George Thomas Stagg was born on Saturday December 19, 1835 in Garrard County, Kentucky to Samuel Stagg and Margaret Goodknight Stagg. Samuel was born in 1803 to Daniel and Maria Stagg. Margaret was born in 1806. George’s parents married on Monday October 15, 1827 and together had two other children besides George, Daniel (born 1828) and Elizabeth (born 1834). After the birth of their children, Samuel and Margaret moved their family to Missouri. When George was only fourteen years old his mother died on Wednesday May 30, 1849. She was buried in Weston, Missouri. Just a few years after losing his mother, George’s father died on Tuesday January 13, 1852. Samuel Stagg was buried at Laurel Hill Cemetery in Weston, Missouri.
George eventually returned to Kentucky after the death of his parents. He married Elizabeth “Bettie” Doolin on Sunday June 13, 1858. Elizabeth was born on Tuesday August 16, 1836 to Hiram Doolin and Mildred Yancy Broaddus. George and Elizabeth had five children together. Charles M. Stagg was born on Wednesday June 8, 1859 but died shortly after birth on Saturday October 15, 1859. Their second child, Lida Belle Stagg, was born in October 1860. To support his family George worked as a shoe salesman selling bulk orders of shoes to retailers. During this time tensions were rising in the United States between the north and south and eventually led to the start of the American Civil War on Friday April 12, 1861. On Saturday November 2, 1861 George enlisted in the Union Army and was assigned to the 21st Kentucky Infantry Regiment at Camp Hobson, Kentucky. Just a few months later, in January 1862 he was given the designation of first lieutenant. He eventually worked his way up through the ranks to captain the following year being promoted on Sunday January 4, 1863. During his time in the war George experienced combat including the Battle of Perryville, Battle of Stones River, Battle of Missionary Ridge, Battle of Resaca, Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, Battle of Jonesboro, Battle of Franklin and Battle of Nashville. The 21st Kentucky Infantry Regiment lost fifty-seven soldiers and three officers to battle and another six officers and one hundred fifty-two soldiers to disease. While still out to war the Staggs welcomed their third child, Stanley Matthew Stagg, on Friday November 18, 1864.
George’s time in the war came to an end on Wednesday January 4, 1865 when he was discharged. The American Civil War came to an end on Sunday April 9, 1865 and troops began to return home. George managed to survive during his time in the army and upon his discharge he returned home but wanted a change of scenery for him and his family. The Stagg family was growing with the birth of their son George Hiram Stagg on Monday January 13, 1868 and Frank Gregory Stagg on Wednesday August 13, 1873. George moved his growing family to St. Louis, Missouri and there he met his future business partner James Gregory. George did not want to return to being a shoe salesman, instead he had his eyes set on the whiskey business. James and George formed a partnership together called Gregory & Stagg, Commercial Merchants and Distillers’ Agents. James and George would broker the sales of whiskey from producers and sell them to customers, taking George from a shoe salesman to a whiskey salesman. The bottling of whiskey was in the very early stages with the first introduction of the first bottled bourbon in 1870 by Old Forester, so Gregory & Stagg were likely dealing in the sale of full barrels.
It was working in the whiskey business where George’s path crossed with the infamous Colonel Edmund Haynes Taylor Jr. Colonel Edmund Haynes Taylor, Jr. was born on Friday February 12, 1830 in Columbus, Kentucky. His father died of an early age and he eventually went to live with his uncle. By trade his uncle was a banker and Taylor Jr. followed in his footsteps. Edmund Jr. started out working under his uncle at the Bank of Kentucky but then eventually began working for the Commercial Bank of Kentucky. He eventually started his own banking practice opening the doors of Taylor, Turner & Company. Edmund Jr.’s work in the banking business helped lead him into the distilling industry by working with distilleries by lending them money and seeing their financials. With an interest in the industry, he opened Gaines, Berry & Company in 1862 and then reorganized the company in 1868 as W. A. Gaines & Company along with partners Hiram Berry and W.A. Gaines in 1868. Taylor left the partnership in 1870, but it gave him the start he needed to begin his infamous career in the industry.
In 1867 Oscar Pepper, the owner of Oscar Pepper Distillery, died and left his estate to his young son James E. Pepper. James was a minor at the time of his father’s death so he could not own the distillery, so it remained in control of his mother. After his father’s death, James took his mother to court to gain ownership of the distillery. Since he was a minor, Taylor Jr., a longtime friend of the Pepper family, was named guardian of young James. Edmund Jr. and James were able to win the inheritance of the distillery and Edmund Jr. was to help until James came to age. Taylor helped obtain finances for the distillery’s expansions over the years which helped the distillery grow in size and capacity.
In 1869 Edmund Jr. purchased the Leestown Distillery located in Frankfort, Kentucky from the Swigert family and renamed the distillery Old Fire Copper (commonly referred to as O.F.C). In 1873 he had the original distillery torn down and rebuilt a brand new facility. He focused on making the distillery as great as he could by using copper fermentation tanks, updated grain equipment, column stills and even steam heating systems in warehouses to help regulate the temperatures for controlled aging of the whiskey. All of these improvements were great innovations at the time, but they also didn’t come cheaply. Most of the improvements to the distillery were made on credit and Edmund Jr. was having difficulties paying off his debt. Hardship found Taylor once again in 1879 when he was near becoming bankrupt.
