The whisky industry has long loved to immortalize names from the past: Elijah Craig, Johnnie Walker, Pappy Van Winkle. Does the average drinker of those particular brands even know who those men were? Probably not—though most people surely assume they were, at one time, critical figures in the whisky’s development.
Ironically, many of these eponymous whiskies have taken on the names of men from the past whether or not they were integral to the actual booze in the bottle. (A notable exception: Old Overholt.) Elijah Craig was a Baptist minister sometimes dubiously credited as the inventor of bourbon—but definitely not that particular bourbon brand, which was invented in 1986. John Walker was a merchant who created a blend to sell in his grocery store; his name didn’t appear on the label until 1908, when his grandsons were in charge of the business, and dubbed the whisky Johnnie Walker. Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle Sr. had been a salesman for W.L. Weller before he and a partner acquired Ph. Stitzel Distillery; Pappy Van Winkle bourbon, an extension of the Old Rip Van Winkle brand, didn’t exist until 1995—three decades after Julian Sr.’s death.
But there are several whiskies out there that you might never have even imagined were named after people. Their stories are equally fascinating, and sometimes more so, than those of the better-known whisky characters.
Even as the second best-selling Irish whiskey, few people probably realize that D.E.W. stands for Daniel E. Williams, the creator of the brand. Born in the mid-1800s in Tullamore, a town rich in grain and, thus, a critical locale for the whiskey, Williams started from the bottom. Historical sources vary in how he got started working in the industry at the age of 15—perhaps as a stable boy, a mill hand, or a machine operator at Daly and Co. Ltd. By the late 1870s, Williams was the general manager of the distillery; eventually, he would own it and name the whiskey after himself. For decades, Tullamore D.E.W. was supplied by Midleton Distillery, but in recent years, parent company William Grant & Sons opened both a malt and grain distillery just outside Tullamore. And if you’re used to seeing the name spelled Dew, you’re not going crazy: the spelling has shifted over the years.
Ever heard of “bird bourbons?” These are brands that rose to popularity in the mid-20th century and feature avian names: Wild Turkey, Chicken Cock, Fighting Cock. Often Old Crow is included as well, thanks to the crow on its label. But Old Crow is not named after a screeching power-line percher, but rather Dr. James C. Crow, a Scottish chemist who became a U.S. distiller in the 1830s. One of the first distillers to bring science to the forefront of whiskey-making, he popularized (but didn’t invent) the sour mash process. His original whiskey recipe was lost with his death in 1856, but the brand name has existed since that time, making Old Crow bourbon one of whiskey’s first major hits.
One of the more amusing whiskey names is Evanston, Illinois’s F.E.W. Spirits. While most whiskies are named for someone who had a favorable outlook on distilling, F.E.W. are the initials of one Frances Elizabeth Willard, a noted temperance advocate from the 19th century. Evanston was once a hotbed of the temperance movement and a longtime dry town. In fact, F.E.W. founder Paul Hletko had to get those laws overturned in order to start distilling in 2011—that’s why he gave the company the tongue-in-cheek name. Besides its leathery, spicy flagship bourbon, the craft distillery also makes rye, single malt, and several gins.
Sometimes maligned for sourcing and selling whiskey under the guise of being a small, craft distillery, you’d be forgiven for also thinking the name Bulleit was just some market-tested malarkey. In fact, the brand was started by Tom Bulleit in 1987, naming it after his great-great-grandfather Augustus Bulleit—who he claims made a similar version of this high-rye bourbon back in the mid-1800s. The first bottles of contemporary Bulleit—then known as “thoroughbred” bourbon—were contract-distilled at Ancient Age Distillery (which is today Buffalo Trace), hitting shelves in 1995. Over the years, the rumored source of the bourbon has varied, though Bulleit rye comes from MGP. The brand was purchased by Seagram in 1997, and later acquired by Diageo. In 2017, Bulleit began making whiskey at its own distillery in Shelby County, Kentucky.
A brand with a well-worn history, Louis Forman first began distilling a product called “Michter’s” as early as 1942 at the former Bomberger’s Distillery in Pennsylvania Dutch country. A series of sales and acquisitions during the latter part of the 20th century led to the disappearance of the name, but the trademark eventually wound up in the hands of Chatham Imports in 1997. Early in its new era, Michter’s whiskeys were sourced, with Chatham later producing distillate to spec at various Kentucky distilleries. Since 2015, the company has made whiskey at its Shively, Kentucky distillery. As for the name, Forman simply created a portmanteau from those of his sons—Michael and Peter.
Since a lot of scotch seems to be named after lochs and glens and other strangely spelled and hard-to-pronounce locations, it would be easy to assume “Chivas” is some hillside or body of water too. In fact, this longtime brand—which is today one of the best-selling blended whiskies in the world—is actually named after the Chivas Brothers. James and John Chivas opened a luxury grocery store in Aberdeen in the early 1800s, which began offering blended whisky in the mid-century. The “Regal” comes about through a true royal connection: in 1843, Queen Victoria—who often visited Scotland—granted Chivas Brothers a Royal Warrant to supply goods to her household. The brand of whisky known as Chivas Regal, however, wasn’t invented until years later, in 1909.