Brands help people identify a company, product, or individual. What do you think of when you hear the word “Pappy?” If you are a bourbon lover, you know it refers to Pappy Van Winkle, one of the most expensive bourbons in the world.
A few identifying features of some other iconic whiskey brands are the Marker’s Mark red drip wax top or Blanton’s pewter horse and jockey stopper on its octagonal bottle.
So, here is a list of top American bourbon brands and their story. This list is not in any order or based on quality or price.
The first Willet Distillery opened in 1936 in Bardstown, Ky. Thompson and Johnny Willett built the distillery on the family farm and release their first batch of bourbon in 1937. Unfortunately, the company fell on hard times and closed in the early 1980s.
Luckily, Evan Kulsveen, the husband of Martha Willet, purchased the property back in 1984.
In 2008, the Willett Distillery releases Willett Pot Still Reserve Bourbon in its signature pot still-shaped bottle. This bottle design has won many awards for packaging over the years and gives Willett a unique place among other bourbons on the shelf.
This brand is not as old as others, but one could argue that it is more recognizable. Maker’s Mark signature red wax top was created by Bill Samuel’s wife, Margie. In fact, she is responsible for the logo, its font, and the Maker’s Mark name.
According to Rob Samuels, Bill and Margie’s grandson, Margie created the drippy look by melting red sealing wax in a deep fryer. Every bottle of Maker’s Mark is still hand-dipped on Star Hill Farm.
Over the years, the brand has changed the color of the wax for certain promotions and events.
Pappy Van Winkle
The story goes that Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle began work as a salesman for W.L. Weller and Son’s liquor wholesaler of Louisville back in 1893, then became an owner in 1908. When Prohibition came, they merged with another distiller, and the Stitzel-Weller firm obtained a license to sell whiskey for medical purposes only (wink-wink).
Its wheated bourbons developed excellent reputations. Through the years, the brand has endured, and in partnership today with the Sazerac Co., it is produced at the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Ky.
The wine-inspired bottle features Van Winkle lighting a cigar and has become one of the most sought-after bourbons in the world.
Blanton’s was created by Master Distiller Elmer T. Lee in 1984 to pay homage to the distillery president, Albert B. Blanton. The spirit quickly becomes a fan favorite due to its extraordinarily high quality. Blanton’s Single Barrel is considered the godfather of the “super-premium” bourbons.
What sets Blanton’s apart other than the quality is the popularity of the short octagonal bottle and especially its stopper. The metal horse and jockey are recognizable trademark and has become collector’s item for bourbon enthusiasts.
In 1999 Blanton’s, created an advertising campaign that created eight distinct horse and jockey stoppers that appear on bottles randomly, each with an individual circled letter under the rear hoof on the lower left side that together spells out “B-L-A-N-T-O-N-S.
One woman said “yes” was all needed to create this brand. Paul Jones Jr., the founder of the company, was enamored with a Southern belle. The legend goes that Jones sent a proposal to her, and she replied that if her answer was “yes,” she would wear a corsage of roses to the ball. She did, in fact — it was exactly four roses, and that is how the distillery got its name.
Four Roses was unavailable in the United States for some time until in 2001; it was brought back into the U.S. market when Kirin Co. of Japan purchased the brand.
A unique brand, to say the least; no other distillery makes bourbon like Four Roses. It is all about “yeast,” or so says the distillery. Each mash is comprised of one of five separate yeast strains. Each has a specific letter of the alphabet, “V” “K” “O” “F” and “Q” which represents a different flavor profile. As rye is added to the mash, it can be either “B” (35%) or “E” (20%). The mash bills are indicated on every bottle of Four Roses.
Aged at Sea is what sets this bourbon apart from other brands. A newcomer to the bourbon industry founded in 1997 by Trey Zoeller and his father Chet, the company, partnered with OCEARCH, a nonprofit that tracks keystone marine species all over the world.
The theory is what happens if you age bourbon at sea? The answer is Jefferson’s Ocean: Aged at Sea Bourbon. The gentle rocking of the barrel, salt air and changing climates during aging created a specific taste in the bourbon.
Jefferson’s use of ships to age bourbon created a brand with a great story behind it. The story is new, but time will tell if the brand is a hit or not.
Bourbon heritage is a powerful branding tool to have; the days of the lone backwoods distillers in overalls and a straw hat are over. Bourbon is a worldwide premium spirit full of tradition, folklore, and craftsmanship.
It’s not all about a powerful story; the whiskey must stand on its own to make a brand.
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