As a whiskey salesman, George was already familiar with Taylor Jr., the O.F.C. Distillery and had previously purchased products of his. Taylor’s overextension of himself proved to be the opportunity that Gregory and Stagg needed to take their business from brokerage to actual production. Gregory and Stagg took over the struggling Colonel Taylor Jr.’s debt in exchange for ownership of Taylor’s distilleries. Since the Colonel had tied the finances of the Oscar Pepper Distillery with his own personal finances, it caused James E. Pepper to lose the company. The Oscar Pepper Distillery was sold to James Graham and Leopold Labrot and the distillery was renamed Labrot and Graham Distillery. The Oscar Pepper Distillery/Labrot and Graham Distillery still exists today and is the home of production for Woodford Reserve.
Despite Gregory & Stagg selling the Oscar Pepper Distillery, they decided to keep the Old Fire Copper Distillery and Colonel E.H. Taylor, Jr. Taylor Jr. was given one share of ownership in the distillery and he remained working at the distillery. At this period of time, although George was a good whiskey salesman, his name did not resonate as a whiskey producer, but E.H. Taylor’s name did. The company eventually reorganized itself and changed its name to E.H. Taylor, Jr. Company, although by this time Edmund had very little ownership shares of the company remaining after the sale, however the company used his name. This would eventually be an area of conflict between Taylor and Stagg.
On Saturday January 18, 1879 George’s wife Elizabeth died in St. Louis. She was buried in Richmond, Kentucky. In that same year George continued to help expand his business by beginning the construction of the Carlisle Distillery which was located nearby the Old Fire Copper Distillery. In 1882 hardship struck the Old Fire Copper Distillery when lightning struck the facility causing a fire that destroyed the plant. Edmund helped to oversee the new construction of the distillery and in 1883 the plant was back up and running. This same distillery is still standing and operating today as the current Buffalo Trace Distillery. In 1886 George helped to oversee the addition of using steam heat in the warehouses to help raise the temperature during the winter months where their whiskey would lay dormant. Bourbon gets many of its characteristics and all of its color from the charred oak barrels. This occurs when the whiskey moves in and out of the wood as the temperatures rise and fall. The steam heat would allow the warehouse to heat up during cold months driving the whiskey into the wood, then allowing them to cool again so the whiskey comes out. This helps in the aging process of the bourbon.
Another blow to Taylor came in 1882 when the Gregory and Stagg firm took over the J. Swigert Taylor Distillery, a distillery that was being run and operated by Edmund’s son Jacob Swigert Taylor. Like Edmund, Jacob stayed on with the company and managed the plant. With tensions rising between the rivalry between Taylor and Stagg, Edmund sought to leave the company that he once founded. He reached a deal with Stagg that allowed him to regain possession of the J. Swigert Taylor Distillery in exchange for Edmund Jr. giving up his remaining interest in the Old Fire Copper plant and leaving the company. In addition, Edmund Jr. wanted his name removed from the company and at first it was agreed upon, however, Stagg changed his mind and continued to use the likeliness of Taylor’s name on his products. With a deal finally met, the Taylors parted ways from Stagg in 1885 and focused back on whiskey production at the J. Swigert Taylor Distillery. The distillery would eventually become known as the Old Taylor Distillery, which today is now Castle & Key Distillery.
Despite Taylor and Stagg parting ways, the feud continued for years to come in a series of lawsuits between the two parties. Since Stagg owned the established E.H. Taylor, Jr. Company, the brand had recognition in the market so he continued to use Taylor’s signature on the branding on the products even though Taylor had no association with the products anymore. The feud continued between Taylor and the distillery even after the death of Stagg. George Stagg would go on to live until the age of 58, when he died on Wednesday May 24, 1893. In his honor, the O.F.C. Distillery would become the George T. Stagg Distillery in 1904. In 1929, Schenley purchased the George T. Stagg. In 1992 the Sazerac Company purchased the distillery and renamed it Buffalo Trace Distillery.
Despite changing the name of the distillery, the new owners did not forget about honoring George Thomas Stagg. In 2002 Buffalo Trace introduced George T. Stagg Kentucky Straight Bourbon as part of their Antique Collection. This collection features highly sought after and rare releases by the distillery along with other namesake bourbon icons such as William Larue Weller and Thomas H. Handy alongside a higher aged Eagle Rare. The bourbon honoring Stagg is aged in new charred oak barrels for a minimum of fifteen years and then bottled just as it came out of the barrel with the addition of no added water. Buffalo Trace suggests tasting notes of vanilla, molasses, dates, tobacco, dark berries, dark chocolate, nougat, mint and coffee. In the fall of 2013 Buffalo Trace introduced Stagg Jr. This offering comes in without an age stated, but is less than the age of the George T. Stagg offering. Stagg Jr. is unfiltered and no additional water is added after aging. The company suggests notes of chocolate, brown sugar, cherry, smoke and clove.
Even though George Thomas Stagg was not a distiller, his name and legacy has had a significant impact in the bourbon industry. He played a vital role in the building of the industry into what it is today. Today his name lives on through the telling of his story and through the bourbon brands created in his honor. The same distillery that he walked the halls of is now the same distillery producing the high quality whiskey bearing his name. The next time you pour yourself a glass of George T. Stagg or Stagg Jr. remember you are sipping more than what is in your glass, you are sipping history.