Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Toward Solving the Mystery of G.O. Blake

From time to time a pre-Prohibition whiskey man might be be well recognized as a result of his name having been widely circulated on liquor labels but is someone whose personal history is shrouded in obscurity. Such it is for George O. Blake whose name for decades graced a popular whiskey sold throughout the United States.

Blake first came into the liquor trade in 1866, in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, working for the J.H. Cutter whiskey operation in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. The owners were Charles P. Moorman and Milton J. Hardy, the latter a son-in-law to the founder, John Cutter. Blake appears to have had a strong aptitude for the business and subsequently was made a junior partner in the firm. His job was to select good bourbon from distillers and oversee the “rectifying,” or mixing of raw spirits, to control the quality of Cutter Whiskey. As a result of his work Blake became a well-known and respected broker on Whiskey Row -- the trade hub of the American liquor industry located in Louisville.

The Cutter firm had a distributorship in Boston and it may have been as its representative that Blake first made the acquaintance of two Beantown merchants named Luther Adams and George Taylor. Adams had been engaged in wide ranging mercantile activities including selling groceries, cigars and liquor. He also was listed in Boston directories as a rectifier of whiskey.

Deciding to create his own brand, Blake cut his ties with the Cutter organization and moved at least temporarily to Boston. Local business directories shown him living there in 1871, boarding at the Clarendon House. During that stay Blake apparently persuaded Adams and Taylor that he had a formula for blending whiskey that could find and hold a national market. In 1872 the three formed a new company, called Adams, Blake & Taylor, located at 115 Broad Street in Boston.

Almost immediately, as shown here, the trio applied for trademark protection for their new brand, “G.O. Blake’s Bourbon County Ky. Whiskey.” Blake’s deal with the Boston partners was that they would have exclusive distribution rights in the East and Midwest, operating distribution centers in Boston and Louisville. Blake also concluded an arrangement with a San Francisco firm to handle West Coast sales and recruited local investors in Kentucky.

The Boston firm renewed its registration of Blake whiskey in 1875. At the same time Blake and his partners registered a trademark on “Apple Tree Gin.” As time passed it apparently became clear to Adams and Taylor that the national liquor trade was very lucrative. In 1876 they determined to buy out all the other partners and be solely responsible themselves for producing and marketing G.O. Blake Whiskey, including running the rectifying operation in Louisville. Among those selling out was Blake himself. The Boston firm became simply Adams, Taylor & Co. The partners also began to bill themselves as Louisville distillers, which they were not.

At that point, George O. Blake took his money and simply walked out of the picture and into the mists of time. But the brand that bore his name continued for years to be sold widely from coast to coast. Initially Adams and Taylor were careful not to emboss their names on the bottles, permitting their sub-distributors around the country to issue G.O. Blake Whisky under their own label. As these distributors gradually dropped away, Adams, Taylor took full control of the brand name, embossing their own name on each bottle beginning in the late 1880s. The brand also became known for giveaway items such as tip trays and, most particularly, glass paperweights.

At some point Adams apparently jettisoned his grocery and cigar businesses. The firm’s letterhead calls the partners “wine merchants, importers, distillers and wholesale dealers.” In 1897 Adams moved into one of Boston’s most notable mansions, called the Bayley House after its original owner. He died in 1901. The firm carried on after his passing as evidenced by a 1909 ad selling G.O. Blake whiskey.

Over the years, collectors have sought the identity of Blake, but information has been scant. He appeared on the scene in 1866, gave his name to a national whiskey brand and was gone a decade later. How could someone with such evident talent just walk away from the liquor trade and disappear? That is the ultimate mystery of George O. Blake.

Footnote: A George O. Blake is recorded as a Congregational minister in Phillpsburg, Kansas, in 1876, having arrived there in 1875. The timing is about right. Is this our boy? Did he give up whiskey for the pulpit? If so, it might explain his sudden exit from the liquor business.

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