeth in the courts. It was not until the Commerce Clause in March 1881 the first enforceable Federal trademark law passed. This legislation resulted in the first distillery trademark case involving ‘description of place of manufacture’ with ‘right of trademark’, at the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery after Labrot & Graham acquired ownership, and James Pepper challenged their trademark rights in July 1881. Labrot & Graham proved legal ownership of the Old Oscar Pepper brand.

While setting up Old Crow’s production at Pepper and Johnson distilleries, Gaines, Berry & Company acted on their second plan to manufacture another whiskey, Old Hermitage sour mash whiskey and Old Hermitage sour mash rye whiskey. They purchased land in south Frankfort by the Kentucky River in 1868 with construction starting later in the year. It was completed at the same time as the Old Crow distillery in the fall of 1870.  The arrival of their New York agents as investors saw the company incorporated as W A Gaines and Company with all assets and trademarks under their ownership. Paris, Allen & Company provided more funds to build their second distillery, Old Crow in 1868. While W a Gaines & Company kept the brand and their whiskeys separate, it was intimated some of Crow’s sour mash rye was made at the Hermitage distillery due to the distillery’s lower production costs and greater competency in rye manufacture.

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The Old Crow whiskey was initially sold in bulk by the barrel; at $3.50 per gallon in 40-gallon barrels. Their sour mash whiskey commanded a 25% to 33% premium to ordinary bourbon with agents bottling and labelling at their cost. By the late 1880s, hundreds of agents signed up across the country, Canada, Europe and South America. Shipped in barrels many of the agents began bottling the whiskey as trade and consumers were better-guaranteed product and brand genuineness. Bottling by agents led to different label designs appearing in Frankfort (W A Gaines), New York (H B Kirk & Co), Boston (Devereaux & Meserve), Chicago, Kansas City (Ebenezer Whyte) and across in San Francisco (A P Hotling). This led to many copyright infringements as wholesalers who lost distribution rights or others who wanted to capitalize on the brand’s reputation copied or passed-off ersatz whiskey as Old Crow. By 1900, over 1,800 trademark infringement notices were issued by W A Gaines & Company.

The distillery did not start bottling in Frankfort until the 1880s. W A Gaines & Company proudly etched an aerial depiction of the Old Crow distillery on the label. In the more competitive markets of New York and Boston, their agents sought a more striking image for the label. James Crow became specie Corvus, a bird with a stalk of grain in its beak while standing on a sheath of bundled cereal. Bottle shapes varied too. In 1890, the Boston agent packaged Old Crow in a square glass flint bottle soon to be used by Jack Daniel and other distillers; the label featured a crow pecking a sheaf of grain. Edson Bradley, President, W A Gaines & Company recognized the power of the Crow symbol, replacing the distillery buildings with the crow. Bottle strengths varied from 100 Proof to over 110 Proof.

In 1905, Bradley remarked Old Crow ‘bourbon’ was not commercial brand, but a product description the Government required on barrel heads in bond to designate the kind of whiskey it was by law: bourbon on the barrel, sour mash whiskey on the label. Twelve years later, a small but profound change was made to the label. Old Crow became ‘Bourbon whisky’ (sic), the marketing appeal of ‘hand-made sour mash’ held less consumer interest in Gilded Age. The legal use of the term ‘straight whiskey’ did not apply to labelling until after the 1907 Pure Food & Drug Act. It was a vernacular term Kentucky distillers started to use in the 1880s to differentiate their wholesome and flavorsome whiskey from rectified grain whiskey, an ‘industrial spirit’ made by corn distilleries and rectifiers claiming ‘purity’ over traditional rye and bourbon whiskey. Straight had its signification as honest whiskey, whereas rectified and compounded whiskey was a silent spirit, ersatz and blended. Since the 1897 Carlisle Act, all the Old Crow whiskey was Bottled in Bond strength 100 proof, with the average age seven years in wood.

Old Crow had built an extensive national distribution network by the 1880s. To generate consumer demand W A Gaines & Company increased their focus on promotions and merchandizing. Under Bradley’s management investment ramped up their brand imagery and materials to create attention and remind drinkers with point-of-sale prompts in bars, hotels and liquor stores. Advertising and promotional expenditure between 1884 and 1904, totalled $232,809, spent on color posters, signage, merchandising items, dealer cards, newspaper advertisements, mail-outs and a persistent presence in trade journals to attract orders. Some of the imagery was racy, featuring half-naked women cavorting in corsets.

