Whiskey Chronicles Of Edmund Taylor Jr., Part 1 – The Distiller Without Peer

By Chris Middleton / October 13, 2021

Edmund Haynes Taylor Junior, as we will explore over the next several weeks in a multiple article series, was, in many regards, the world’s most extraordinary whiskey entrepreneur and distillery proprietor. He was also the industry’s most effective campaigner lobbying to improve whiskey regulations and tax relief by shepherding into Congress statutes to codify whiskey and, by Presidential decree, definitions on straight whiskey.

He further apportioned twenty years of his life to public service representing his community of Frankfort as Mayor, the constituents of Franklin County as State Representative and as a State Senator for Kentucky. In the whiskey industry, he was without peer, defying duplication: a puncheon amongst barrels.

Taylor made whiskey to the highest standards and quality. To achieve this calibre of whiskey, he erected the O.F.C. distillery and later the Old Taylor distillery, both state-of-the-art facilities described by contemporary accounts as the world’s most modern and attractive manufacturing factories. He held whiskey patents and incorporated new inventions into his distilleries while overseeing innovations in the biological processes to deliver whiskey of exceptional sensory quality.

The Louisville Courier-Journal described Taylor’s work as ‘the crystallization of the science and art of distillation by raising the standard of high grades of whiskey to pre-eminence’. Not satisfied with his unrivalled manufacturing capabilities, he was a visionary merchandiser, assiduous salesman and prolific industry commentator. He devised theatrical venues to entertain and educate the public, created impactful packaging and pioneered integrated marketing programs to make his whiskey label a brand leader in the emergent luxury whiskey segment.

Each of his distilleries faithfully followed in the footsteps of James Crow, who we chronicled at length last year. Crow’s methods and plant plan lay down the manufacturing principles for the bourbon industry, making only hand-made sour mash, all-copper fire distilled whiskey. If Crow was the architect of America’s finest whiskey, Taylor was builder, the ’amelorist’ and showman. Seventy years before Walt Disney created his global entertainment and marketing empire, Taylor worked the same magic on his whiskey.

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While his whiskey story started in 1865, his ‘topmost’ years commenced in 1887, when he rose like the phoenix out of the ashes of his recent distillery failures. Chapters 1 and 2 follow his topmost period, after building the Old Taylor distillery, and his halcyon years before Prohibition forced the closure of the distilling industry. Chapters 3 and 4 will follow his life into whiskey and participation in nine sour mash distilleries in the inner bluegrass region – a dozen if total reconstructions are included.

The making of whiskey and hospitality tourism

In the 21st century, whiskey distilleries have become adult Disneylands and the most popular factory destinations. In 2019, before COVID restricted visitations, two million people visited Kentucky distilleries, Scotland welcomed another two million, and a million toured Irish distilleries. A few decades earlier, these whiskeyscapes were the haunt of brand pilgrims and a few intrepid whiskey anoraks, with only a handful of distilleries inviting curious whiskey travellers inside for a tour.

Today, over a dozen whiskey trails lure tourists to hundreds of distilleries, many hidden along remote country backroads, others beckoning sightseers to new urban craft trails. Greeted by tour guides, visitors experience working distilleries and learn about whiskey production, taste product and peruse merchandising.

One hundred and thirty years ago, the original template for whiskey tourism was conceived by Edmund Taylor Jr. beside the muddy waters of Glenn’s Creek. Old Taylor distillery visitors experienced something more unique beyond his corporate hospitality and theatrical castle; they were inside the world’s most advanced custom-designed distillery, manufacturing the world’s finest sour mash whiskey.

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Edmund Taylor’s road to success was punctuated with financially tumultuous incidents from partner fallouts, commercial setbacks and business failures. Declared insolvent, he lost all his distilleries at one point. Nevertheless, his dogged determination and ability to raise capital enabled Taylor to create the most momentous whiskey enterprise – and at an age when most men look towards easing their workloads.

In 1880s America, the average life expectancy was forty-three years of age. At nearly sixty years of age, Taylor threw himself into his two greatest endeavors – framing national whiskey standards and reimagining the most technically advanced factory as an adult wonderland while manufacturing whiskey of unrivalled superiority.

Edmund Taylor

Edmund H. Taylor Jr.

All copper distillery built to a standard, not to a price

At the Old Taylor distillery, his goal was to make whiskey of the ‘topmost quality’. He sought to exceed the whiskey manufactured at the new Old Crow distillery by his ex-colleagues at W. A. Gaines &  Company, the whiskey he made at his previous O.F.C. distillery, and the famed whiskey once made by James Crow at the Oscar Pepper distillery. An unbroken whiskey pedigree, whose locus in the inner bluegrass region intimately connected people and processes into a patrician quest to serve a grail of whiskey excellence.

