Introduced in the 1830s, Old Crow Bourbon was instantly popular among whiskey lovers thanks to the pioneering discoveries of distiller James Crow. What is now widely considered a low-quality, bottom-shelf bourbon was once regarded as one of the finest spirits money could buy. The original recipe was famously favored by Civil War general and President Ulysses S. Grant, as well as President Andrew Jackson and American writer Mark Twain.
Now owned by Jim Beam, each batch of Old Crow bourbon is aged for three years prior to being bottled and sold. Coming in at 40 percent ABV, the spirit carries flavors of light caramel, oak, and grain with subtle vanilla and banana notes. Now that you know the basics, here are 10 more things you should know about Old Crow Bourbon.
Old Crow Bourbon was invented by a doctor.
Trained as a physician and chemist in Scotland, James C. Crow immigrated to Kentucky in the 1830s and brought a love of whiskey with him. Seeking to produce whiskey through a refined chemist’s point of view, he began distilling shortly after his move to the states and is credited with several advancements in his field. Crow is widely considered to be the first to test his whiskey for pH, and he is credited with being the inventor of the sour mash process — adding acidic, nutrient-rich spent mash or backset to the mash bill used to produce a bourbon, which prevents the spirit from from becoming too basic, thus preventing any unwanted bacteria from forming in the whiskey. Old Crow was one of the first bourbons to label its bottles “sour mash,” which has now become standard practice. Further, Crow is credited with setting the bar with pre-ferment sugar content tastings, a practice he started decades before other distillers.
Old Crow Bourbon was originally made on the same grounds as Woodford Reserve.
When Dr. Crow started distilling in the United States, he did so at a multitude of distilleries, including Glenns Creek, before settling down as master distiller at Old Oscar Pepper distillery in Woodford County, Ky., the same facility Woodford Reserve calls home today. Here, Crow documented the first instances of barrel aging in Kentucky whiskey history. It was also at Old Oscar Pepper that Crow observed the impact high-quality water had on the overall taste of his product. This area of Kentucky is famous for its natural resources, including an abundance of pure limestone-filtered water. He dubbed the bourbon “Old Crow” as a means of differentiating his higher-quality, aged bourbon from all other widely available “common whiskies,” the majority of which were unaged at the time.
At bars and saloons, Old Crow Bourbon was once served directly from the barrel.
By the late 1830s, Old Crow was distributed to bars and saloons across Kentucky in the original barrels it was aged in. Once received, bartenders would store the barrels on a shelf standing about five feet from the ground so bourbon could be poured directly from the barrel when served to patrons to add some ease to the process. It was at this time that Old Crow began individually marking each of the barrels it distributed, so customers could see that the product was authentic while it was being served to them. Interestingly enough, American distillers’ practice of branding barrels — which Old Crow claims to have done first — gave rise to the term “Brand Name.”
Its name was once the subject of a legal battle.
After Crow’s death in 1856, the W.A. Gaines & Company — one of the largest distributors of American whiskey at the time — picked up where he left off. Leaving behind his recipe and techniques for others to follow, the distribution company picked up the name “Old Crow” and began producing bourbon following the doctor’s instructions. However, in 1915, the distribution company found itself at the center of a legal battle over the ownership of the brand’s name. After a brief legal proceeding, W.A. Gaines & Company was named the owner of Old Crow.
Old Crow’s branding symbolizes a bridge between the Union and Confederacy.
Prior to the American Civil War, the logo on each bottle of Old Crow was a picture of Dr. James Crow himself. However, after the war, it was changed to a crow resting atop grains of barley. The change came from Union soldiers training in State College, Pa., claiming that Old Crow was “the only good thing to come from the South.” Worrying that they would never be able to drink the bourbon again, the soldiers professed in a letter to President Lincoln that “we must not let the fine gentlemen Old Crow escape,” as “the crow with the sharpest talons holds on to barley forever.” The logo was changed after the Union re-solidified to symbolize the bridge connecting the North and South.
Old Crow was the No. 1-selling whiskey until World War II.
Not only was Old Crow a delicious bourbon to imbibe; the rich history surrounding the spirit and its pioneer creator added to its mystique. Following his death in the late 1850s, barrels of Old Crow filled by Dr. Crow himself were heavily sought after among bourbon aficionados. Demand for the spirit only grew following the Civil War era. While the distillery was forced to shut down during Prohibition, production resumed following its repeal, still following the original recipe, and sales during the following years skyrocketed. By the late 1930s, Old Crow was selling over 200,000 cases annually and was the world’s top-selling whiskey brand until the Second World War halted distribution and threatened to end production.
In the ‘60s and ‘70s, Old Crow fell from grace.
Over the course of the mid- to late-1900s, numerous reports were released from customers who noticed the quality of Old Crow declining. In line with this observation, bourbon historian Chuck Cowdery remarks in his book “Bourbon, Straight” that a contamination can occur in the sour mash process due to an excess of setback added — the portion of spent mash added to a new batch — which interferes with fermentation. This interference can then go on to ruin the flavors in some bourbons, which unfortunately then gets bottled and purchased by consumers. Paired with general decline in whiskey consumption in the United States over the 1970s and 1980s, Old Crow’s doom was imminent.
In the late ‘80s, the brand was purchased by Jim Beam.
In 1987, Old Crow was purchased by Jim Beam and transferred locations to begin distilling on the Beam campus. Rather than continue using the original Old Crow recipe, the bourbon’s composition was changed to align with other mash bills in the Jim Beam family. Today, Old Crow shares the same mash bill as Jim Beam Bourbon — 75 percent corn, 13 percent rye, and 12 percent malted barley.
In 2015, the first extension of the Old Crow line was released, albeit unsuccessfully.
Following a number of years with sales in steady decline, in 2015 Jim Beam released Old Crow Reserve, an Old Crow blend aged for four years rather than the brand’s standard three, with an ABV of 43 percent. The launch proved to be unsuccessful, however. Two years later, sales of Old Crow continued to decline to 347,000 cases annually. Today, Old Crow is widely recognized as a bottom-shelf liquor.
Still, Some Old Crow Bottles Are Sought After by Collectors
Old Crow’s Chessmen are some of the most legendary bourbons in existence. In fact, spirits author Fred Minnick considers them to be some of the greatest bourbons of all time. In the 1960s, when bourbon production was facing a downturn, Old Crow began packaging its spirit in ceramic decanters carved out in a number of forms resembling chess pieces, sold in six distinct shapes — one decanter for each chess piece. Within each decanter is 10-year-old bourbon, bottled prior to the brand’s 1970s fall from grace. The distillate inside is highly sought after within the bourbon community, with bottles selling for upwards of $2,000.