Dr. James C. Crow
Perfected "Sour Mash Method"
Dr. James C. Crow was a Scottish immigrant, by trade he was a chemist and a physician that arrived in the United States in 1820 and worked for a couple distilleries until Oscar Pepper made the best move of his career (and probably the bourbon world) by hiring Dr. Crow in 1838 to be his "Master Distiller." He didn’t use copper pot stills like everyone else. He used the newly invented Coffey Still that was a column still and brought the white dog off the still at a consistent strength. He checked that strength with a hydrometer…most used to shake the jar and see the beads and guess the proof, or use gunpowder and a match to prove it. He used litmus paper and a saccharimeter to check acid and sugar levels.
Within a few years he was started distilling what would come to be "Old Crow" in Frankfort, Kentucky, in the 1830s. Crow invented/perfected the sour mash process and made what was probably the first "modern" bourbon back in 1834. He employed the “Sour Mash Method” on a daily basis to give the whiskey consistency. It was also in the 1830’s when Old Crow started branding its barrels on both the head and on the barrel belly. Saloons at the time stored the barrels on a shelf about four to five feet high and put a tap in the to pour drinks from. Old Crow branded their barrels to make sure that when a patron asked for Old Crow they could see that it was actually coming from their barrel. It was this practice that started the commonly used term of “Brand Name.”
Because of it’s popularity, you can be sure his competitors used those same types of barrels, start using column stills, so you can see Dr. Crow’s influence on the Silver Age of bourbon.
His Old Crow bourbon was the most popular brand of it’s era enjoyed by U.S. Grant, Daniel Webster, Andrew Jackson, and Henry Clay, Mark Twain, journalist Hunter Thompson and John Wayne. His bourbon was known as red whiskey, or red liquor, or red eye since he aged all of it in charred barrels.
President & General Ulysess S. Grant, …..President Abraham Lincoln, after cabinet charged the military man with being a drunk. Lincoln is supposed to have replied, "By the way, gentlemen, can either of you tell me where General Grant procures his whiskey? Because, if I can find out, I will send every general in the field a barrel of it!”
In 1953 John Wayne, insisted that they were clearly drinking Old Crow in a bar in the movie "Trouble Along The Way"
His Old Crow was the most popular whiskey of its day and continued to be the #1 bourbon until the 1950s, when it was surpassed by upstarts Jim Beam and Jack Daniel's.
Reportedly a very skilled distiller, he made whiskey for various employers. He died in 1856, but W. A. Gaines & Company kept the name brand “Old Crow” and continued to distill the bourbon according to his recipe. A dispute over ownership of the name "Old Crow" was decided in 1915 in favor of the Gaines company.
Old Crow's logo, a crow perched atop grains of Barley, is rumored to stem as a symbol bridging the Gap between the North and South during the Civil War. A Pennsylvania brigade training at State College, Pennsylvania thought Old Crow was the only good thing to ever come out of the south.
Fearing never being able to drink Old Crow again, the soldiers wrote Lincoln proclaiming "We must not let the fine gentleman Old Crow escape. Remember Mr. President, the crow with the sharpest talons holds on to barley forever."
Use in 100 bushels of bourbon mash, 15% of barley malt, ground, 8% rye, ground, and 77% corn, ground.
Although the whiskey had been, at one time, the top selling bourbon in the United States, it underwent a swift decline in the second half of the twentieth century. A production error in the amount of "setback" (the portion of spent mash added to a new batch in the "Sour Mash" process) negatively affected the taste of the whiskey, and the distiller's unwillingness to correct it led to many drinkers moving on to other brands.
Parent company National Distillers & the Old Crow recipe would be sold to Jim Beam in 1987. The Old Crow was not kept and the product after this time would be a ONLY a three-year-old bourbon based on the Jim Beam mashbill of 76% Corn, 12% Rye and 10% Malted Barley.
Banner photo by Bourbon of the Day