James Crow was born in 1779 in Scotland, and later attended Edinburgh University where he studied medicine and chemistry. 7 After graduating in 1822, Crow moved to Philadelphia and then to Kentucky in 1823.
Crow began working for Colonel Willis Field at Grier’s Creek Distillery in 1835 where he applied scientific methods to the production of bourbon. 1 7 With the use of thermometers, hydrometers, and pH balance checks, Crow standardized the sour mash process, improving quality. 7
Crow later moved to Old Oscar Pepper Distillery (later the Labrot & Graham Distillery and Woodford Reserve Distillery), where he first produced his Old Crow brand of bourbon. 7 He then moved to the Johnson Distillery, which later became the site of Old Taylor Distillery, working there until his death in 1856.
At Old Oscar Pepper, William F. Mitchell reviewed Crow’s meticulous notes and was able to replicate most of his processes. 7 He left the distillery and went to work for W.A. Gaines at the newly formed Gaines, Berry & Company in 1872. Gaines constructed a new distillery adjacent to the Johnson Distillery in 1882.
Old Crow Distillery
The bourbon produced at Gaines was named after Crow’s recipe titled merely “Old Crow.” 5 7 After a dispute over ownership of the name, “Old Crow” was decided in 1915 in favor of Gaines. 6
Old Crow’s logo, a crow perched atop grains of barley, was symbolic of a bridge between the North and the South during the American Civil War. It came about after a Pennsylvania brigade training at State College, Pennsylvania thought that Old Crow was the only good thing to come from the south. Fearing not being able to drink Old Crow again, the soldiers wrote to President Lincoln proclaiming that “we must not let the fine gentlemen Old Crow escape” and that “the crow with the sharpest talons holds on to barley forever.” After the war concluded, the logo, which was a picture of James Crow, was swapped for a crow.
National Distillers purchased Gaines in 1934. 7 The Old Crow brand prospered and became one of the first national whiskey brands.
After World War II, National Distillers began focusing on industrial distilling processes. 7 Old Crow was refurbished with new equipment, including a copper column distiller, in the 1960s. National Distillers also modified the amount of setback, or the part of spent mash added to a new batch, in the sour mash process.
While costs were shaved, sales began to decline slowly, and in 1987, National Distillers sold their remaining interests in Old Crow to Jim Beam. 7 The plant closed although some of the barrel houses were reused for barrel storage by Jim Bean. Three other warehouses, due to their age, were abandoned in the 1990s. 4
Abandonment and Rebirth
Scrappers, under the guise of wood reclaimers, dismantled the column distiller and other metals in the complex in the 2000s. 4
Neil Craig, a descendant of whiskey pioneer Elijah Craig, and his partner, David Meier, purchased the abandoned distillery in December 2013. 4 The partners intended to rehabilitate the bottling house for Deviant Distillers, producing bourbon, rye, “moonshine,” and spiced rum. The pair sought after a custom-built steam-jacketed copper pot still, from the experimental Lost Spirits Distillery in California, which would have a capacity of 60 gallons per day. The pair later split, and Meier today operates Glenns Creek Distilling at Old Crow.
Bottling Plant & Shipping Building
- Lipman, John F. “The GHOSTS of WHISKIES PAST.” 1999. 14 July 2005 Article.
- Cowdery, Charles K. “Distillery Destruction — Saving Kentucky’s Heritage.” 7 Apr. 2005. The Cultured Traveler. 14 July 2005.
- Hogan, Meghan. “Low Spirits in Kentucky.” 23 June 2005. Preservation Online. 14 July 2005.
- Patton, Janet. “Refurbished Old Crow Distillery hopes to be in operation by fall, owners say.” Herald-Leader [Lexington] 14 Jun. 2014. Web.
- Alvey, R. Gerald. Kentucky Bluegrass country. Oxford, University Press of Mississippi, 1992. pg. 230–32.
- The Trade-mark Reporter, Vol. 6. United States Trademark Association. 1917. pp. 10–27.
- Straub, Bill. “Old Crow Distillery- Historical Notes.” ModernThirst. N.p., 2015 June 17. Web.