Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Changing Image of the Crow

As a result of an article I am writing about the early history of the Old Crow brand of whiskey, it has been possible to track how the merchandising image of the crow has changed and evolved over the years. The brand actually is not named after the black bird, but for Dr. James Crow, the innovative physician who first made good bourbon in Kentucky. Crow never owned a distillery and the first one to bear his name was built in 1872, 16 years after his death. His legacy (and early on his formula) subsequently has been perpetuated under the label, “Old Crow.”

The earliest image of the crow I have found so far is from a shot glass issued by W.A. Gaines Co. of Frankfort, Kentucky, who operated the first Old Crow Distillery. It is a crude rendering showing a bird with a worm or stick in its mouth and its body significantly out of proportion to its wings. Note too that the brand is referred to as “sour mash whiskey,” not bourbon. My guess is that this item dates from the 1870s or 1880s.

The second version is from an Old Crow label. The crow here is somewhat more anatomically correct and appears to have something ugly on its mind. At this point the product is clearly labeled as “bourbon,” dating it in the early 1900s. Fast forward through the Prohibition Era to 1948. Now the crow, seen here in an detail from a magazine ad, could be right out of a birding book. The Old Crow brand now is being identified as “Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey.”

During ensuing decades, however, the crow began to undergo significant changes. A paperweight from the 1950s-1960s signals the start. Now the corvid, shown with what we presume is a Kentucky colonel, has affected a set of pince nez glasses. As shown on a later paperweight, a radical overhaul of the bird has ensued, with the result that some people have mistaken it for a penguin. In addition to the spectacles, this crow is wearing spats, a vest, a string tie, a top hat and is carrying a cane. This crow is a cartoon character.

That fancy-dressed crow was the familiar icon of the bourbon for decades, showing up on glasses, pitchers, matchbooks, tokens, ads, and the label of the bourbon bottle. In recent years, however, the makers of the Old Crow brand, now owned by Jim Beam, have returned to a realistic crow. Take a look at a bottle. And while you are at it, pour yourself a shot of one of the oldest names in American whiskey.

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