One hundred years ago, secret sourcing was considered fraud.
The recent proliferation of new bourbon brands has included many brands distilled and aged by existing distilleries but sold under new, often “historic,” names. Of course, a new brand seeking to capitalize on the bourgeoning bourbon market wouldn’t have time to create a recipe and age for the minimum years, let alone the ten to twenty-plus years of these super-premium brands. That reality makes “sourcing” bourbon common today, and it gives bourbon enthusiasts a chance to play detective where the new brands aren’t upfront. (Many are upfront about it.)
Diageo’s Bulleit Bourbon is one of my favorites, but it’s also one of the better-known current-day examples of undisclosed sourcing. Bulleit claims to be a product of the “Bulleit Distilling Company, Lawrenceburg, Kentucky.” It’s widely accepted that Bulleit is really made by Four Roses in Lawrenceburg, but last month my Four Roses tour guide insisted that Four Roses can’t possibly make all of the Bulleit, so at least there’s some mystery.
It turns out that sourcing bourbon is not a new practice, however. Litigation between an Ohio wholesaler and the H.E. Pogue Distillery in the early 1900’s provides an example of an early sourcing contract. The court in H.E. Pogue Distillery Co. v. Paxton Bros. Co., 209 F. 108 (E.D. Ky. 1913) was faced with claims by Pogue that Paxton Bros. had breached its contract to purchase a large quantity of Pogue bourbon.
Paxton Bros. was a Cincinnati-based spirits wholesaler. By the late 1800’s, Paxton Bros. had found success with its Edgewood Whiskey blend, and there was wide recognition of its trademark rotund, tuxedo-and-fez-wearing man, known simply as the “Edgewood Man.”
Pogue, of course, is one of the more significant historical names in Kentucky bourbon. After suspensions in operations during prohibition and changes in ownership and closure after World War II, the Pogue family is back in business again. http://www.oldpogue.com/history/#
. Located in Maysville, Kentucky, near the legendary site where many say bourbon was born (the old Bourbon County), the Pogue distillery was one of the top bourbon distilleries in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.
The Wine and Spirit Bulletin reported in its April 1, 1906 edition that Pogue had sued Paxton Bros. for $30,000 because the alleged breach of contract by Paxton. The U.S. District Court’s 1913 opinion (by Judge Andrew McConnell January Cochran, who like the Pogues, was a Maysville native) recites that Paxton Bros. contracted to purchase 12,500 barrels of bourbon from Pogue, which Pogue was to distill and then age in its warehouse.
But these 12,500 barrels were to be labeled not with the Pogue name, but instead as having been distilled by Paxton Bros. or possibly under its Edgewood trade name. The parties tried to find a way under their contract for bottling the bourbon under the Paxton or Edgewood name, which certainly would have been difficult given the tight government regulations of the time. In fact, federal law at the time would not have allowed the distillery to be operated as the H.E. Pogue Distillery and, at the same time, stamp and label the bottles showing another’s name. Recognizing this dilemma, Pogue and Paxton apparently agreed that even though Pogue was in fact going to produce the bourbon and sell it to Paxton, the Pogue distillery would be leased to its namesake, H.E. Pogue, who would operate it as “H.E. Pogue as the Paxton Bros. Company.”
This maneuver, they believed, would allow the bourbon to be labeled as having been distilled by Paxton. Judge Cochran found this arrangement to be “the perpetuation of fraud on the public” by representing that Paxton “had made the whisky, which in fact [Pogue] had made.” Because of this “fraudulent” purpose, the court held that the contract was void and it dismissed Pogue’s claims.
So the fat man in the fez got out of his contract to buy Pogue’s bourbon, but H.E. Pogue would be happy to see that his family is still making bourbon, while Edgewood is barely remembered in history. Even so, it’s too bad that, 100 years later, in some cases there is less transparency among some brands who try to hide their sourcing.