When Thomas Selvin Moore, shown left, in 1889 purchased acreage near Bardstown, Kentucky, he was far from the only distiller in the area. Through the quality of his whiskey, however, he was responsible for making the town synonymous with good bourbon. Today Bardstown is considered the central stop on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Tom Moore is the reason.
Moore was born on March 18, 1853, to Charles A. and Catherine Ann (known as ‘Kate”) Moore, both natives of Nelson County. They were descended from among the many Irish families who had come west to Kentucky looking for fertile, inexpensive land and resulted in Bardstown being the first Catholic diocese west of the Appalachian Mountains.
Charles Moore died when Tom was only eleven years old, likely shortening the boy’s time in school and thrusting him early into the workforce. The 1870 census found him living with his widowed mother, a brother and two sisters, one of them married to Charles Willett, part of a well-known local distilling family. Despite the death of the principal breadwinner, the household seems fairly affluent with a cook and two domestic servants in residence.
In 1874, two years after his mother’s death, Moore at the age of 22 married Mary Virginia (“Jennie”) Collings, 18, the daughter of John W. and Mary Sutherland Collings of Nelson County. About the same time he went to work for the Willett family in its distilling interests. Joining him there was Ben Mattingly, who had married into the Willett clan. The “pater familias,” John D. Willett, among other properties, owned a Louisville company called Willett & Frenke that operated a distillery at Morton’s Spring in Nelson County, just south of Bardstown. In 1876, Willett reputedly transferred his interest in that distillery to Tom and Ben and they began operating the facility under the name “Mattingly and Moore.”
The partners made a bourbon of that name, along with “Belle of Nelson” named for a race horse owned by John Willett, and “Morton’s Spring Rye,” after the limestone water they used that flowed from a spring on the property. Just about the time that their whiskey was coming of age, Mattingly sold out to a group of investors. Moore continue to work with the new management for eight more years until 1899 when he withdrew to finance his own distillery.
Tom did not go far, however, purchasing 116 acres adjoining the original distillery, just a half mile from Bardstown on Jackson Highway, U.S. 31 East. With financial help from T. E. O’Keefe, an Irish liquor wholesaler from Oswego, New York, who needed an assured supply of whiskey, Moore built a new distillery. Initially this plant had a mashing capacity of 100 bushels daily, yielding ten barrels of whiskey a day. According to insurance records, the distillery itself was of frame construction with a fire-resistant roof, surrounded by five warehouses, variously made of brick, stone or iron-clad, all with fire-resistant roofs. Shown above in an artist’s drawing, four warehouses were adjacent to the still; a fifth stood on a hilltop 280 feet west.
Moore’s may have been motivated to strike out on his own as a distiller by the growing needs of his family. By this time he and Jennie had six children: Mary, Alice, Cornelius known as “Con,” Thomas, Margaret, and Lawson. As they matured the boys would be deployed to assist the distillery workforce, shown here in a photo from about 1900.
The Tom Moore Distillery seems to have been a success from the beginning. It was producing “Tom Moore,” “Dan’l Boone,” and “Silas Jones” whiskeys, the last brand bought from Stoner & McGee at Hunters Depot when that firm disbanded. Moreover, just a year after opening, Moore and O’Keefe moved to buy the Eagle Distillery (RD #8) in Daviess County, following the death of its owner, Richard Monarch. They operated this facility under the name “Imperial.”
Despite precautions against fire, a conflagration in 1892 destroyed two of Moore’s Bardstown warehouses with the loss of some 14,000 barrels of whiskey. Other warehouses were saved, as well as the distillery and the bottling house. The loss to Moore and O’Keefe was estimated at $450,000 with $750,000 in tax revenues lost by the federal government.
The facility quickly was rebuilt and over the years continuously expanded. By 1899 warehouse capacity had been increased to 15,500 barrels. By 1905 Moore was mashing 300 bushels a day and the warehouses held 20,000 barrels. A photo above shows the layout.
That same year, Moore knew personal tragedy as Jennie, his wife of thirty-one years, died at the age of 49, their youngest son still not in his teens. She was buried in St. Joseph’s Cemetery, Bardstown. Within several years, Moore appears to have married again. According to census records she was Millie, a local woman who was twelve years Tom’s junior.
Throughout these years, the Moore distillery flourished as his bourbon and other whiskeys gained a national following. Shown here is a photo from the Bowery in New York City. The sign in the window advertises a bottle of 10-year-old Tom Moore Rye for 75 cents.
As shown here on a label, Moore was working with the Pfeiffer Brothers, wholesaler liquor dealers of Louisville, to distribute his products. Moore also did private-label bottling for wholesalers Hilmar Ehrmann and Hermann Bros. of Louisville, as well as for Applegate & Sons Distillery (RD #15) of Marion County. Moore’s wealth allowed him to buy and operate The Old Talbott Tavern in Bardstown, built in 1779 and believed to be the oldest standing western stagecoach stop in America, an historic site even in Moore’s day.
As he aged, Moore, shown left, could be pleased with the success of his whiskey. He is said to have provided day-to-day management for his distillery and liquor interests up until National Prohibition in 1920. Sixty-seven years old at that time, he appears subsequently to have retired.
Moore lived to see Prohibition repealed in 1934. At that time his son, Con, with partners, rebuilt and expanded Tom’s original distillery, giving it a mashing capacity of 2,400 bushels. Three warehouses had the capacity to age 50,000 barrels. In the late 1930’s Con Moore left Kentucky to build a new distillery in Denver and non-family members took ownership and continued to expand the plant, shown here
Tom Moore died in 1937 in Bardstown at the age of 84. Cause of death was given as bronchial pneumonia aggravated by senility (dementia). He was buried in St. Joseph Cemetery beside his first wife, Jennie. He has been hailed for his contributions to the development of the Kentucky whiskey industry and in 2007 was voted into the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame.
The Heaven Hill Company of Bardstown, a stop on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, bears a plaque dedicating the site to “our founding father,” Thomas S. Moore. After imparting other information, the plaque concludes: “Here’s to you, Tom Moore. Cheers!” — a fitting ending to this pioneer distiller’s story.
Note: This blog contains posts on several of the other whiskey men referenced here. They include T. E. O’Keefe (May 2013), Richard Monarch (January 2017), Pfeiffer Bros. (October 2011), Hilmar Ehrmann (April 2016) and Applegate & Sons (June 2012).