When Crow worked the distilleries on Glenn’s Creek until the mid-1850s, the Taylor family became acquainted with this esteemed and enigmatic distiller. Like Crow, Taylor did not label his whiskey ‘bourbon’, preferring descriptors such as ‘Premium Kentucky whiskey’. ‘sour mash’, or the simply understated, ‘whiskey’. With measured conviction, Taylor asserted, “No better whiskey is made on earth.”

A few years before Prohibition, Taylor allowed the ‘bourbon’ appellation on his labels as the reputation of straight bourbon gained more wholesome credibility after the Taft Decision. Previously, Taylor held bourbon whiskey to be inferior to his mode of production and the finished standard of his whiskey. Taylor’s production methods at the O.F.C., Carlisle, and Old Taylor distilleries embodied Crow’s principles but incorporated innovations and new technology. It was grounded in an obsessive attention to sanitation and cleanliness, mashing bourbon grain bills with up to 80% corn, exacting fermentation standards with sour mash setback formulas and using empirical distilling practices to ensure the spirit was of the highest standard. The whiskey rested for at least four years maturation in charred white oak barrels in temperature managed warehouses. When the liquid product left for public sale, it was America’s finest whiskey.

Following Crow’s doctrine, Taylor initially specified only copper pot stills. The new generation of multiple-chambered beer columns, analysers and rectifying columns driven by steam pressure were almost exclusively experimental prototypes pre-1880; neither were they efficient nor safe. The exception was the British continuous twin column stills invented by Aeneas Coffey, patented in February 1830 and August 1831. However, its function was to run on wort, to distil high proof spirit: unsuitable for America’s thick corn and sticky rye mashes, fermented and distilled-on-the-grain.

Most of America’s early copper stills were also tin-plated for longevity, and the worms often substituted pewter or brass to save costs. Crow’s plant was all-copper. Taylor adapted the latest engineering advances into his distillation plant, some apparatuses he pioneered at his O.F.C. distillery in the 1870s and early 1880s. Such as installing the latest all-copper stripping column with downers for the singling run to prevent scalding and scorching of cereal particles imparted an empyreumatic taste. The beer strippers engineered for Taylor reduced the volume of noxious fusel alcohols captured as offensive rank oils in his low wines receiver. The second charge was separately distilled in a traditional copper pot still using direct-fired stills encased in brick furnaces for better heat distribution to control the final running of the high wines.

Taylor’s previous conversance with Scottish and Irish whiskey practises during his 1866 study tour reaffirmed his belief that all-copper, double batch distillation produced a superior spirit, cutting his high wines at around 120 proof. Most Kentucky distilleries used the semi-continuous, closed system, the triple-chambered wooden steam still with doubler producing a low wines spirit at about 100 Proof.

This distilling plan made a cheaper, poorer-quality whiskey higher in fusel oils and sulphur compounds. This spirit usually required rectification by pulverized charcoal filtration or redistilling to higher fractional proofs before blending and dilution at bottling. Add the faster fermenting and more cost-effective sweet mash method used by most Kentucky distilleries; this reduced the cost per gallon for the distiller to 30 to 40 cents per gallon; versus sour mash at 40 to 50 cents. Between mashing lesser grades of grain, mashing methods, different distilling plans, and minimal aging regimes, the classes and prices of whiskey varied enormously.

By the late 1870s, there were several grades of whiskey sold. Common whiskey or white whiskey in wood for days, weeks or only a matter of months, purchased at the grocery was less than $1.00 per gallon.  Kentucky bourbon and rye whiskey, aged two years, sold for $2.00, sour mash for $3.00. A saloon-keeper in 1879 would buy wholesale bourbon whiskey at $2.00 a gallon, doling out 65 drinks per gallon at 10 cents a serve, netting $6.50 a gallon. Only a dozen Kentucky distilleries produced Crow plan hand-made, sour mash copper distilled whiskey aged four years, commanding $5.50 per gallon at grocery and liquor stores.

From 1871 to 1891, the distilled volume of bourbon increased from 4,452,000 proof gallons to 29,311,415 gallons as technology drove mass production and industry consolidation. Mechanization in farming and better grain varieties improved yield and lowered commodity prices. Similar industrialization developments saw the cost per barrel only rise from $1.30 to $1.50 over the two decades. With the cost of goods falling, the price per gallon of whiskey fell by 10% by the late 1880s, with a tsunami of thousands of competitive brands vying for drinker patronage at bars and stores. When the 1893 Depression intruded, demand retreated, with prices slumping by over 40%.

