Brian Haara Bourbon Justice

Louisville attorney Brian Haara wrote Bourbon Justice: How whiskey law shaped America. (Chris Otts, WDRB)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – In the summer of 2013, Louisville attorney Brian Haara was just another tourist at Brown-Forman Corp.’s Woodford Reserve distillery in Versailles.

A week later, Haara was doing legal research and stumbled upon a reference to a Kentucky court case from the 1880s called Pepper v. Labrot, which – once unearthed from the state archives in Frankfort – would tell a much richer history of the Versailles distillery than Haara had received on his tour.

Once called “Oscar Pepper's Old Crow Distillery,” the Versailles property was run for about two decades in the mid-1800s by James Crow, the Scottish immigrant who brought scientific methodology to distillation and whose consistently produced bourbon was the Pappy Van Winkle of its day. (Old Crow is now a bottom-shelf brand produced by Beam Suntory).

The distillery was also the subject of a contentious legal battle between James Pepper, a descendant of bourbon pioneer Elijah Pepper, and the French company Labrot & Graham over the rights one has to use his or her own name as a product trademark. (Labrot & Graham would win, getting the right to use the “Old Oscar Pepper Distillery” name instead of James Pepper).

Haara didn’t remember these details about the Versailles distillery on his Woodford Reserve tour.

“I wondered, why wouldn’t they talk about that history? What else is out there?” he said.

The inspiration resulted in Haara’s new book, “Bourbon Justice: How whiskey law shaped America.”

Haara, 48, is a business litigator at the Louisville law firm Tachau Meek PLC and the author of the bourbon blog Sipp’n Corn.

The book is based on his first-hand review of more than 200 lawsuits, records of which were obtained from the state archives in Frankfort.

Those files contain a trove of material -- handwritten complaints and answers from the late 1800s, affidavits and trial testimony about who produced what, where and under what name, and even graphical depictions of seals, advertisements and other marks of the state’s early distillers.

Published by Potomac Books, an imprint of the University of Nebraska Press, Haara's book uses the lawsuits to demonstrate bourbon’s role in the development of trademark law, consumer protection and truth-in-advertising standards.

Most of the cases Haara draws on for his book involve distillers fighting each other -- usually over the rights to a name or other way of distinguishing a product.

But for litigation over the right to use the Samuels name, the brand Maker's Mark might never have been born, while Maker's Mark would go on to win fights over its signature red-wax seal and its right to use the "handmade," as Haara explains in the book. 

Haara told WDRB News that his book presents a history of the state’s signature industry that is more accurate than the “sanitized” versions sometimes given on tours and in marketing materials.  

“I think brands try to shy away from litigation. No one likes to talk about it, even when there is a good story there,” he said.

Even if you don’t share his interest in the extensive history, Haara also explains in the book – with a lawyer’s precision – the various rules and regulations governing bourbon and what a discerning consumer should know.

That includes everything from what makes it bourbon in the first place and common misconceptions (as even the Kentucky Supreme Court recently got wrong, bourbon has no minimum aging period) to the games brands play with the myriad of distilleries that exist only on paper.

The book also contains a helpful rundown of which words on a bourbon label bear consideration because they actually mean something (straight, bottled in bond, Kentucky), and which words have flimsy meaning (single barrel), almost no meaning (small batch) and are totally meaningless (craft, pure).

Haara will sign copies of the book and take questions at a free, public event on Tuesday, Dec. 4, from 6 pm to 8 pm at Bourbon’s Bistro, 2255 Frankfort Ave.

Reach reporter Chris Otts at 502-585-0822, cotts@wdrb.com, on Twitter or on FacebookCopyright 2018 WDRB News. All rights reserved.

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Chris Otts reports for WDRB.com about business and economic topics, higher education and local / state government. He joined WDRB News in 2013 after seven years with The Courier-Journal. Got a tip? Chris is at 502-585-0822 and cotts@wdrb.com.