Sunday, October 2, 2011
W.H. McBrayer: The Judge of Good Whiskey
William Harrison McBrayer, called Judge McBrayer for much of his life, is credited with being among the handful of Kentucky distillers who raised the quality and image of the state’s whiskey to international renown. One contemporary account says of his Cedar Creek brand: “It was the whiskey that made the crowned heads of Europe turn from Scotch to bourbon.”
McBrayer, shown here, was born in Anderson County, Kentucky, in 1821, one of 11 children from a pioneer family. His grandfather had been early settler in the Bluegrass State. His father was a farmer and politician, who probably ran a small still on his land. Educated in Anderson County schools, McBrayer early showed a talent for business. At the age of 18 he joined two of his brothers in their general store at Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, and eventually bought them out. He ran the store for the next 30 years while also raising and selling cattle.
McBrayer also was buying land. Sometime in the mid-1840s he purchased a site for a distillery on the land owned by a freed slave named Uncle Dave. Dave’s former owners, having no heirs, had willed him their farm and land. He sold acreage to McBrayer along a picturesque winding stream called Cedar Creek. A label from the whiskey showed a romanticized view of the location.
Initially the operation was small, described as a “primitive little log hut.” McBrayer had other things to occupy his mind. In 1848 he married Henrietta Davies of Anderson County, six years his junior. It is said that when Kentucky troops left for the Mexican War, Henrietta was chosen as “Anderson's Fairest Daughter” to present them a flag that had been made by the young women of the county. McBrayer also had politics in mind. When Kentucky became a state in 1851 he was elected as the first judge of Anderson County, a title he carried with him the rest of his life.
That same year, tragedy struck. Henrietta, only three years his bride, died. She is buried in the McBrayer Cemetery near Lawrenceburg. While the Judge must have been grief stricken, he continued to pursue a political career. In 1856 he ran for and was elected to the Kentucky State Senate serving the next four years. The same year he married again, this time to Henrietta's first cousin whose name was Mary Elizabeth Wallace. They would have one child, a daughter.
During this same period the Judge began to give serious attention to the little distillery he had operated on Cedar Creek. He greatly expanded the facility, constructing a new frame building to hold the still, three ironclad warehouses with metal roofs and a number of outbuildings. A photograph shows the site.
With this expansion McBrayer concentrated on making a high quality whiskey and marketing it widely. According to legend, Wife Mary urged him to call the brand after the nearby stream. Thus, In 1861 Cedar Brook brand is first recorded as being used in commerce. Its growth over the following years was swift, aided by winning first prize and a gold medal for whiskey at the Philadephia Centennial Exposition of 1876. The Judge and Mary moved into one of Lawrenceburg’s largest houses, shown below, located on the town’s Main Street. [See note below.]
The growing fame of his whiskey allowed McBrayer to make an agreement with H. M. Levy of the James Levy & Bro. firm in Cincinnati, to have exclusive rights to merchandise Cedar Brook nationwide. With help of the Levy organization both the brand and W.H. McBrayer became synonymous worldwide with the best Kentucky bourbons.
After more than 30 years at the helm of his distillery, McBrayer, at age 67, died. Among the accolades accorded him was this: "Judge McBrayer was endowed with a noble mind, a clear, far-seeing brain and a strong, generous heart. Whether as a Judge on the bench, as a Legislator in the State Senate, as a merchant, a cattle dealer, or as a distiller, he put forth the best there was in him - it was ever his own and desire to treat everyone fairly and do justice to everybody."
With his death, however, came an intra-family struggle. In McBrayer’s will the distillery was passed to his grandchildren. His daughter had married another distiller, Daniel Lawson (D.L.) Moore. She bore him three children, Mary, Wallace and William, before she died, leaving Moore a widower. The ninth clause of the Judge’s will stated that his heirs could run the distillery in his name for three years after his death, "after which time I desire that my name be entirely stricken from the business.”
This unusual request probably stemmed from the fact that the McBrayer had been an elder in the Presbyterian Church, which frowned on drinking, and a personal tee-totaler. His widow Mary also appears to have developed strong objections to alcohol. Moore, as manager of the distillery and co-executor of the Judge’s will with the widow, attempted to nullify the clause. He argued that the McBrayer name was worth at least $200,000 to the Judge's grandchildren (millions today). Nonetheless, Mary took him to court.
When a lower court agreed with her, Moore appealed to the Kentucky Supreme Court. The judges there were more sympathetic, apparently well acquainted with McBrayer’s Cedar Brook. While their opinion suggested that the quality of the whiskey had suffered with the Judge’s death, they agreed with Moore that he had never intended to disadvantage his beloved grandchildren. The McBrayer name stuck.
Earlier, in 1900, Moore had sold the business to the Kentucky Distilleries & Warehouse Company, one of the expressions of the monopolistic Whiskey Trust. He continued to manage the facility and the Trust continued to exploit the reputation of McBrayer Cedar Brook. Thus many of the brand’s trade cards, ads and artifacts, represented here, were issued after the Judge’s death and up until National Prohibition.
Nevertheless, the reputation McBrayer built, not only for Cedar Brook but for the quality of good Kentucky whiskey generally, puts him squarely in the panoply of those early distillers who earned a worldwide market for their products. After his death McBrayer's name was used by other whiskey makers to bespeak quality. Truly, W.H. was the judge of good whiskey.
Note: Earlier I had identified another house as the McBrayers, but have been corrected by Harold Peach, a researcher into the distilling elites of Lawrenceburg. He graciously has provided this photo of the former McBrayer home, taken in 2017. And I thank him for the correction.