1887 Company letterhead

1887 Company letterhead

In late March 1887, Taylor started production at his new state-of-the-art distillery beside Glenn’s Creek. The equipment was all copper except for the steel roller mills, wooden mash tubs and white oak fermenters – later copper clad. His previous O.F.C. method of ‘filtered setback’ used his patented ‘strained mash process’, producing a rich, creamy beer after 96-hour ferment in a dozen open-air vats. The open-air exposure precipitated a secondary lactic fermentation, slightly increasing the beer’s acidity, lowering the pH level. The beer was pumped to four modern, copper stripping beer columns and completed a discreet distillation run in separate copper doubler pot stills. The hot liquid stillage from the singling run was pumped to an upper floor where dozens of mash tubs lined up to cook cornmeal for new batches to keep the process fed with a continuous beer flow for distillation.

Upon distillation, the ethanol and vapor volatiles travelled into Taylor’s custom-made copper condensing columns, where the receivers collected the spirit at around 120 Proof (60% A.B.V.). Taylor cut the final distillate at 103 to 108 Proof, filling newly charred 45-gallon barrels. Before barrelling, the high-grade sour mash spirit was reduced with distilled or filtered water, other distilleries commonly diluted with low wines or untreated branch water.

The distillery claimed in 1893, through innovation and efficiencies, the alcoholic yield doubled from two and a half proof gallons in 1870 to three and a half, to finally obtain five gallons per 56-pound bushel by the early 1890s. Government gaugers used two officially sanctioned hydrometers to ascertain the standard strength at 100 Proof Tagliabue or Tralles 50% A.B.V. In retail trade, the absence of a hydrometer meant the shaken glass-phial method was employed, where the frothing spirit left a momentary crown of bubbles to verify approximate alcoholic content. The distillery filled 30 to 40 barrels a day, stored on multi-tiered iron mesh racks in streamlined brick and tin-clad warehouses where the barrels aged four or more years.

A small portion of his whiskey was exported to Germany and Bermuda, later imported back to New York after the whiskey spent many more years in barrel maturation than if it remained in American bond stores. Old Taylor’s capacity until the 1906 upgrade was 300,000 proof gallons per annum; thereafter, it doubled. By 1912, the distillery bottling reached 1,000 cases, or 12,000 bottles a day, totalling 2.5 million bottles a year of Old Taylor Bottled-in-Bond sour mash whiskey.

Old Taylor distillery under construction in early 1887

Old Taylor distillery under construction in early 1887

Like the guilds of old, the head distiller passed onto successive assistant distillers the secret formulas and processes of Crow’s method. With the advent of new technological advances and improved knowledge in biochemistry, each distillery working to the Crow plan evolved distillery practices to ameliorate the whiskey’s flavor to their sensory benchmarks and production methods. No more so than at the Taylor distilleries.

Surprisingly, not even Taylor was privy or familiar with all the emergent technical information and procedures as his 1907 Court testimony revealed a ‘lack of practical distilling knowledge’ under questioning. Instead, Taylor was a proprietor who set high standards and invested generously to ensure his staff achieved the desired results. As a result of this attention and determination, Old Taylor enjoyed a twofold price premium to most Kentucky straight whiskeys and commanded a reputation second to none, a testament to the liquid’s superiority. His commitment to excellence was captured in his aphorism at a Congressional hearing, “It is an admitted axiom that quality recedes as cheapness advances”.

When the Old Taylor distillery opened in 1887, America distilled 79 million proof gallons of spirits at 608 operating grain distilleries. Bourbon and rye represented only 26% of grain spirits volume, with bourbon producing 57% of straight whiskey and 43% (straight) pure rye. 1893 was a peak production year, distilling 131,010,330 gallons before the economic Depression shrunk production to 89,992,555 gallons in 1896. However, straight bourbon and rye had increased its share to 33% of the total volume of American whiskey, representing 30 million gallons.

Public consumption of spirits in 1893 reached 101,287,753 gallons; not until 1901 was this volume surpassed when prosperous times returned. The industry also incurred other years of significant over-production, such as 1881 (119,528,011 gallons) and 1911 (183,355,527 gallons), making market and economic conditions difficult for predicting production volumes against future sales for supply-demand.

