Monday, September 19, 2011

Edson Bradley and the Making of "Old Crow"

Growing up, Edson Bradley probably could not tell sour mash from sweet corn, but in maturity he turned whiskey-making into abounding wealth. In the process he made possible the rise of Old Crow bourbon -- still one of America’s most popular whiskeys.

Bradley was born in 1852 and grew up a large frame house in Roxbury, Connecticut, shown here, where his father, Edson Sr, was a partner in a shoe manufacturing company. Although details about Edson Jr.’s early life are sketchy, he was born into money, well educated and eventually trained for a career in finance. While still in his twenties he
became associated with Paris, Allen & Company, a leading New York and London financial and importing firm.

Immediately after the Civil War, members of the firm had become interested in whiskey production as an investment. They connected financially with Frankfort, Kentucky, distillers that included the estimable Colonel E.J. Taylor, a major force in Kentucky bourbon. Together the money men and the whiskey makers built a distillery in Frankfort, shown here. At the same time they purchased the nearby Old Crow distillery, closed it down, and moved the operations to the new facility along with the brand name.

The Crow name had particular importance. A Scottish physician, James Crow (1789-1856) is credited by many for inventing the sour mash method of making whiskey and for being the father of modern bourbon. After his death his recipe was handed down through several distillers until purchased by the Taylor group. Down through the years the Old Crow brand repeatedly has invoked James Crow’s heritage, including ads purportedly showing him delivering whiskey to the American statesman, Henry Clay.

In 1887 the firm incorporated in Kentucky as W.A. Gaines and Co. New York-based Marshall Allen of Paris, Allen became president and Bradley a vice president. Although the whiskey industry has always emphasized the backwoods, rustic nature of distilling, the truth is more complicated. New York Wall Street investors frequently were directly involved in the whiskey trade. Almost immediately upon joining the distillery the youthful Bradley was anointed the principal spokesman for the Gaines company and represented its interests and those of the distilling industry on Wall Street and in the halls of Congress. .

A black crow early became a fixture on its labels . Bold and interesting advertising, exemplified by a racy trade card and a giveaway shot glass were part of the success. The operation became highly profitable, selling the Old Crow brand nationwide. The distillery was expanded.

As the driving force behind Old Crow, Bradley soon became a national figure. In 1884 the New York Times identified him as a leader of the Wine and Spirits Exchange -- an early attempt at a “Whiskey Trust.” In the process Bradley also was becoming immensely wealthy. Soon the press was referring to Bradley as a liquor millionaire and a kingpin of the American distilling industry. About this time he moved his family from New York City to Washington, D.C. He bought a large Victorian home on fashionable DuPont Circle and tore it down to build the grandest mansion the Nation’s Capitol had ever seen.

Bradley’s home was truly his castle, featuring towers, turrets, and stained glass windows. It contained a Gothic chapel, shown here. an art gallery -- to hold his extensive collection of ceramics, tapestries and books -- and a 500 seat theater he called “Aladdin's Palace.” Some interior rooms were transferred intact from France. Almost instantly the Bradleys became a regular item on the society pages of Washington newspapers. Edson’s daughter, Julia, had a splashy and well-publicized “coming out” party in 1894 that drew a crowd of the rich and powerful to his home.

Edson Bradley
At the same time Bradley was finding that success had its downside. Because “Old Crow” had achieved national fame as a brand, other whiskey organizations were using some variation of the name on their products. Some of these were licensed bottlers. Others simply appropriated the Crow name and prestige. W.A. Gaines Company sought to fend off this competition by registering the Old Crow trademark in 1887. When that move failed to deter the copycats, Bradley and his colleagues registered again in 1897 and repeated the process in 1904 and again in 1909.

The principal culprit was the Rock Springs Distilling Company of Daviess County, Kentucky. It persisted in selling a whiskey it called Hellman’s Old Crow . Eventually the dispute found its way into the courts. A Federal judge in Kentucky decided for Bradley and the Gaines Company. That decision was reversed by a Federal Appeals Court and in 1918, the case found its way to the United States Supreme Court. The High Court ruled in favor of Bradley and ordered Rock Springs Distilling to “cease and desist” its use of the Old Crow name. We can speculate that at least a few of the Supreme Court Justices had been guests at Edson’s palatial Washington home.

Bradley’s victory quickly became a hollow one as National Prohibition was imposed a year later. His company struggled along until 1922 when it was dissolved and the Gaines distillery was left for a time abandoned and derelict. Now 70 years old and enormously wealthy from Old Crow profits, Bradley was restless. He determined to leave Washington, move to fashionable Newport, Rhode Island, and, almost incredibly, to take his castle with him.

Brick by brick, tile by tile, the mansion was dismantled and transported to Rhode Island while the fascinated populace of Washington looked on. Ripley’s “Believe It or Not” highlighted the event for a national audience. In Newport Bradley purchased a large existing home called Seaview Terrace. He joined the two structures to become one of the largest mansions in America. It featured 17 rooms on the first floor, 25 on the second, and 12 on the third.

Time, however, was catching up with the Bradleys. A few months months after construction was completed on Seaview Terrace, Mrs. Bradley died there, age 76. Six years later in 1935, Edson, while on a trip to London, also died. He was 83. Today the mansion in Newport still stands. From 1966 to 1971 it was the setting for a spooky ABC daytime soap opera called “Dark Shadows.” The house currently serves as a dormitory for a local college.

The Old Crow brand survived and thrived. Immediately after Repeal American Medicinal Spirits Co. bought the Frankfort plant, renovated it and later turned it over to National Distillers Products Co. which purchased the brand name in 1947. That firm operated the distillery until it went out of the whiskey business in 1985. National Distillers then sold the brand and facility to the Jim Beam Brands Co. It shut the plant but has continued to market Old Crow.

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