Whiskey Chronicles of Edmund Taylor Jr., Part 3 – The Formative Years

By Chris Middleton / October 29, 2021

In Part 2 we took a look at the prime years for Edmund Taylor Jr’s distilling legacy. The years before 1887 were turbulent for Taylor when his distilling empire collapsed due to insolvency. Born into privilege, including family lineages to two U.S. Presidents, Taylor began his career as a bookkeeper in banking, played an active role in local State politics, socialized amongst some of Kentucky’s wealthiest and most influential circles.

Surrounded by influence and access to financial resources, he could not prevent the loss of his distilleries as external economic forces impacted the whiskey marketplace and his financial exposure. Like the mythical phoenix, Taylor possessed a fierce tenacity and rose from the ashes of his vanquished distilleries to achieve his greatest success: Old Taylor distillery, his sour mash whiskey and his legislative efforts coxswaining the laws that define American straight whiskey.

The measure of the man

Domineering, charismatic, indefatigable and imaginative: these four traits were apparent in his business dealings, political life, and domestic relationships. A man described as of gentlemanly countenance, sartorial in dress, charitable, intelligent, a raconteur, and concerned with the welfare of his community, industry and country. He showed relentless ambition in banking, distilling and the latter years, as a breeder of champion Hereford cattle. Living an active and robust life, Taylor directed his forceful and persuasive personality to shape outcomes to his agenda. Without his boundless energy and determination, he could not have succeeded in the different ventures he pursued and the resilience to rebound from failure.

While charming and eloquent, masterful with the pen and a most hospitable and generous host, he was also feared, quick to temper and combative when events turned against him. In presentation and appearance, his self-image ruled, manifested in his adornment to the finer accruements of Kentucky life such as thoroughbred horses, grand houses, champion livestock and especially his attire, earning him a reputation as a dandy dresser. Newspaper reporters opined his hobby appeared to be clothes, known to change his suit several times a day. New York and Chicago’s best tailors kept his measurements; a new suit of clothes arrived every two weeks, joining over a hundred more suits in the wardrobe inside his Queen Ann mansion, Thistleton. His portrait adorned his whiskey labels, letterheads, advertising materials, as did his large script signature across the front label of each whiskey bottle. His Company was E. H. Taylor, Jr. & Sons, making Old Taylor whiskey at his Old Taylor distillery.

Even his adult children were subjugated to background roles. However, he recognized his children in his will for the sacrifices they made, dividing his $3 million estate amongst them as they ‘had given practically their lives in assisting me in acquiring my estate’. A firm disciplinarian, he was sometimes harsh and petty in demeanour to his beloved five daughters and three sons. He sent a three-page ‘belittling sermon’ to one daughter, sarcastically rebuking her because she named her new dog with a human name. The Louisville News reported in May 1902 when Taylor announced he was running as a candidate for the State Senate, describing him as ‘the brainiest, the most charming, the cleanest, the most public-spirited Democrat in Frankfort’.

Edmund H. Taylor Jr.

An imposing character of solid build, his volatile temper could erupt against a provocative antagonist, especially in the hurly-burly world of political life. He came to blows with John Gaines in August 1895 over primary election differences a block from the State Capital building. Only the intervention of friends restrained Taylor from giving Gaines a hiding. Four months earlier, he was offended by a pulpit attack by his Methodist minister Reverend Henderson castigating his political colleague John Breckinridge whom Taylor supported. Henderson was also a very vocal and vociferous Temperance advocate to Taylor’s chagrin.

After the Sunday service, Taylor’s outrage saw him accost Henderson, “You are a liar and scoundrel”, and immediately drew back to strike him but was prevented from delivering a decisive blow by members of the congregation. This confrontation caused Taylor to join the local Episcopal Church in Taylor’s no-nonsense attitude; if you can’t beat them, leave them.