As the new distillery was commissioned in late March 1887, Taylor began bottling Old Taylor sour mash whiskey from the 1,200 barrels held in a bonded warehouse at the J. Swigert Taylor distillery. He secured the aging stock when he bought back the J. Swigert Taylor distillery in December 1886, before demolishing the buildings to rebuild the Old Taylor distillery. He marketed his whiskey as Old Taylor in barrels for the saloon and hotel trade with glass-etched decanters for table and bar. For ‘tourists, the boat and camping’, he advertised portable stoneware cylindrical bottles as durable packages. In the grocery trade, cylindrical flint glass bottles with E. H. Taylor Jr. signature running down the front label, accompanied by side panels, featuring an etching of the distillery and his portrait.

Initially, they advertised Old Taylor as ‘Queen of Sour-mash, ‘Peerless whiskey’, and ‘Premier Kentucky whiskey’, with posters and advertisements depicting a cartoon rendering of a youthful Uncle Sam sitting atop the bottle’s cork toasting the whiskey. In January 1910, the bright yellow label was introduced, with Taylor’s authenticating signature dominating the front label. When Old Taylor became the best-selling Bottled in Bond whiskey from 1912,  they added ‘1st Place’ and ‘1st Topmost’ to the label.

1900 circa Old Taylor display card

1900 circa Old Taylor display card

Financial crisis for Taylor

The Panic of 1893 led to America entering an economic Depression until 1897. Whiskey consumption declined across the country by 30%, with most whiskey sales suspended, putting financial stress on Taylor’s business. Banks stopped advancing money, and he faced mortgage and loan defaults. By July 1893, assignments were taken by the Security Trust and Safety Vault Company of Lexington against E. H. Taylor Jr., & Sons (only over fixed assets, not trademarks) and individual assignments issued against Edmund Jr., and sons Jacob and Kenner Taylor.

Edmund Taylor valued the business assets at $545,564 with liabilities of $347,737 and $254,427 in secured collateral. However, the appraisers took a less generous evaluation, with the assets valued at $368,759 and liabilities of $347,733. The financial crisis forced him to withdraw from the State Senate race to focus on his distillery. He would not return to local politics until 1902 when elected to the State Senate and briefly made a run for Governor in the latter part of 1902. During this period, he redirected his political energy to the national capital. He continued to play an active advocacy role in framing national standards for the whiskey industry in Washington D.C., unsuccessfully targeting whiskey reforms in the June 1906 Pure Food & Drug Act. Four years later achieving his desired result through representations directly to the White House.

Frustrating Taylor during his financially distressing assignment period was the 1894 Court judgement delaying payment found in favor of Taylor. It was a case he brought to the Courts in October 1889. In April 1891, Taylor was awarded $40,000 damages for George Stagg’s 1888 infractions of the E. H. Taylor Jr. trademark by using his name and signature on whiskey packages owned by the George T. Stagg Company. Stagg appealed the verdict with the case not successfully resolved in favor of the plaintiff until January 1894.

Further appeals and excessive claims for damages dragged on in the Courts until the final judgement in June 1902, where the Taylors’ finally won the trademark protection case but not costs. Taylor won another trademark case in March 1905 against Marion Taylor of Taylor & Wight in Louisville for infringing the Old Taylor trademark. This time he was awarded $300,000 in costs and damages. In 1896, fellow Kentucky distiller John Atherton deceptively used a tiny typographical ‘Whitehead’ on his whiskey label, Taylor & Whitehead whiskey; Taylor successfully sued him. Some of the Taylors’ legal victories proved lucrative sources of additional income to the firm, others a drain, some a loss.

In August 1917, Taylor’s legal loss to their west coast agency, W. H. Levin & Company, after revoking the agreement, due to the new war-time rationing measures, cost the Taylor firm $72,000.

In 1885, Taylor also invested in the Old Brayer distillery with two Lexington partners. A few years earlier, William Brayer sold the distillery to Willis Johnson of Cincinnati, Ohio. Johnson decided to relinquish his involvement with his distant enterprise selling to Taylor. After upgrading the distillery, Taylor renamed it the Newmarket distillery in 1886. Under Taylor’s supervision, they resumed sour mash production in March 1887, after which Taylor liquidated much of his equity in Newmarket during 1888. By 1893, Newmarket distillery, which returned to the Old McBrayer distillery name, also faced similar cash flow problems when the banks restricted funds.

At that point, another assignment was taken out on Taylor’s share in the distillery. The bulk of Newmarket whiskey was sent overseas for aging and appeared to have been bundled with stocks of Old Taylor for shipment. As the export-reimport business declined during the mid-1890s, Taylor sold his remaining investment in Old McBrayer distillery by 1896. Taylor’s connections with William Brayer went back to 1866 when he bought McBrayer’s whiskey stocks on Cedar Brook while working as a partner at the wholesale trading firm Gaines, Berry & Company.

