The Story of Lesser Known American Whiskeys

Whenever people discuss whiskeys in America, they typically bring up one or two brands – Jim Beam or Jack Daniels. This makes perfect sense as they are the two most popular American whiskeys out there today.

After those two, some may be able to bring up Maker’s Mark, or Evan Williams. Some may even be able to bring up brands such as Old Potrero and Woodford reserve. But there are a set of whiskeys on the market today, whose names would make most folks go “Bweh?”. Names such as Imperial and Old Guckenheimer are still out there. For the most part, the public remains ignorant of them.

Mind you, they have been shunted off to the side for good reasons. Most of them are simply not any good, often times intentionally so. Old Crow used to be the most popular bourbon on the market. And then Jim Beam purchased the brand, and reputedly changed the recipe to the brand so that it wouldn’t be in competition with Jim Beams brand. Many of these lesser known brands have likely succumbed to this sort of corporate strategy. This is the world of purchased property in the whiskey industry.

But now I find myself drawn to these bottom shelf brands, as many of their names hold a distinct place in American Whiskey history. As an added bonus, many of them are quite cheap, often less than fifteen dollars.

This was exactly the mindset as I came across a bottle of Schenley OFC whisky. Knowing a bit about the history of whiskey forced me to pick up the bottle and bring it home.

The first thing one should notice about Schenley OFC is that it mentions their Canadian heritage no less than six times on the label. The problem with this position is that it’s quite, quite wrong.

Out of all of the whiskeys I’ve come across over the past year or so, none represents North American Whiskey history than this very brand pictured here to the left. But it requires a bit of story telling.

First is the company name of Schenley. Schenley distilling has their ‘Canadian” roots deeply ensconsed in the hills of Western Pennsylvania, roughly ten miles or so from where I grew up in the outskirts of Western Pennsylvania. Schenley distilling was at one time the one of the top distilleries in the country. After Prohibition ripped the heart out of the whiskey industry, someone purchased the Schenley distillery and the rights to the name, and then went about purchasing other smaller distilleries that had been closed throughout the land. Once Prohibition was lifted, the Schenley brand name became the name in American whiskey, producing more whiskey than anyone else. Of course at the time, this was a low bar to overcome because no one was making all that much whiskey.

There are two distilleries that they purchased that are worth noting. The first is one based in Tennessee, and they eventually introduce a brand called George Dickel. This place, deep in the back roads of South eastern Tennessee would be eventually sold to Diageo, and is still in operation today.

The second distillery of note is one based right outside of Frankfort called Ancient Age, once owned by one George T. Stagg, and today is better known as Buffalo Trace. When they purchased this distillery, they also acquired the OFC brand, which at the time stood for the “Old Fire Copper” distillery company that made bourbon as early as 1865. However, when Prohibition hit America and Schenley purchased the property, they moved OFC to a distillery they had purchased in Canada, and OFC became short for “Old Fine Canadian”.

So what I have pictured here is a bottle of Canadian Whisky, with deep roots in histories of both the Rye Whiskey region of Western Pennsylvania, and the Bourbon areas of Northern Kentucky.

This is why I find these bottles so compelling.