The man and his distilling ambitions

 Edmund Haynes Taylor’s father, John Eastin Taylor, died at Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana, returning from New Orleans by flatboat in February 1835. On his fateful trip accompanying him was his wife, Rebecca and five-year-old son Edmund. After the funeral in Frankfort, Edmund returned to Columbus, Kentucky, where the family lived. Richard Taylor, John’s father, cared for Rebecca, Edmund, and his two-year-old sister Eugenia. Rebecca’s third child, John Richard, arrived four weeks after his father’s death. Seven months later, Richard Taylor died of cholera on a visit to Frankfort. Edmund was placed under this uncle’s supervision, Edmund Haynes Taylor, residing in Frankfort.

In 1850, he added the salutation Junior to avoid confusion with his uncle. Seventeen years later, his uncle Edmund had a son in September 1867, also christened Edmund Haynes Taylor II, adding another Edmund H. Taylor to Frankfort’s small population. Taylor went to George Boyer’s prestigious primary school, a boarding house for young boys on Conti Street in New Orleans. During his residence in New Orleans, he was a regular visitor to his granduncle’s Baton Rouge plantation.

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His granduncle, Zachary Taylor, became Whig President of the United States from March 1849, dying prematurely in office after serving only sixteen months. The plantation was managed by Zachary’s son, Richard ‘Dick’ Taylor. As a young teenager, he returned to Frankfort to live with his uncle Edmund Haynes Taylor while finishing his education at B. B. Sayer’s Academy on Todd Street, Frankfort.

With limited patrimony from his father’s estate, Taylor needed employment after completing his secondary education in 1849. He started work at the Frankfort Branch of the Bank of Kentucky, where his uncle, Edmund Haynes Taylor, was the cashier, heading bank operations. At this point, he added Junior to demarcate the two Edmund H. Taylor’s serving at the bank. In 1852, twenty-two-year-old Taylor Jr. moved to the Commercial Bank of Versailles as the cashier. A year later, he left Versailles for Lexington, where he formed Taylor, Turner & Company in July 1853, a bank and exchange dealership with Ulysses Turner and William Shouse.

When Turner retired in April 1855, it became the Taylor, Shelby & Company after Isaac Shelby invested in the banking enterprise. However, the Financial Panic of 1857 pushed the business towards insolvency. Before the Southern States seceded from the Union in 1861, Taylor moved his young family of three children, Jacob Swigert, Mary Belle and Rebecca, and wife Frances (Fannie), to Wolf Island, Missouri. Situated opposite Columbus, Kentucky, where he was born, trading in Mississippi cotton.

In late 1862, Taylor returned to Frankfort to operate his agency supplying the U.S. Government with cotton, livestock and tobacco. During the Civil War, Kentucky declared itself a neutral State where Taylor and his uncle were Union supporters and traders. After four years of internecine conflict and severe disruption to the whiskey industry, Taylor sensed Kentucky’s famed bluegrass whiskey region presented a significant commercial opportunity.

Taylor enters the whiskey industry

The month the Civil War officially ended, Taylor joined the Frankfort trading business of Gaines, Berry & Company as a partner in April 1865. Hiram Berry held the majority of the shares, becoming company president. Previously, Gaines and Berry traded in cotton, and now they intended to enter the ‘hand-made, sour mash, pure copper’ whiskey business by buying stock from William McBrayer and John Bond distilleries, both in adjoining Anderson County.

When the Civil War commenced, William Gaines and Hiram Berry planned to purchase or build a whiskey distillery in the Frankfort area to capitalize on ‘Western whiskey’ demand amongst the Atlantic coastal States. In the aftermath of the Confederacy surrender, investment returned to Kentucky. Berry and Gaines rekindled their intention to enter the whiskey trade and realize their ambition to own a distillery. While they developed their whiskey trade and began planning the new distillery, they sent Taylor to Europe in Spring 1866. The purpose was to study British grain distilling practices during a fifty-five-day tour to London, Liverpool, Glasgow, the Scottish Highlands, Dublin and a side trip to Paris.

