|Aerial view of Owensboro's O. Z. Tyler Distillery.|
Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear participated in the July 30th dedication ceremony.
Terressentia says it is investing $25 million to purchase and refurbish the plant, which was built shortly after Prohibition. It needs a lot of work. Although the 36" diameter beer still is in place, a new boiler and new fermenters are needed. Many of the warehouses were damaged in a 2009 winter storm. Terressentia says they will have it up and running in 2016.
The last time anything was made there was in 1992. That same year United Distillers (a predecessor company of Diageo) sold it to Charles Wathen Medley, who was its last master distiller.
Like many whiskey-making clans, the Medleys started with a small, farm-based operation in Kentucky's Washington County early in the 19th century. The patriarch was John Medley. When he died in 1814 his estate included two stills and forty mash tubs.
The Medleys distilled in Washington County until, in 1901, George Medley and a partner bought a distillery in Daviess County, 130 miles to the west. (Pronounce it “Davis” despite the spelling.) The distillery was located just west of Owensboro, the county seat and Kentucky’s third largest city. George’s son, Tom, joined and then succeeded him in that venture.
The Medleys were part of the migration of Maryland Catholics to what they called the American Holy Lands in Kentucky. The Wathens were another such family. By the close of the 19th century, the Wathens were among the most successful distillers in Kentucky. Nick Wathen had a daughter named Florence Ellen. Tom Medley courted and married her. They named their firstborn son Wathen Medley in honor of the union. Charles Wathen Medley is his son.
That original Daviess County Medley Distillery was next door to the current site. During Prohibition it became a meat packer, which it still is today. The first distillery on the current site was built in 1885. It was called McCullough and, later, Green River. As Green River it became famous for its advertising slogan, “The Whiskey Without a Headache.” Regulators eventually barred that claim. Its replacement, “The Whiskey Without Regrets,” though arguably more evocative, never had the same zing.
Fire destroyed most of the Green River plant in 1918 and the rest was razed during Prohibition. Someone tried to bring it back after repeal as the Sour Mash Distillery. They built the current buildings, installed much of the current equipment, distilled 1,349 barrels of whiskey, ran out of money, and closed in 1939.
The first distillery owned by a Medley after Prohibition was a third place in that same general vicinity, just north of the Green River site, built in around 1881. It was best known as Rock Spring Distilling, a name it acquired in 1906. Tom Medley bought Rock Spring and brought it back after Prohibition, running it until his death in 1940. His son, Wathen, sold it to Fleischmann’s Distilling and bought the adjacent Green River place.
Now Wathen and his four brothers were in charge. In the boom years after World War II, the Medley brothers adopted, as a kind of trademark, the wearing of Kentucky Colonel ties (like the one KFC’s Colonel Sanders wears). The distillery sometimes gave the ties away as promotions.
The Medley brothers sold their whiskey under many different brand names such as Medley Brothers, Five Brothers, Old Medley, and Kentucky Beau. They did a good, regional business and that was plenty in those days, when just about the only thing anybody drank was bourbon whiskey.
Like the Motlows at Jack Daniel’s in Tennessee, the Medleys eventually became victims of their own success. Although the business was sound, they were unable to adequately finance its continued growth and diversification themselves. They sold it to Renfield Importers in 1959. Two of the brothers and Wathen's son Charles stayed on as managers and distillers.
In the 1970s, Medley acquired the Ezra Brooks bourbon brand, which had originated at the Hoffman Distillery in Anderson County. A Jack Daniel’s clone, Ezra Brooks became Medley’s leading seller and #1 asset.
His father and uncle eventually retired but Charles stayed on, even as the distillery changed owners several more times. Although Charles never resumed distilling there, he and his son, Sam, used the last whiskey made at Medley Brothers to launch their Wathen bourbon line as non-distiller producers.
During the years he owned it, Charles mostly tried to keep the roofs from leaking and otherwise keep the buildings in good repair. In 2007, he sold it to Angostura Limited. They began a renovation but in 2009, Angostura's parent company collapsed as part of the worldwide financial crisis and all spending stopped. The distillery has been for sale ever since.
In 2013, Charles and Sam Medley relaunched one of the family brands, Medley Brothers. The Wathen and Medley bourbons are produced under contract by an undisclosed Kentucky distillery. The Medleys are non-distiller producers now and intend to stay that way.
For their old Owensboro distillery, Terressentia is the future.