Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Kentucky Thompsons: Shrinking the Glenmore Colonel

The face seen at right is, perhaps, the most imposing visage to be seen on an American stoneware whiskey jug.  The imposing eyebrows, the thick mustache, and the goatee mark the individual as a quintessential Kentucky colonel.   He was the emblem of Glenmore whiskey, a product of James Thompson and later his sons.   Over time the Thompsons, even as they prospered, saw fit to “shrink” the colonel.  

As several authors have pointed out, there is no consensus about when or how the Thompsons or Glenmore appeared on the Kentucky distilling landscape.  James Thompson is said to have been born in May 1855 in the town of Eglington, County Derry, Northern Ireland, and emigrated to the United States in 1871.  He is reputed to have arrived here at 16 with only the clothes on his back.

Thompson had a singular advantage.  He was related to the Brown distilling family of Kentucky.   About 1873, the firm of J.T.S. Brown, Chambers & Co. had been established in Louisville and was producing whiskey.  Records indicate that in 1876 James was hired by the firm as a salesman.  Three years later, joining with another salesman, George Foreman, Thompson formed a sales agency to represent Brown, Chambers & Co. as a broker, selling spirits to both wholesale and retail customers.

When Chambers retired in 1881 he sold his shares in the Louisville plant to Thompson and his cousin, George Garvin Brown, with Foreman as a junior partner.  The distillery became Brown, Thompson & Co.  Shown here is a trade card from the company, showing its flagship brand “Old Forrester.”  For the next nine years this triumvirate ran a highly successful whiskey business.  As time went along, Thompson apparently was anxious to strike out on his own.  The opportunity arose in 1901.  Richard Monarch’s distillery in Owensboro, Kentucky, had gone into bankruptcy about 1898 and facility went on the auction block in 1901.  Thompson with his  brother, Francis P. Thompson, jumped at the chance to buy it for a “bargain basement” $30,000. 
Thus was born the firm of  “Jas. Thompson & Bro. Distillers and Whiskey Merchants.”  The company had its Louisville offices in a building at First and Main Streets that had been vacated in 1900 by the N. M. Uri Co.  The distillery itself was located two miles east of Owensboro, a distance of more than 100 miles from Louisville.  Insurance records and an illustration below dating from 1892 indicate that it was a relatively small operation. The property also included a cattle shed where cows were fed the spent mash.
Subsequently a legend has grown up that Thompson founded the Owensboro distillery, and named it and the flagship brand Glenmore after a castle in his native Ireland.  Not so.  As early as 1893, Monarch had called his plant “The Glenmore Distillery Company” and featured a Glenmore label he boasted as “the queen of Daviess County whiskies.”   It was Thompson, however, who hooked the brand to the Kentucky colonel.  Shown below is the flip side of the jug above.

Thompson wasted no time in making improvements.  He hired his wife’s uncle, H. S. Barton, to upgrade the plant which had been dormant for a time.  Barton became the master distiller and plant manager, positions he held until 1919.  The new ownership greatly expanded the facility until it was capable of mashing 5,500 bushels, considered at one time to have been the largest capacity in Kentucky.   This permitted Thompson to market multiple brands in addition to Glenmore.  They included “Kentucky Tavern,” “Old Black Thorn,” “Old Chauncey Bourbon,” “Old Velvet Corn,” “Old Thompson,” and “Jefferson County Bourbon.”

Somewhere along the line, Thompson seemingly decided that his Kentucky colonel visage was too severe.  The artist had given him a look of intensity, bordering on a scowl that rendered him very formidable looking, indeed.  The colonel might well have been modeled on the fanatical John Brown of the Harper’s Ferry raid.  As the most striking face ever to appear on an American whiskey jug, perhaps the portrait was just too strong.  A later jug, shown here, definitely toned down the Colonel.  The bust was now smaller and within an oval medallion.   The Colonel’s eyebrows no longer were bushy and his beard was trimmed.   The scowl was gone and he seemed to be smiling.  He could have been someone’s favorite grandfather.

With his growing wealth and reputation as a leading Kentucky distiller, Thompson showed a flair for the giveaway items common in the whiskey trade, gifting his customers with attractive etched shot glasses advertising his distillery and products.

He also showed a taste for elegance by building his wife and family an impressive mansion about 1894.  Shown here, it is significant as an example of American eclecticism, combining the shingle style with Queen Anne motifs.  Thompson’s mansion boasted a porch with columns that surround three sides of the house and details such as oval windows and leaded glass.  Today it is on the National Register of Historical Places.
At the conclusion of World War One, James took his sons, Frank B. and James P., with him into the business.  By that time he had bought up several other Kentucky distilleries and is said to have been producing hundreds of whiskey brands.  Together the family weathered the coming of National Prohibition in 1920.  Their first effort was to make and sell vinegar.  “We didn’t do very well at it,” Frank Thompson admitted later. They found success, however, in lobbying for and becoming one of a handful of distilleries in the country allowed to operate on a limited scale for “medicinal uses.”  With prescriptions for spirits exploding in number during 14 “dry” years, this privilege proved very lucrative.  

Sadly, James Thompson died in 1924 at the age of 69, never to see Repeal. Frank, shown left,  became the chairman and president of the Glenmore Distilleries.   He was destined to become a true colonel, joining the U.S. Army in World War Two as a private and rising through the ranks to a lieutenant colonel and battalion commander.  With the end of Prohibition in 1934, unlike other Kentucky distillers, the Thompsons already were up and running with some 31,000 barrels of aged whiskey in their warehouses and Glenmore Distillery cranked up to make more.

