Edmund H. Taylor Jr.

No one may know who – if anyone – invented bourbon, but Edmund H. Taylor Jr. has a strong claim on inventing the modern bourbon industry.

More than anyone else in the decades after the Civil War, Taylor turned what had been a fragmented constellation of small distilleries into the centralized, highly capitalized world of bourbon that we would recognize today. He provided the impetus for two of the era’s great distilleries, Old Fire Copper, known today as Buffalo Trace, and Old Taylor, and along the way crafted the blueprints for how bourbon is marketed, celebrated and consumed worldwide.

These weren’t the sort of backwoods hooch-mills that at the time still dotted the Midwest countryside; they were revolutionary, ultramodern facilities, drawing on the technologies Taylor encountered during a year-long tour of Europe in 1866 – things like temperature-controlled aging warehouses and all-copper stills, elements that are still central to American whiskey making today. When Taylor died in 1923, his obituary, which ran via wire reports on the front page of newspapers across the country, noted: “Mr. Taylor’s name was known around the globe, for he had given it to ‘Old Taylor’ whiskey, made in his distillery, pronounced by expert distillers the finest plant of the kind in the world.”

For all his distilling bona fides, Taylor was an even better salesman, and his clever marketing in national newspapers cemented bourbon’s claim as “America’s drink.” Over the decades he had cultivated a dense network of contacts and friends, and when word got back to him about how a celebrity or Washington politician had taken a liking to his bourbon, he would dash off an ad boasting about their endorsement. “He was his own marketing department and advertising agency before most people had ever heard of such things, ” wrote the whiskey historian Mike Veach. Taylor’s well-tended image as a man of leisure and gentility was part of the sell: here was someone who did not hurry to meet production quotas or quarterly earnings targets. Here was a man who made whiskey the “old-fashioned” way – a term he never grew tired of dropping into his advertising copy.

Edmund H. Taylor Jr. arrived on the scene just as the bourbon industry was emerging. Unlike many storied whiskey masters, he didn’t enter the world with his hand on a still. He was born in 1830 in the small western Kentucky town of Columbus, near the Mississippi River. One can imagine an infant Edmund watching a young Abraham Lincoln working a flatboat loaded with cargo, bound for New Orleans.

His great-great uncles, Edmund and Reuben Taylor, were Revolutionary War veterans who helped survey Kentucky; the Taylor family then became some of the state’s first, and wealthiest, landowners. Taylor’s father, John Taylor, already wealthy, grew even richer by trading in slaves. But John Taylor died when Edmund was five years old, and he was sent to New Orleans to live with an uncle, the future Mexican-American War hero and president Zachary Taylor, who at the time was making a small fortune in Louisiana land speculation. 

Uncle Zachary made sure young Edmund got a strong classical education at a private school in New Orleans; that education continued after the boy moved to Lexington, Kentucky, in 1854 to live with another uncle, a banker also named Edmund. There he met the next generation of the state’s elite: among his classmates in his new school was the future Supreme Court justice John Marshall Harlan. When he finished with school, Taylor went to work for his uncle’s bank. He seems to have done well, because after just a year he was given his own branch to run. The bank failed in 1857, but not before young Edmund – who began to add “Jr.” after his name, to set him apart from his uncle – developed a roster of close, powerful business associates.

Taylor was 31 when the Civil War broke out, and instead of fighting he bought and sold cotton; using his connections – which by then included national politicians on both sides of the border – he was one of the few merchants allowed to trade with the Confederacy. 

He prospered during the war, but the fighting left the heartland of American whiskey production in tatters. Of the 75,760 Kentucky men, black and white, who went to war, 10,770 were killed outright, and multiples more died soon after of their injuries or were rendered partially or wholly incapacitated by physical and psychological wounds. By the end of the war the number of distilleries in Kentucky had been cut nearly in half, from 250 to just under 150.

And yet that thinning out allowed the survivors to thrive on the boom in demand that followed the war’s end. The period between the end of the war and the beginning of Prohibition was the golden era of the bourbon industry, the age in which many of the “royal” bourbon names—Beam, Dant, Wathen, Stagg, and of course Taylor—rose to prominence.

Taylor was a banker by trade, not a distiller. But his financial sensibilities told him there would be money to be made as Americans stopped killing and started buying again. He spent the year of 1866 traveling around Europe, learning the latest in distilling techniques, and came home impressed by the importance of keeping the liquids in contact with copper as much as possible (copper removes some of the harmful chemicals produced during distillation). In 1867 he opened his first distillery, Hermitage.