When Taylor left W. A. Gaines & Company to start the O.F.C. distillery, Judge William McBrayer invited Taylor to become a partner in his Anderson County distillery as he was unable to pay the Government excise tax in 1870. Taylor declined his offer to be a stakeholder or buy his whiskey barrels to help bail him out, as Taylor’s resources were committed to ensuring the O.F.C. distillery became a commercial success.

During the depths of the 1890s Depression, the assignees held the Old Taylor distillery assets for two years. Under an arrangement with the Security Trust and Safety Vault Company, Taylor continued to manufacture whiskey at the distillery. The whiskey stocks and bottling rights were held in a separate company, allowing the Taylor’s to continue to generate sales and income.

In July 1895, the auctioneer saw the only bidder emerge; Jacob Taylor bought the Old Taylor distillery on behalf of E. H. Taylor Jr., & Sons Incorporated from the Security Trust and Safety Vault Company for $16,500. Trade orders were returning as the economy recovered. Old Taylor whiskey sales rebounded as the Gilded Age heralded conspicuous consumption, with brands like Old Taylor becoming the new signifiers of prestige and status.

Distillery coda

J.H. McBrayer’s/Newmarket distillery, Mt Sterling: In Montgomery County near Lexington, John H. McBrayer built the distillery circa 1870, known as J. H. McBrayer distillery and marketed Old McBrayer sour mash whiskey. During the 1870s, he sold his distillery to his second cousin William Harrison McBrayer of Cedar Brook distillery, Anderson County. After a few years, William McBrayer sold the distillery to Willis Johnson of Cincinnati, Ohio, a whiskey wholesaler operating W. W. Johnson & Company. In 1885, he sold equity to Edmund Taylor and his Lexington partners John Meagher (Lexington bank president) and Major L. Norman (State Auditor), giving Taylor control over the production and upgrading the facility.

In late 1887, Taylor sold most of his shares to his partners Meagher and Norman to concentrate on the Old Taylor distillery but continued as president at this Mount Stirling distillery. Norman increased his shareholding in March 1896, presumably Taylor’s shares, becoming President. Norman and Meagher sold their shares in the distillery back to Johnson for $67,500 in October 1899. Brothers Louis and Morris Rosenfield of Rosenfield Bros. & Company, Chicago, bought the distillery from Johnson in February 1907. Prohibition closed the distillery in January 1920, and it was demolished in 1921.

John Bond distillery, Cedar Brook: Started by John Bond in 1836, the distillery was situated on the same stream as William McBrayer’s Cedar Brook distillery in Anderson County near Lawrenceburg. After John Bond’s death in October 1842, his two sons took over, and by 1849, William Bond, the younger half-brother, had sole control. In 1869, his brother-in-law Christopher C. Lillard joined in partnership, becoming Bond & Lillard distillery.

In June 1892, a fire destroyed the distillery. It was rebuilt and later bought by C. H. Stoll & Company in 1899, a subsidiary of the newly deconstructed Whiskey Trust, known as the Kentucky Distilleries and Warehouse Company. Julius Kessler ran the Kentucky Distilleries and Warehouse Company, and he focused on buying bourbon distilleries, acquiring fifty-three in Kentucky. The distillery ceased to operate after Prohibition, and the distillation equipment sold for scrap.

*‘Colonel’ is honorific, a courtesy title given to Edmund H. Taylor Jr. in the 1880s by the Governor of Kentucky as a nominal civilian aide-de-camp. It recognized his political service to the Commonwealth of Kentucky as two-time Mayor of Frankfort (1871 to 1877 & 1881 to 1890). The ceremonial title was more frequently used after he left political life in 1893. Eleven States confer civilian colonelcies, land-locked Nebraska bestows the title, Admiral.

Acknowledgment: Many hundreds of primary sources were researched (period newspapers, Court documents, Government circulators and statutes, trade publications, etc., a special thanks to Jennifer Cole and the Filson Historical Society in Louisville for supplying additional archival records from the Taylor-Hays folders.

Coming next week, Chapter 2 covers the Taylors’ golden years and the brand’s manifest popularity until the shadow of Prohibition and the spectre of America entering the Great War brought the distilling industry to a premature shutdown before Prohibition in January 1920. Distilling ceased with the passage of wartime emergency measures, under the August 1917 Lever Food and Fuel Control Act, to ration goods as America declared war on Germany four months earlier.