1869 Gaines, Berry & Company letterhead

In 1867, the trading firm of Gaines, Berry & Company, formed Gaines, Berry & Company, Distillers to incorporate the planned Hermitage distillery as a separate business entity. After appointing liquor wholesalers Paris, Allen & Company as their agents in 1868, the New York firm joined the Frankfort founders as investors in the distillery as W. A. Gaines & Company. In February 1870, they supplied the extra capital needed to complete the distillery’s expansion, finish the new Old Crow distillery on Glenn’s Creek, and fund the working capital to start production at their two distilleries. Gaines, Berry & Company, Distillers purchased land in South Frankfort in early 1868 over a reliable ‘pure spring water’. They began raising a modern distillery incorporating Crow’s distillation principles for making sour mash all-copper whiskey and pure rye whiskey.

While the Hermitage distillery went from idea to completion, Gaines, Berry & Company leased the Oscar Pepper distillery on Glenn’s Creek to produce Old Crow whiskey from January 1st,1867. Their production of ‘Old Crow sour-mash copper distilled whiskey’ was supplemented by a second lease at the Anderson Johnson distillery, also on Glenn’s Creek.

The two Glenn’s Creek distilleries had three-year leases from 1867, produced sufficient volumes of Old Crow whiskey until their two new distilleries were operational. The Hermitage by the Kentucky River and six miles away the new Old Crow distillery on Glenn’s Creek. Taylor’s observations in Britain were incorporated into the two new distilleries, improving safety, plant utilization, equipment and processes. Crucial to the high-quality standards of the whiskey, both these distilleries were designed and operated to the Crow plan. James Crow was the renowned distiller who worked at the Oscar Pepper distillery from 1838 to 1855.

Crow’s empirical approaches to the chemistry of whiskey production and scientific methods in the manufacture of sour mash, copper pot double-distilled whiskey set superior standards in high-grade whiskey. The knowledge and training in the Crow’s principles and sensory standards were passed to staff, ensuring replication of his whiskey along a succession line of distillers. Especially his assistant distiller since 1848, William F. Mitchell, who took over as head distiller at the Oscar Pepper distillery in 1855 when Crow left to work at the Anderson Johnson distillery. Mitchell trained other distillers such as John Johnson, Van Johnson, Marion Williams, and John Hawkins in the Crow methods; they, in turn, taught others who later ran similar sour mash copper-fired distilleries in the counties around Frankfort.

1870s Hermitage distillery Frankfort

The Hermitage distillery had a 900-bushel daily capacity, the country’s largest sour mash distillery, starting full production in the Fall of 1870, manufacturing pure sour mash rye and sour mash (bourbon) whiskey. The distillery was partially finished in November 1868 when the Internal Revenue Service permitted the commissioning of limited production volumes. Completion of the distillery and survey by the Government inspector authorized full utilization of the distillery in 1870. W. A. Gaines & Company’s other state-of-the-art Old Crow distillery with a 500-bushel a day capacity was also commissioned in October 1870 to manufacture Old Crow whiskey.

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When Gaines, Berry & Company left their leases at the Oscar Pepper and Johnson distilleries, it placed financial pressure on their owners with the loss of the steady rental income and experienced staff who moved to W. A. Gaines & Company and ‘E. H. Taylor, Jr., Distiller.’ to man the new distilleries. These two Crow plan distilleries on Glenn’s Creek would again come under Taylor’s ambit.

Beginning of E. H. Taylor, Jr., Distiller

Taylor’s desire to be a sole proprietor inspired him to purchase another sour mash distillery in Frankfort, as the Hermitage and the Old Crow distilleries were completed. Much later in his life, he claimed the E. H. Taylor Jr. firm was registered in April 1864 to conduct a whiskey business a year before joining Gaines, Berry & Company. After several years working on the building and fitting-out of the Heritage and Old Crow distilleries, the confrontational move of buying a competitive local distillery led to friction with his partners. Forcing Taylor to sell one-sixth of his Company shares for $33,913.15 in November 1870 to their New York investors.