With his initial foray up and running, two years later he bought an old distillery located on a site where his great-great uncles had camped during their surveying mission: a shallow ford in the Kentucky River where, as late at the 1790s, buffalo still crossed during their migrations. Taylor refitted the distillery with steam-heated warehouses – the better to control temperatures during the aging process – and installed all-copper stills. And he insisted that all his barrels be made with shiny brass fixtures, a step irrelevant to the quality of the whiskey, but one that makes for an attractive package.

And yet that thinning out allowed the survivors to thrive on the boom in demand that followed the war’s end. The period between the end of the war and the beginning of Prohibition was the golden era of the bourbon industry, the age in which many of the “royal” bourbon names—Beam, Dant, Wathen, Stagg, and of course Taylor—rose to prominence.

Taylor was a banker by trade, not a distiller. But his financial sensibilities told him there would be money to be made as Americans stopped killing and started buying again. He spent the year of 1866 traveling around Europe, learning the latest in distilling techniques, and came home impressed by the importance of keeping the liquids in contact with copper as much as possible (copper removes some of the harmful chemicals produced during distillation). In 1867 he opened his first distillery, Hermitage.

With his initial foray up and running, two years later he bought an old distillery located on a site where his great-great uncles had camped during their surveying mission: a shallow ford in the Kentucky River where, as late at the 1790s, buffalo still crossed during their migrations. Taylor refitted the distillery with steam-heated warehouses – the better to control temperatures during the aging process – and installed all-copper stills. And he insisted that all his barrels be made with shiny brass fixtures, a step irrelevant to the quality of the whiskey, but one that makes for an attractive package.

If Taylor understood the latest in distilling technology, he also had a sharp sense of what modern whiskey drinkers wanted – namely, the past. This was hardly a unique insight: bourbon’s cachet had already long relied on its connection to an older, simpler time. But Taylor perfected the spin. Among other things, he named his new distillery “Old-Fashioned Copper,” implying that his innovations were actually just a throwback to the way things used to be done.

Taylor had been in business for just a year when the federal government made its first big intervention in the whiskey industry, creating a one-year bonding period for aged whiskeys. Up to then, distillers owed the government an excise tax on whatever came out of the still, as soon as it came out of the still. For a distiller planning to age his whiskey for several years, that meant paying a sizable tax bill long before he would make a penny of profit. And, since whiskey evaporates in the barrel at a rate of about four percent a year, a distiller would pay tax on 100 percent of his whiskey up front – even though, after three years, he was left with only 85 percent or so of it to sell.

By allowing distillers like Taylor to age their whiskey tax-free for up to four years, the bonding period revolutionized the bourbon industry. But as Taylor soon learned, the law also opened the door to corruption and market bubbles. As a compromise with the distilling industry, Congress refused to make tax increases retroactive on whiskey already in bonding warehouses. As a result, whenever there was even a rumor of a tax increase, distillers would ramp up production to get as much whiskey as possible in bond, and thus at a lower tax rate, as possible—regardless of the demand. When the bond elapsed on a particular barrel, tax had to be paid, and distillers were under pressure to sell. If whiskey hit the market during a recession, or just a temporary turn in consumer preferences, distilleries could be doomed. 

Taylor, like his fellow bourbon distillers, fell into this vicious cycle, and in 1878 he lost control of his distillery to the St. Louis firm of Gregory and Stagg. Unbowed, he moved a few miles away, to a creek on the south side of Frankfort. There he built a magnificent distillery: modeled on a Rhenish castle, its various buildings featured rusticated limestone walls, crenellated battlements, and sprouts of medieval turrets. Inside the walls he placed sunken gardens and luxuriously detailed ball rooms, which he used to impress visiting officials. He called it, appropriately, Old Taylor, and it quickly became one of the most popular and prestigious brands in America.

Taylor was well aware that in a booming, no-holds-barred postwar economy, quality products and sharp marketing weren’t enough. One also needed political power. He ran for mayor of Frankfort in 1871, a position he held for the next sixteen years. He later used his connections in Washington D.C. to get the Bottled-in-Bond Act passed, which both set standards for bonded whiskey and created incentives for distillers to age their whiskey longer. Later, he played an instrumental role in the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act, which for the first time defined whiskey—in a way that benefited Taylor and not his many competitors, of course.

Taylor lived long enough to see his beloved whiskey industry brought low by national Prohibition, and died in 1923, four years after the passage of the Volstead Act. His obituary, which ran via wire reports on the front page of newspapers across the country, noted, “Mr. Taylor’s name was known around the globe, for he had given it to ‘Old Taylor’ whiskey, made in his distillery, pronounced by expert distillers the finest plant of the kind in the world.”