As competition and marketing activities intensified, Prohibition was closing in. By 1920, W A Gaines were unable to sell their whiskey; instead, it became medicine prescribed by doctors. To survive Prohibition, W A Gaines & Company licensed Old Crow bourbon whiskey to be distilled under license at the Corby distillery in Ontario from 1922. The enormous illicit trade in bootlegging whiskey from Canada, Scotland and Ireland meant Old Crow could maintain a nominal presence in America’s speakeasy trade.

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Heady days after Prohibition

Four months after Prohibition’s repeal, National Distillers bought the Old Crow distillery and brand from American Medicinal Spirits Corporation and renovated the distillery to restart production later in the year. National Distiller’s dominant position in American whiskey was captured in their 1935 annual report, noting ‘the total production of whiskies in the United States during 1935 was 184,839,630 gallons, an increase of about 70% over the previous year. Your company produced 26,214,124 gallons or about 14’7o of the total. Total withdrawals of whiskies from bond in the United States during the year amounted to about 62,000,000 gallons of which your company withdrew about 11,000,000 gallons, or about 18%.

At the end of 1935, the stocks of whiskies remaining in bond in the United States were approximately 207,153,540 gallons, an increase of about 125% over the previous year. Of this total, your company owned about 43,000,000 gallons, or approximately 20%, your company’s holdings of whiskey having increased 547% over the previous year.’ 

Old Crow was fortunate to be part of the National leviathan and treated the brand as one of their prized possessions, along with Old Taylor, Old Grandad and dozens of other whiskey brands and their distilleries. The rush to fill empty warehouses after Prohibition, and build up reserves of age stock was tempered by consumer spending constraints due to the Great Depression. The industry needed to tread warily with the Government and a still powerful temperance lobby aggressively scrutinizing how they marketed and sold whiskey. The new 1934 Federal Alcohol Administration Act included specific codes covering labelling and advertising. To avoid public ire and Government recriminations, the whiskey marketers acted cautiously in the message and media usage.

When National relaunched Old Crow after Prohibition, they did a major revamp to the brand imagery by anthropomorphizing Crow into a cartoon character. Dressed sartorially in top hat and tails, monocle, spats and cane, it reflected the attempted gentrification of the brand. They were mimicking their formidable Scotch competitor, Johnnie Walker, selling 200,000 cases in the US by 1937 and the world’s best-selling whisky brand. Since 1907, John Walker was personified as Johnnie Walker, the striding regency buck, also with top hat, cane and monocle. The two leading whiskey brands represented two culturally different personifications of their founders to create memorable and likeable symbols of their whiskeys. No sooner whiskey production and sales began to recover after Prohibition and the Great Depression; the US entered the Second World War in December 1942. It severely limited whiskey supplies and almost eliminated production between October 1943 and June 1945 as the distilleries joined the War effort to manufacture industrial alcohols from munitions to plastics. 

National placed great store in Old Crow’s future success after the Second World War, and it proved well-founded, if not a self-fulling prophesy. In 1949, they abandoned the cartoon crow and commenced a national magazine campaign highlighting Old Crow’s whiskey heritage. The advertising campaign shamelessly appropriated famous deceased ‘Americans of distinction’ to endorse Old Crow whiskey, such as Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Daniel Webster, even Britain’s Rudyard Kipling made an appearance in the series of national full-page color advertisements.

One of the most remarkable advertisements featured President Andrew Jackson drinking Old Crow whiskey in the early 1840s before Jackson died at his home, the Hermitage in Nashville in 1845. James Crow also awarded the title of Colonel as well as Doctor in the series. The imaginative campaign ran until 1960. During the 1960s, National reverted back to the friendly cartoon version of crow helping the brand consolidate its status as America’s bestselling bourbon whiskey. The Old Crow ‘winning bird’ cartoon character appeared in advertisements, merchandising and displayed on the collar of the bottle.  From 1950 to 1970 the bourbon and straight whiskey grew by +155% to dominate the fast-growing whiskey segment, the largest category in the spirits, with bourbon attaining 58% of whiskey sales. Old Crow rode the crest of the bourbon wave.

Old Crow accelerated forward under National, rivalling Early Times to be the top-selling bourbon by May 1954 selling over one million cases, and reaching over 1.5 million cases by end December. Old Crow was the first bourbon to achieve this million case milestone. By end 1955 sales hit 1.9 million cases and by 1959 2 million. Old Crow’s growth was propelled by lowering the proof from 100P to 86P in late 1953. National was riding the bourbon boom, with 1955 biggest growth year for total bourbon sales. They also consolidated Crow’s production and marketing into a bourbon-only whiskey, phasing out the Old Crow rye in the early 1950s. The new column still installed at the Old Crow distillery in 1955 would ensure Old Crow bolted forward in production and sales. With a touch of hubris, Old Crow advertised itself in 1960 as ‘the best-selling bourbon by far’, a competitive claim they held until 1970.

