Middletown Author Details How Whiskey Law Shaped America In New Book
When Brian Haara, longtime Middletowner, decided to publish a book on bourbon history he didn’t want to release another run-of-the-mill account in a market long over-saturated with them. Instead of a generalized retelling, as so many of these types of books are, Haara wanted to cut straight to the factual nitty-gritty — to lay the down law, as it were, on the truth behind bourbon and its single-handed effect on American law. The engaging result was “Bourbon Justice: How Whiskey Law Shaped America.”
“What I try to do in Bourbon Justice is explain how different types of law from bourbon cases in the past helped build the law in that area,” Haara says. “One in particular, for example, is trademark law. Trademark law is pretty well established today, but in the 1800s it wasn’t. It was really built through bourbon cases, people fighting each other over logos or brand names other distilleries would try and copy. Contracts is another one.”
What gives Haara his unique insight into this method of storytelling is two-fold. He’s a long time bourbon admirer and, more importantly, a lawyer who specializes in business litigation. He began practicing law in Louisville in 1996 after graduating from the University of Kentucky, but it wasn’t until nearly five years ago that he acquired his first client involved in the bourbon industry. This client, a Millville, Kentucky-based distillery called Castle & Key, was being sued by the much larger Sazerac Company (proprietors of the Buffalo Trace brand) over possible trademark infringement.
“Two entrepreneurs who the bought the distillery property, which had essentially abandoned since the 70s but built in 1887,” he says. “The guy who built it was Colonel E. H. Taylor and the name of his distillery was Old Taylor Distillery, and the signs on the property still say Old Taylor carved into the limestone side of the castle [in which the still resided]. Old Taylor, of course, is a brand that still exists but it’s made by Sazerac at the Buffalo Trace distillery and they have a trademark on the Taylor brand. So, they sued Castle & Key because they wanted them to take down the signs that talked about the Old Taylor Brand. They thought it would create confusion.”
The end result was a win for Haara and Castle & Key who were able to maintain their rights to display the old signage.
Prepping for the case served as Haara’s proverbial lightbulb into how to compose his specific brand of whiskey history. Through further examination of the legal history of bourbon, through the use of court documents and cases, a much larger and more important story of bourbon became apparent, one relying on lawfully established facts and less on oral accounts of the past, which, Haara admits, are inherently problematic. More than simply a rundown of bourbon’s long, and often harried, past, Haara’s research revealed how the industry has directly helped shaped and create legal precedents and laws of the American justice system that have major reverberations and repercussions today and into the future.
“The marketers have made their own stories today, but I was able to find facts from these cases that tell the true story,” Haara says. “My theory is lawsuits are the best place to find out. Anything that made it into the case was something that passed the strict evidentiary process and found by a judge to be reliable.”
One problem, Haara says, is the gaps in recorded history, even from the bourbon companies themselves.
“A lot of these distilleries during Prohibition destroyed all their records,” he says. “With the movement at the time, having a distillery in your family lineage was embarrassing to folks. So even the families big into distilleries before Prohibition don’t have a lot of documents to memorialize what had happened before Prohibition.”
Another area of the law the bourbon industry helped mold, Haara says, is one that still has enormous ramifications for these modern times — consumer protection.
“Bourbon was responsible for the first law that would protect consumers from being misled or being sold something that wasn’t true,” Haara says.
Prior to the advent of such laws, many “bourbon” makers passed off spirits that were clearly not true bourbon by adding a little food coloring and some creative advertising. As one might assume, this resulted in many upset customers.
“Before protection of medicine, before food safeguards, before any of those things, the first consumer protection law was against fake bourbon,” Haara says. “Americans, if nothing else, certainly understand what’s important in life.”
In addition to Bourbon Justice, Haara also runs a successful blog called Sipp’n Corn (sippncorn.blogspot.com). While he was compiling research, Haara would often run across interesting cases or facts that he knew would make it into his book but that he couldn’t wait to let the rest of the world know about. For example, Haara recalls an interesting story behind the omnipresent phrase “brand name,” which is an icebreaker tidbit for your next dinner party if ever there was one.
“That came out of bourbon,” he says. “Because bourbon producers were required by federal law to mark their barrelheads with a bunch of information. So they branded it on — it was more efficient for them to just use a branding iron — the barrel, and the customers at the saloons and bars would start asking for bourbon by the ‘brand name.’”
More than an outlet for research, Haara’s Sipp’n Corn blog is also widely lauded for its bourbon reviews. Haara estimates he’s done 90 or so such reviews, with makers from all over sending him samples to critique. When asked what his favorite is, if he had to pick, Haara is reticent to say. For one, it depends on the season and location, he says, all important variables. But he does offer a bit useful information regarding bourbon selection to those of us a bit more ignorant to the finer points of bourbon drinking.
“People who want to try something new, they’ll try a $60 bottle of bourbon because they think it will be better than the things on the lower shelf,” he says. “But what has really struck me is that there are a handful of $30 bourbons that I think are just fantastic.”
“I’ve found you can’t go wrong with Elijah Craig or Four Roses small batch or single barrel,” he says.
“Bourbon Justice” released in November 2018, and, so far, early reviews have been positive. It seems to be leaving an already indelible mark within the field. In one analysis, written by none other than local and infamous bourbon historian & connoisseur Michael Veach of the Filson Historical Society, he highlights Haara’s patented approach to bourbon research and its place in the canon of historical knowledge as it pertains to the industry. But perhaps Bernie Lubbers, whiskey historian and ambassador for Heaven Hill Distillery, puts it best: “Haara brings to life the laws that make America whiskey so spectacular. I can’t get enough!”