Depicted here, Taylor was born in 1930 near Fulton, Kentucky. A fourth generation Kentuckian, he was a descendant of two American presidents, James Madison and Zachary Taylor. When his father died when he was five years old, he was sent to Louisiana to live with his great uncle Zachary, the future Mexican War hero and Chief Executive. Zachary gave the boy a good classical education. In the early 1850s Taylor returned Lexington. There he resided with his uncle, Edmond Haynes Taylor, a local banker, and “Jr.” was added to the young man’s name to distinguish him from his uncle.
Working successfully in his uncle’s bank, he now had the steady income to marry. His bride in December, 1851, was Fanny Johnson of Lexington, shown here, described in her obituary as “a very handsome woman.” They would have seven children among them three boys, all of whom would figure significantly in their father’s whiskey interests. Thirty-one years old when the Civil War broke out, Taylor avoided service in either army and instead traded in cotton, working with both sides, reputedly tolerated because of strong political contacts North and South. (The “Colonel” was strictly an honorific.)
Not originally a distiller, it was Taylor’s banking sense that there was money to be made in selling whiskey. Not just any whiskey as many Kentucky distillers featured, but a quality product. Accordingly after the war he spent much of 1866 touring Europe being educated in the latest distilling techniques, including the importance of keeping the liquids in copper kettles. Upon his return to the United States in 1867 he opened his first distillery, “The Hermitage."
Two years later he bought an old distillery near Frankfort, Kentucky, and completely renovated it, installing all copper stills and innovative steam-heated warehouses that controlled the temperatures during whiskey aging. The distillery, shown above, also featured state-of-the art grain equipment, a more efficient sour mash technique, and modernized buildings. He called this facility “Old-Fashioned Copper,” or “O.F.C.,” as depicted above on a saloon sign. Although he operated successfully for more than a decade, a combination of factors brought Taylor close to bankruptcy in the late 1870s and forced him to sell control of his distillery to the St. Louis Liquor firm of Gregory and Stagg. Although he stayed on as manager, Taylor clashed with the new owners who wished to increase profits by cutting the quality of the whiskey. In 1884, he cut his ties with the distillery and George Stagg became the manager.
Before long Taylor was back in the whiskey business. Moving a few miles away to a creek on the south side of Frankfort, he built a spectacular distillery modeled on a German Rhenish castle. A shown here on a postcard, it featured thick limestone walls, crenellated battlements, medieval turrets, interior sunken gardens and luxury appointments. He called his firm, E. H. Taylor & Sons and the distillery “Old Taylor.” The sons, as shown in a letterhead, were J. Swigert and Kenner. A third son, Edmund W., would join the business later
The elder Taylor had become the face and signature of this enterprise for a reason. After Stagg and his partners had taken over the original Taylor distilleries they had kept his name because of his stellar reputation for bourbon. When the Taylors opened their new facility, Stagg sued to stop them using their name on their whiskey. Over the next months, a legal battle was waged that ended in the Kentucky Supreme Court with a victory for the Taylors. They could continue to use their family name for their whiskey — but Stagg’s “Taylor” products were still on the market. Thus the emphasis on the Colonel’s face and signature to proclaim the “genuine” bourbon. Shown here is a 1903 ad in the Wine and Spirit Bulletin included both and an excerpt from the court decision. All to make the point: “There is but one Old Taylor distillery in Kentucky…There is but one Old Taylor whiskey distilled in KY.”
This message, complete with signature and face were repeated countless times on labels of Old Taylor bourbon. They were under-glaze printed on tall ceramic jugs and featured on company giveaway items, including watch fobs and paperweights. As a result, Taylor became one of the most recognized faces and signatures in America.
Having won the legal battle with Stagg, the combative Taylor took up a new cause. One factor that had led to his earlier near bankruptcy was having to pay a hefty federal tax on whatever came out of the still immediately after distillation. Convinced that a better system of taxation was necessary, he began to lobby for new legislation. In this struggle, he was immensely aided by his political pedigree and friends. In 1871, Taylor had been elected as mayor of Frankfort, a position he held for 16 years, reputedly a good and much esteemed leader. Among his political allies was John G. Carlisle who the same year had been elected lieutenant governor of Kentucky. When Carlisle eventually became Secretary of the Treasury, the two collaborated to pushed through Congress the “Bottled-in Bond-Act of 1897,” a law that still stands.
Although the Bottled-in-Bond Act was aimed at creating a standard of quality in bourbon whiskey, the system also was connected to the tax laws, providing the key incentive for distilleries to participate. They were allowed to delay payment of the excise tax on stored whiskey until the aging process was complete and the whiskey transferred for sale. Supervision of the warehouses and transactions was given to Treasury agents assigned to control access to “bonded” warehouses at the distilleries. E. H. Taylor & Sons were quick to advertise their adherence to the new law in ads and a bar sign, bearing that very familiar face, that declared: “Bottled under U.S. Government Supervision….”
Taylor was not finished in his advocacy. He added his voice and prestige to those who were pushing for a strong Pure Food and Drug Act. Although most of the advocates for this legislation were reacting to the quack medicines of the time, Taylor was motivated differently. Like other quality whiskey producers he abhorred the “rectified” (blended and compounded) whiskey of his time, much of which was adulterated. Those blends, he contended, should be labeled “imitation whiskey.” When the Act was passed in 1906, Taylor found an ally in Dr. Harvey W. Wiley, who was chief enforcer of the pure food laws.
This time, however, neither Taylor nor Wiley was able to force through their desired interpretation of blended whiskey. Fought over for years, the issue finally reached the desk of then President William Howard Taft. Taft in a Solomon-like decision determined that “whiskey was whiskey” and although blends should be distinguished from straight whiskey in labeling, they were not an imitation. That ruling has prevailed to the present day.
For all his political clout and savvy, however, Taylor could not hold back the tide of the Temperance Movement. With the coming of National Prohibition, he and his sons were forced to shut down the Old Taylor Distillery. At the time the father’s net worth was estimated at $2.5 million, 10 times that in today’s dollar. Three years later, on January 19, 1923, Taylor died and was laid to rest at Frankfort Cemetery. Beside him was his late wife, Fanny, who had died a quarter century earlier after a long illness.
The death of Col. Edmund H. Taylor Jr. occasioned headlines across the United States, many of them carrying a wire service obituary that read in part: “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 its kind in the world.” To this one might add that by the time of his death Taylor truly had become the face and signature of Kentucky bourbon.
Note: The information for this vignette came from a variety of sources, among them an article by Clay Risen that appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review of October 28, 2013.