Friday, May 29, 2009

Solving the G.O. Blake Mysteries

I have three whiskey paperweights in my collection that had baffled me for a long time. One shows two bottles, comparing the volume of a quart with that of a “fifth” - four-fifths of a gallon. A second is illustrated with a crate that is advertised to hold 12 quart bottles. The third pictures two barrels of whiskey. In themselves these items are not unusual, but the messages they contain were confusing.

All advertise G.O. Blake Bourbon Co. Ky. Whisky (the British spelling). In addition, each also mentions the Adams, Taylor & Co. identifying it as a firm with offices in Boston, Massachusetts and a distillery in Louisville, Kentucky. Bourbon County, however, is almost 100 miles from Louisville.

Ads for G.O. Blake whiskey fail to shed any additional light on the subject, nor do the embossed bottles, some of which bear other distributor names. Who was G.O. Blake? What kind of whiskey was sold under his name? What is the relationship to Adams, Taylor & Co.? My search of Internet sources proved largely fruitless until one clue sent me back to an old standard among collectors of whiskiana -- a book called “Spirits Bottles of the Old West.” Written by Bill and Betty Wilson, the volume is a font of information about the early American distilling industry. There the G.O. Blake mysteries are cleared up.

According to the Wilsons, from 1866 to 1871 George O. Blake was a junior partner in the J. H. Cutter firm in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. His job was to select good bourbon from distillers and oversee the “rectifying,” or mixing of raw spirits, to control the quality of Cutter Whiskey. As a result of his work for Cutter, Blake became a well-known and respected broker on Whiskey Row -- the trade hub of the American industry located in Louisville.

In 1871 Blake decided to establish a brand in his own name. He formed a partnership with two wholesale druggists in Louisville and the Adams, Taylor Company in Boston to distribute the brand; the former to the Midwest and West, the latter to the East Coast. A third firm was selected in San Francisco to merchandise Blake’s whiskey in states bordering the Pacific.

G.O. Blake whiskey did well all over the country, possibly as a result of advertising campaigns. In 1876, the Adams, Taylor Co. -- doubtless sensing the profits to be made -- bought out the brand ” bottle, crate and barrel” from the others participants, including George Blake, who subsequently disappeared into obscurity, Adams, Taylor, never distillers, continued to rectify Blake whiskey in Louisville, distributing it from there and from Boston.

Initially they were careful not to emboss their names on the bottles, permitting their sub-distributors around the country to issue G.O. Blake Whisky under their own label. As these distributors gradually dropped away, Adams, Taylor took full control of the brand name, embossing their own on each bottle beginning in the late 1880s. All this took place a distance from Bourbon County and the product was in no way bourbon but a rather a “spirits blend.” Truth has never been a strong point in marketing whiskey.

If there is a moral to this story it is this: Not every back story can be found electronically. Sometimes it pays to look into a book. At least for the moment.

1 comment:

  1. Mr. Sullivan's fine detective work uncovering the history of G.O. Blake's Bourbon Whiskey and its proprietor in Lexington, KY, is of great interest to me, Brian P.T. Blake of Shelton, CT (email I am writing "Under Brilliant Stars," an autobiography of John Y.F. Blake, my great-grandfather, who may have been G.O. Blake's second cousin through William Blake of Winnsboro, South Carolina, and his wife, Phanuel Hornsby.

    "Beau" Blake, 1856-1907, was a West Point cavalry officer, the only white man adopted by Apache Chief Geronimo as "my brother," who fought British Imperialism as colonel of the celebrated Irish Brigade South Africa's Boer War of 1899-1902. Newspapers hailed intrepid Col. Blake as "Liberty's Champion."

    John's father was from Tennessee and the family of his grandmother, Elizabeth Owen,daughter of Col. Thomas Owen of North Carolina, settled Owenton, KY, seat of Owen County. The "O." in G. O. Blake probably stands for Owen.