These are the men behind the famous names on the labels. The iconic whiskey characters that helped make the spirits industry what it is today. These pioneers forged the path of whiskey in America. A path paved with corn and grains, distilled and matured in oak barrels. Most of them are long gone, but their legacy lives on in the names that adorn their bottles. These are the men that made the American whiskey industry what it is today. So raise a toast to the historic men behind American whiskey.
Jasper “Jack” Daniel’s birth is shrouded in mystery. He was born sometime between 1846 and 1850, but the exact date of his birth is unknown. The distillery celebrates his birthday in September, but even they aren’t completely sure if that is indeed the month he was born. After running away from home as a youth, he learned how to make whiskey from a moonshiner named Dan Call. After his father died, he received a large inheritance and founded a legitimate distillery. He purchased the land that is now the Jack Daniel’s Distillery in 1884. Like his birth, his death is also a mystery. It’s believed that he died of blood poisoning caused by an infection from angrily kicking a safe in his office when his assistant changed the combination without telling him.
You might be surprised to know that Jim Beam isn’t even the founder of the famous brand. Jacob Beam sold the first barrel of “Old Jake Beam” in 1795. Colonel James B. Beam was born in 1846. In 1894, he took over the family business that was then called Old Tub Family Distillery. The distillery wasn’t renamed Jim Beam until 1943. It was done so to thank James for all the hard work he did for the brand. He died five years later, but the name remains to honor him to this day.
Pappy Van Winkle
There are few names more immersed in the world of whiskey than Pappy Van Winkle. Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle started in the whiskey business as a salesman for W.L. Weller and Sons in 1893. Eventually, he and an associate bought the Stitzel Distillery for Weller. The distillery was renamed Stitzel-Weller and Van Winkle remained a devoted employee of the bourbon distillery until his death in 1965. The Van Winkle family never got out of the whiskey business and his grandson is currently in charge of the Van Winkle Brand of whiskies.
Second in Tennessee whiskey fame to Jack Daniel, George Dickel was born in Germany in 1818. He was a well-known merchant in Nashville and worked closely with the distillery in Tullahoma (where George Dickel is now located) to help build the brand. At this time, the distillery was called Cascade and it was run by a man named Maclin Davis. He helped Davis packaged and sell his whiskey. Dickel wasn’t actually a distiller himself, just a very good salesman. In 1964, the name was changed to George Dickel to attempt to compete with rival Jack Daniel’s and to pay tribute to the legacy of the man. George Dickel, although made the same way as Jack Daniel’s (using charcoal mellowing) prefers to spell whisky without the “e” to pay homage to the Scottish spelling.
H. Taylor, Jr.
Sometimes referred to as the “Father of the Modern Bourbon Industry,” you could say that Edmund Haynes Taylor was born to be a man of great importance. His ancestors included presidents Zachary Taylor and James Madison. He first began working in the whiskey industry as a banker. He became enamored with the industry and decided to buy his own distillery. He was a true pioneer and responsible for many innovations and new techniques at the distillery that contemporary distillers still use today.
George T. Stagg
Born in 1835, George T. Stagg is one of the most famous names in bourbon history. He met the legendary E.H. Taylor, Jr. when he was working as a salesman in the whiskey industry. He helped Taylor innovate and invent the production methods that made the duo the most profitable whiskey makers of their era. The distillery is now named after him and has been continually crafting high-quality whiskey for the last 150 years.
Elijah Craig was born in Orange County, Virginia, in 1738. Even though he’ll be forever linked to the whiskey that bears his name, Craig was originally a Baptist preacher in the area that is now Kentucky. After a career of preaching, educating and service, for some reason he decided to open a distillery in 1789. Many historians believe that Craig invented bourbon when, on a whim, he decided to age his corn whiskey in charred oak barrels. Although he probably would have liked his legacy being linked to his religious works, he will forever be known for the maturation process used by every bourbon maker to this day.
The only living member on this list, Jimmy Russell is the elder statesman of the American whiskey industry. He’s been distilling at Wild Turkey for over sixty years without a thought of retirement. On top of his work at Wild Turkey, he and his son Eddie (who also works at Wild Turkey) make Russell’s Reserve. Often referred to as “the master distiller’s master distiller” and “the Buddha of bourbon,” Russell is involved in every aspect of production at Wild Turkey.