Described as a ‘give or take offer’ due to ‘his extreme boldness in his new position’ in securing an agreement to purchase another hand-made, sour mash all-copper distillery months earlier. Taylor was delighted to receive the money to pay for the acquisition, renovation and working capital for his next distillery venture. Taylor purchased the Old Swigert sour mash, copper-fire distillery built by Daniel Swigert by the Kentucky River at Frankfort’s original riverport at Leestown. Swigert’s was another distillery built to the Crow plan; when Crow was working as a freelance distillery advisor, he likely had a hand in the distillery’s design.

The original distillery site of Old Swigert was known as Leestown, named after Willis and Hancock Lee, who foundered the settlement in 1775.  An anecdotal story reported a small still in operation since 1787. Benjamin Blanton, the grandfather of Albert Blanton, bought acreage on the southern side of Spring Cove in Leestown and was alleged to have worked a small homestead still in the area from the 1820s. Swigert fitted out the new three-storey stone distillery in 1858 with sixty small wooden mash tubs (bushel per tub, distilling 2½ gallons of spirit per tub) and a set of copper stills heated by direct open fire.

No sooner than the distillery was completed, competing financial demands from his other business interests forced Swigert to sell the facility to brothers Clement and Ashton Craig in December 1859 for $3,500. By the late 1860s, the sour mash whiskey originally produced at Swigert’s Old distillery gained ‘merited celebrity with dealers and connoisseurs of Kentucky’s favorite beverage’ and generated favorable comparisons, ‘esteemed equal to the best made by Mr Crow himself’. In 1868, the Craig brothers sold the Old Swigert distillery to three Frankfort investors, Samuel Major (printer and editor of Frankfort’s The Yeoman newspaper), Lawrence Tobin (grocer) and James Hearn Graham (carpenter/builder).

Not the James Hiram Graham, who in May 1878 bought the Old Oscar Pepper distillery from George Stagg after Edmund Taylor’s accumulated debts forced the sale to Stagg. In March 1870, the trio sold the copper-fire distillery to Taylor for $6,000. However, they moved to sweet mash under Craigs’ management, and the whiskey’s reputation suffered. During the Craig brother’s proprietorship, the distillery had been idle for several years, necessitating Taylor to remediate equipment to return into production.

1869 Old Swigert distillery renamed O.F.C. distillery

Taylor renamed the Old Swigert distillery the O.F.C. distillery (Old Fire Copper) in November 1870. The Old Fire Copper referred to the distilling plant made from all-copper and fuelled by cut cords of wood to furnace-heat each pot still. In contrast, the prevalent Kentucky bourbon closed system steam stills were fabricated from poplar and other hardwoods that manufactured inferior bourbon and rye whiskey. He replaced some of the sixty mash tubs, repaired fermenters and distillation equipment, incorporating steam-heated copper coils to charge the beer still to prevent scolding.

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Copper cooling and heating coils regulated brewing temperatures in the mash tubs to improve the yield and extend the distilling season – mashing and fermentation were vulnerable to climatic conditions before refrigeration permitting extensions into the summer months. Intriguingly, in April 1869, a similar concept was patented by New York wholesalers Marshall J. Allen of Paris, Allen & Company, investors in W. A. Gaines & Company’s Hermitage and Old Crow distilleries. Taylor hired James Johnson to undertake the restoration work as he learnt the Crow plan at his father’s distillery.

James’s mother, the widow of Anderson Johnson, had leased the Glenn’s Creek distillery to Gaines, Berry & Company, permitting them to distil supplementary volumes of Old Crow whiskey to the Crow plan between 1867 and 1869. Taylor also poached key staff from his old firm, Gaines, Berry & Company, ‘lessees of the Oscar Pepper Old Crow distillery’, notably the head distiller William Mitchell to run the distillery when production started in November 1870.

