When it comes to iconic bourbon names they don’t come any bigger than James Crow, or the bourbon named after him, Old Crow. For more than 150 years Crow meant good bourbon.
No brand could call on a richer source of history and heritage, and when tasted, it never disappointed, its four years in the barrel and its distinctive zestiness and spiciness marking it apart from mainstream whiskies. But by the end of the last millennium the classic Old Crow had been replaced by a younger more gutless bourbon bearing the same name, and it fell from favour, trading on its name while failing to deliver. Neglected and unloved, it ceased to matter and almost ceased to exist.
Now, though, Old Crow is crowing once more – and it could be set to reclaim a place among bourbon royalty.
James Crow’s contribution to bourbon cannot be underestimated. Trained in Edinburgh as a physician and a chemist, he emigrated to Kentucky in the 1820s where his talents were recognised and he found work as a distiller. He brought with him science and played a major role in the creation of what we know as bourbon today.
Although it is often said that he invented the sour mash process he almost certainly didn’t. There are references to the process in books written before Crow even arrived in America. But he certainly developed the process, perfected it and recorded it. He brought standards of hygiene to bourbon making and applied science to it, ensuring consistency in his product, and he is credited as being the first distiller to sell only bourbon which had been aged in oak barrels.
He was one of the pioneers of using new charred oak barrels, and written references to this practice for his whiskeys are the first on record.
Crow never owned his own distillery, working mainly for Oscar Pepper at a site in Woodford County at what is now Woodford Reserve, and when he died suddenly in his 60s, he was almost penniless.
But the reputation he had established for quality and consistency lived on, and 10 years after his death a distillery bearing his name was opened and continued to operate for more than 100 years, until it was closed in 1987.
Perhaps its final humiliation was to be bought and closed by the owners of Jim Beam, its biggest rival, and for the liquid used for the modern version of Old Crow to be little more than an uninspiring Jim Beam recipe.
“Jim Beam sells Old Crow as a bottom shelf value brand,” wrote Charles Cowdery in his excellent book Bourbon, Straight. “It is not very good, nor is it the same Old Crow produced by Dr Crow. That whiskey is long gone, lost in the mists of time.”
Now Beam has indeed resurrected the name, and while the new version will not satisfy the likes of Murray and Cowdery and is nowhere near being a super premium bourbon which harks back to another era, it’s a step in the right direction and looks set to remind a new generation about the legend who was Jim Crow.
Called Old Crow Reserve, it’s four years old rather than three, and ups Old Crow’s strength from 80 proof (40% ABV) to 86 proof (43% ABV). And it’s being promoted by its owners as a direct competitor to Evan Williams.
Beam’s senior director for bourbons Kelly Doss says the new bourbon is inspired by Dr Crow’s habit of reserving a few barrels for special occasions. “Dr Crow was extra picky about the bourbon he served to his closest friends,” she says. “He would always reserve a few barrels for special occasions. As time passed these reserve bourbons took on a rich, full-bodied flavour.”
The new bourbon has been available in America for a while, and Beam says that its launch is part of an ongoing campaign by the company to find new ways of reaching out to drinkers.
“The tried and true traditional approach is no longer meaningful to modern consumers,” says Doss.
“Brands must connect with their audiences. Old Crow Reserve is part of that. We’re dealing with a savvy consumer who knows what they want.”
Only time will tell if Old Crow Reserve will put the Crow name back at the forefront of American whiskey.
But for the time being at least it looks like it is back from the brink. The Crow story might not be over just yet.