Saturday, July 2, 2016

Birds and Booze: Spirits on the Wing

Married to a master birder as I am, the juxtaposition of the avians with my interest in the whiskey trade is inevitable.   Birds have often been selected as the name of whiskey brands, usually with an illustration of the species shown on the label, in advertising and on giveaway items.  We begin by reviewing “Warbler Whiskey,”  a label produced by H. L. Griesedieck Distiller of St. Louis, Missouri.  The bird shown is identified as “Audubon’s Warbler.”
There are just two things wrong with this picture.  First, Griesedieck was not a distiller.  Born into a well-known brewery family,  H. L. (Henry) early determined he would not inherit any of the beer industry and gravitated to the whiskey trade.  By 1894 he was the proprietary of two St. Louis liquor stores.  He was “rectifying” — blending and mixing — whiskey supplied by actual distilleries and bottling them as his brands, Warbler Whiskey among them.  Except that the label is not a reasonable likeness of the Audubon’s Warbler (now known as the Yellow Rumped Warbler) as shown above.  A comparison of the two reveals that Griesedieck’s bird is much too large and the coloring is off.

But Henry was not the only St. Louis whiskey man to misrepresent his bird.  Charles Wittenburg of that city, identified as a whiskey wholesaler from about 1884 to 1918, had “Blue Wing” as his flagship brand and a label that showed a bird that obviously was a duck.  

His reference was to the Blue Winged Teal, a dabbling duck well known to the hunting community. The label illustration bears only passing a relationship to reality.  Note that the real teal has only a trace of blue in his wing (females are plain brown), while Wittenburg’s artist has made it solid blue.  The white patch in the face is accurate.

Connor, Jaycocks & Co. of Covington, Kentucky named their liquor, “Red Bird Whiskey,” with the admonition to “Drink Pure Whiskey.”   The bird most commonly referred to as the red bird is the Northern Cardinal, adopted as the state bird in seven states from Illinois to North Carolina and one of the Nation’s most familiar avians.  The label bears no resemblance to the cardinal nor, in fact, to any bird in the Audubon Guide.  It is purely drawn out of an artist’s imagination.  

Birds have figured large in many of the trademark wars about the right to a name and an image.  Although the well-known “Old Crow” whiskey was named after a Kentucky distiller named Elijah Crow, the several ownerships of the brand have been in frequent litigation over other whiskey crows, blackbirds, and even turkeys.  In 1949 the proprietors ran an ad in major magazines bragging: “During the first century of its distinguished history, some 1,800 writs, summons, desists were circulated to prevent the imitation of the Old Crow name and label.”

In 1905, Old Crow filed a legal challenge against the C. A. Knecht & Son Co. of Cleveland, Ohio, claiming that its “Raven Valley Whiskey” would “naturally lead to a confusion and enable the [Knechts] to perpetrate a fraud.”   After losing in a lower court they took the case to a higher court.  Those judges ruled that:  “When the words ‘Raven Valley’ are considered they are so different from the words ‘Old Crow’ that any confusion or deception would be very improbable.” While noting that ravens and crows were both birds, the Court also found no similarity in their depiction on the whiskeys.

When James Miller’s “Chicken Cock” from Kentucky challenged John Miller’s “Game Cock” from Massachusetts,  the one-on-one battle was not fought within a cockpit of feisty roosters but in a court of law. Those chickens came home to roost in a dispute over whiskey trademark infringement. The conflict ended with one cock defeated and the proprietor “licking his wounds.”

By dint of vigorous advertising Chicken Cock whiskey by 1886 was being sold nationwide through a network of distributors.  Off in Boston, John Miller noted its popularity and adopted the names “Miller’s Game Cock Bourbon” and “Miller’s Game Cock Rye” for his whiskeys and adopted a posture for his bird very similar to the Kentucky product.  In that case the court agreed that a trademark had been infringed, sending John Miller off to craft a different look, shown left, for his brand.

A third bird rivalry might be adduced between the American bald eagle, a bird frequently used by distillers and wholesalers to advertise their liquor,  S. Pett Company of Boston, for example, made “Bald Eagle Whiskey” his flagship label and issued the celluloid image of the bird on a pocket mirror.  Because an eagle eats carrion, however, Benjamin Franklin favored the turkey as the national symbols.  That brings us to “Wild Turkey” brand, a favorite of many whiskey-drinkers.  By the way,  Old Crow once sued Wild Turkey.  The turkey won.
Even extinct birds can arise again in the whiskey format.  No one knows exactly what the dodo looked like and images are fashioned from skeletal remains of this flightless bird.  Thus Morrison Plummer & Co. of Chicago could give their signature avian any look they chose.  It appears that the dodo kingship relates to a 1901 American musical called “King Dodo,” by Frank Pixley and Gustav Luders.  It contained such memorable songs as “Jolly Old Potentate” and “The Eminent Doctor Fizz.”

In summary, although birds frequently have been adopted to name liquor brands, accuracy of portrayal has never bothered the originators.  The feathered friend on the label almost always bears little or no resemblance to the real thing.   Second, disputes over bird images in whiskey advertising probably have engendered more trademark court actions than any other category, with Old Crow leading the way.



1 comment:

  1. Jack, I recently discovered your awesome blog while searching for information on the Bigbie Bro's Liquor bottle I purchased from an antique dealer. I am extremely interested in Whiskey related history from Lynchburg VA and would love to learn more. I'm working with 3 other partners to open a Whiskey bar in Lynchburg(Fifth and Federal Station) and would like to provide an educational experience to our patrons.