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So Many Brands, So Few Distilleries

October 07, 1998|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The history of Bourbon is the story of distillers going broke and being bought up by others. Since Bourbon drinkers are famously brand-loyal, the new owners often maintain the old label.

This is why there are literally hundreds of Bourbon brands being made by only nine distillers. Actually, a hundred years ago, before Prohibition and World War II and various other trials for the Bourbon industry, there were some 700 distillers in Tennessee, so the real puzzle is that there are so few Bourbon brands.

At this point, Wild Turkey and Maker's Mark are the only Kentucky distillers to put the same brand name on everything they make, and even those two have been bought up by multinational liquor companies, Pernod-Ricard and Allied-Domecq, respectively. Jim Beam itself, which keeps up a number of old brands--Old Crow, Sunny Brook, Old Taylor, Old Grand-Dad--is owned by American Brands and hasn't belonged to the Beam family since the '40s.

Heaven Hill, which claims to be the only family-owned distiller left (though members of the Brown family are still majority shareholders in Brown-Forman), is the one that produces Bourbon under the largest number of names--possibly more names, in fact, than any one person knows, because it makes most of the supermarket and other private brands.

There's a certain amount of deception in all this. The new distiller doesn't always maintain the style of the brand it has acquired, Old Crow being an example.

On the other hand, the Bourbon industry is a remarkably close-knit community. At the Heaven Hill press party that opened the 7th International Bourbon Festival, there was an impromptu reunion of four distillers who'd all worked at Seagram's Four Roses distillery. For that matter, Heaven Hill's master distiller is named Parker Beam. As a result, all the companies share much the same distilling expertise.

Here's just one tangled tale of Bourbon history:

Benjamin Blanton, who'd made a fortune in the Gold Rush, returned to Kentucky and started a distillery at Leestown in 1865. In the 1870s, it was bought by Col. Edmund Taylor, who had built the Old Crow distillery (named after the Scottish doctor James Crow, who brought up-to-date whiskey-making methods to Kentucky in the 1820s), but then Taylor sold it to George T. Stagg. The distillery made Old Taylor--despite a long litigation between Stagg and Taylor--as well as Stagg's own brand, Ancient Age. For a while, the Tennessee whiskey George Dickel was also made here.

The Old Taylor brand has ended up in the Jim Beam stable, along with Old Crow. As for the distillery Benjamin Blanton founded in 1865, it continued to be directed by a Blanton until 1952, a typical Bourbon industry story. Meanwhile, the distillery had been bought by Schenley, which renamed it the Schenley Distillery.

In 1969 it became the Ancient Age Distillery. In 1992, the Japanese firm Takara Shuzo & Okura acquired it, renamed it the Leestown Distillery and has distributed its brands in Japan since then. Under a confusing arrangement, the distillery plant, but not the brand names, has been sold to the Sazerac Co. of New Orleans. So now, in addition to Ancient Age and various single-barrel whiskeys, Leestown produces Eagle Rare, a premium brand formerly made for Sazerac by Seagram's's.

This is just the short version of the story, by the way.

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