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By 1967, Old Crow was America’s fifth most popular spirit brand selling 2.55 million cases.  The rivals reveal the challenges, and threats bourbon faced. Seagram’s 7 Crown, an American blended whiskey (67% grain spirit) held the top spot with 7.65 million cases. Canadian whiskeys had the next two rankings with Seagram’s VO at 3.05 million cases and Hiram Walker’s Canadian Club with 2.95 million. Whiskey’s future threat, vodka, saw National’s Smirnoff accelerating into fourth place with 2.95 million cases. Close behind in the seventh spot was Old Crow’s new bourbon rival Jim Beam with 2.53 million cases.

By 1970, Jim Beam overtook Old Crow, on the cusp for bourbon’s sales apex. National responded in 1970 by dropping the carton Crow and repositioning the brand as patriotic and an American tradition with headlines: ‘Dr James Crow: father of his country’s whiskey’ or ‘What cheese did for Wisconsin, Old Crow did for bourbon.’ Different trade and industry sources attribute bourbon cases sales attaining either 30 million (Jobson’s Liquor Handbook, peaking in 1969, declining to 28.5 million in 1970) or 32 million (claimed by Newsweek in 1970). Both report bourbon’s decline from 1970, when bourbon sales fell -1% in 1971. In ten years’ bourbon lost 20 million cases, and by 1997 the bourbon segment sold only 13 million cases, a -57% collapse since 1970, The bullish forecast for 1974 of 34 million cases did not materialize. By 2022, straight American whiskey’s meteoric rise is likely to reach the 1970 US sales volume of 30 million 9 litre cases.

Bourbon industry’s fear of vodka and white rum were soon realized as a new generation of drinkers were quickly drawn towards these two tasteless spirits and their cocktails. It was not all gloom for the whiskey category as lighter Canadian and blended Scotch whiskies increased their shares in a falling market. By 1973, vodka had overtaken whiskey as the best-selling category in the US spirits market. The bourbon industry lobbied the Government in the late 1960s to change the national regulations to allow the new segment of ‘light whiskey’ with reused barrels and filtration to remove color and reduce flavor to compete in the changing consumer landscape.

A class of light whiskey existed after Prohibition to cover stock shortages while mature inventory built up.  This new whiskey class was designed to fight vodka, white rum and also arrest the growing popularity of the lighter whiskey styles of blended Scotch and Canadian imports. All the major bourbon distilleries launched light brands or line extension into this new segment from July 1972, releasing over 50 brands. National launched Crow Light in December 1972 with the slogan, ‘The whiskey that whispers’. By 1974, the total segment tanked, and all the distilleries withdrew, damaging both their bottom lines and the muddying the standing of the bourbon segment. One industry journal reported the detrimental effect this oxymoron product had on bourbon brands, noting, ‘Crow Light played hell’ with their bourbon reputation. To revive their declining brand National invested in a new print campaign ‘hand-crafted bourbon’ and ‘made by good Kentucky hands’, promoted an artisanal strategy.

Old Crow continued its sales decline, along with the total bourbon segment. During the 1974 recession, National dropped the proof to 80P/40% ABV, and the maturation from 4 to 5 years to save money and lower the price. It was a race to the bottom as Old Crow sales sank to 600,000 cases in April 1987, and slid to 520,000 by years’ end. National decided to exit the whiskey business and sold their whiskey brands to James B Beam, a subsidiary of American Brands. Old Crow’s production moved to Beam’s Clermont distillery where it was made to the Beam mash bill. Old Crow continued its decline falling to 434,000 in 2012. In 2015, Beam introduced its first line extension in decades, Old Crow Reserve, 4-year-old bourbon at 43% ABV. Two years later, this unloved orphan brand in Beam’s product portfolio continued its sales decline to 347,000 cases.

There’s a sad irony, that Old Crow, once the paragon sour mash bourbon of the highest quality in the 19th century, the biggest selling bourbon brand in the mid-20th century, by the 21st century descended into ignominy as a cheap bottom shelf whiskey. 


Chris Middleton

Chris Middleton is from the whisky industry and writes about whiskey too. After an international career in the whiskey industry he has an insider’s perspective on the history, production, product innovation and cultural marketing of whisky from manufacturing countries of Scotland, Ireland, to North America, and his home in Australia....