By 1870, there were two of the dozen sour mash, copper-fire distilleries operating in Kentucky. Crow plan distilleries were integral for Taylor to duplicate the Crow whiskey standard, which he faithfully followed throughout his distilling career. However, he integrated new technological developments and enhanced mechanical and biological processes to modifying raw materials and improve yield and product quality at his successive distilleries.

With the renovated O.F.C. distillery starting production in late 1870, the old plant and buildings required further capital expenditure to rehabilitate, upgrade and upscale equipment to meet Taylor’s high production standards and increase volume output to 500-bushels a day. Taylor’s ambition was to match the sour mash whiskey production volumes he designed at the Old Crow distillery with his ex-partners, Gaines and Berry.

In 1871, Taylor turned to his recently appointed St Louis agent, Stagg, Hume & Company, a successful mid-Western whiskey bottler and distributor. Inviting the president George Stagg and the firm’s backers to become principal investors in his firm E. H. Taylor, Jr., Distiller, with his O.F.C. distillery. George Stagg and his business partner James Gregory supplied the necessary investment through Gregory, Stagg & Company. These funds allowed Taylor to demolish the O.F.C distillery in 1873 and build a new state-of-the-art sour mash, all-copper fire O.F.C. distillery on his Leestown site.

Distillery coda

Old Oscar Pepper/Labrot & Graham distillery, Glenn’s Creek: After James Graham purchased the Old Pepper distillery in May 1878, Leopold Labrot, a Frankfort liquor merchant, joined the business in August 1878. Labrot & Graham upscaled the distillery to 200 bushels a day in 1883. Head distiller John Goines bought the Pepper homestead across the Grassy Springs stream from the distillery in 1886, working the distillery until 1906. James Graham sold his equity to Leopold Labrot in November 1899. Labrot invited T. W. Hinde of Chicago, D. K. Weiskopf and  L. F. Fechheimer of Republic Distributing Company in Cincinnati and his son-in-law Richard Baker (cousin to Edmund Taylor) to become shareholders. In 1918 the distillery closed; with Prohibition’s repeal, Richard Baker reopened production in 1935, selling his whiskey stock to T. W. Samuels in 1939.

In 1940, the distillery was bought by Brown-Forman for $75,000, including the inventory of 25,673 barrels to bottle Kentucky Dew. Brown-Forman later sold the distillery buildings and land to the Hockensmith family in 1971, a year before the American whiskey industry descended into decades of decline. The Hockensmith’s used the facility for agricultural activities. Brown-Forman repurchased the distillery site in 1994 to spearhead a new premium bourbon using traditional pot stills made by Forsyth’s of Rothes in Scotland. After a major renovation by Dave Scheurich, production commenced in October 1996 at the redux Labrot & Graham distillery. It was renamed Woodford Reserve distillery in 2003.

Hermitage distillery, South Frankfort: W. A. Gaines & Company was liquated in December 1922 with the stock and distillery purchased by Cook-McFarland, who supplied American Medicinal Spirits Company with inventory to sell medicinal whiskey. Kentucky Distillers and Warehouse Company bought the Hermitage distillery, and in 1927 the National Distillers Products Company took 38% shareholding in Kentucky Distiller and Warehouse Company.

In December 1929, the Hermitage Distilling Company became a subsidiary of National Distillers Products when they acquired 100% of the shareholding. In September 1944, National sold the distillery to C.P. & Charles Grosscurth. They operated the distillery for a year before demolishing it, selling the land for development into residential housing to absorb the growing population of Frankfort.

Coming next week, the finale, Chapter 4, investigates the developments in technology and the innovative processes Taylor introduced to the O.F.C. and other Taylor distilleries. The other distilleries include the building of the new Carlisle distillery, the Spring Creek distillery; reinvolvement in the Oscar Pepper distillery; the purchase of the old Johnson distillery and his investment in Newmarket distillery.