In the post-Prohibition era, a final indignity was done to the Kentucky colonel.  Although the Glenmore brand was revived and packaged in stoneware as before, the once commanding visage was reduced to the size of a finger smudge. Finally, as if to add insult to injury, the distillery subsequently abandoned the tradition of stoneware packaging in favor of glass — glass made to look like ceramic.
Surviving floods and fires, the Glenmore Distillery, shown below in the 1930s, went on to fill its two millionth barrel of whisky in 1946,  The Thompson family maintained control of the distillery until 1991 at which time it was acquired by another firm of Northern Irish heritage, Guinness.  In recent years the Owensboro facility has been through many ownerships and name changes.  Although distilling ceased there in 1993, it remains one of the major whiskey bottling facilities in the U.S.  

Note:  George Garvin Brown and George Foreman, mentioned above, went on to found Brown-Foreman, still a major force in the Kentucky bourbon world.  I have done previous posts on two other whiskey men mention here, J. T. S. Brown (May 2012) and N. M. Uri (August 2012).



  1. Hi Jack. Just a couple of things...

    Richard Monarch did not die in 1900, as one book mistakenly reports. I'm trying to get that cleared up with the author for future editions.

    Richard actually passed away on July 9, 1915, just a few months after his wife tragically died in an accident (on February 27, 1915). A short biography I wrote on him can be found at his Find-a-Grave memorial at:
    Richard Monarch Memorial

    He did go bankrupt in in early 1898-ish. A deed of assignment was filed on December 18, 1897. By then, he had already sold his big, grand home (which he'd only lived in for 3 or 4 years). But he continued to live on for another 17 years!

    He signed an affidavit of a list of assets for the "Eagle Distillery Co." on 29 January 1898, situated "about one mile East of Owensboro, Ky on the Ohio River (which is actually the Glenmore property); one of the assets is listed is the brand, "Glenmore" and another as the brand, "Doherty Short Horn."

    Glenmore itself was sold by the Columbia Finance and Trust Company (assignees for the creditors of Richard Monarch) at auction on Monday, January 22, 1901. That sale was set aside because of the absence of an appraisal so lawyers weren't sure it was legal. E.C. Buckner,of the Owensboro National Deposit Bank and representing some creditors, had bid $17,000 on it. It was then put up for auction again, and sold, on February 18, 1901 to E.C. Buckner for $22,800, again representing some creditors. He then sold it to James Thompson on May 6, 1901 for "an undisclosed amount". It is then recorded in newspapers that James Thompson transferred "the Glenmore distillery" to "the Glenmore Distilleries Company" for $70,000 on May 28, 1901.

    As for the name, "Glenmore," - RD#24 (formerly the R. Monarch Co.) is actually shown with the Glenmore name on the 1890 Insurance Maps by the Sanborn Company. Glenmore is also listed in the 1889-1890 Owensboro City Directory, plus the 1891-1892 City Directory, so that was even a few years before the 1893 you had listed.

    If you need them, I can send you newspaper articles and other source material for these dates, including the sale of Glenmore and articles on Richard Monarch's death. Just let me know how to send it to you.

    And thanks for writing these blogs - all very interesting!

    Aileen Blomgren

  2. Aileen: Thanks for sharing all the additional information on the Glenmore-Monarch connections. I will amend the material on Richard M. accordingly. I have done a post on MV Monarch but not on Richard.If I do, I assume I can be in touch with you through your memorial site on Richard. If not, send me your email address at jack.sullivan9@verizon.net. Thanks for your kind words and help.

  3. Thank you Jack for the outstanding article. Aileen, I appreciate your informative comment. I am the great grandson of James Thompson and grandson of James Pitkin Thompson.

    My great uncle, Col. Frank Thompson, donated genealogy and historical records to the Filson Club in Louisville if you want further details.

    I would be grateful for any additional information you have about the Thompsons, Browns, the distillery and whiskey businesses.


    James Pitkin Worrall

    1. Hi James,

      I will get in touch with you in a few weeks after things calm down, and we can compare notes to see if you want anything I have. I am always happy to share.


  4. James: Glad you liked the article. You have distinguished ancestors. Know little more than appears in the article, but Aileen Blomgden has agreed to help me to fill out the picture by doing pieces for this blog (under her name and credit) on R. Monarch and Payne, the latter her ancestor. She is recovering from an operation now but we should get something from her before long. This should help to clarify a complicated relationship of those concerned. She has done some good research. Jack

  5. Hey, Jack! Thanks for sharing this info, and Aileen!

    I just had one question. You mention in your article near the bottom that "while Glenmore Bourbon is still being sold, the Kentucky colonel has completely disappeared from the label."

    Could you give me some more info on this? I have hunted around for Glenmore bourbon and can't find it anywhere. I have an old Glenmore bourbon jug (from 1949, I think) that I have been searching for a bottle of. I use it as a display piece on my bar now and thought it would be cool to have some real Glenmore bourbon stored in it.

    Thanks for any info you have!

    Del Simmons

  6. Del: Thanks for your comment. Glenmore is no longer sold. When I originally wrote the article from which the post was taken much later, it still was. No longer. The Thompsons sold out in 1991. However, after several ownership changes its Kentucky Tavern label is still made by the Barton Distillery. My suggestions would be to put some Kentucky Tavern in the jug as the closest possible whiskey.
    And yes, I will up date the post.

    1. Thanks so much for the information, Sir! I figured the information must have been from a while back, but when I saw the 2016 date on the post, I had to ask.

      I've just discovered your blog and have been enjoying reading through it. Thanks for all you do!

  7. Jim Worral, what was your grandmother's name, who was married to James Thompson? Do you know if your grandfather's distillery encountered any opposition from members of Kentucky's temperance movement? Do you know if your grandmother was involved with that, as many women were then? Thank you!