Who was “The Judge?” The man behind a Kentucky Bourbon legacy

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The story of W.H. McBrayer began nearly 200 years ago when Kentucky’s Bourbon revolution was just beginning to take shape. Born in 1821, he was a man of many firsts: a member of one of the first settling families in Anderson County; the first judge in his county; and one of Kentucky’s founding distillers. During a time when America’s colonial thirst brought forth some of the most iconic names in the history of Bourbon, “The Judge” created a whiskey so distinctive—it’s still talked about today.

Where did his Bourbon story begin?

After purchasing land along the winding banks of Cedar Creek, McBrayer’s first distillery (Distillery #44) began producing spirits in 1844 under the label “W.H. McBrayer Hand Made Sour Mash Whiskey.” He later renamed his flagship distillery “Cedar Brook,” which eventually grew to be a world-renowned brand with every bottle proudly displaying the McBrayer family name as a sign of best quality.

His Bourbon grew to be so successful that when Cedar Brook was sold to the whiskey trust and Julius Kessler in 1899, it was regarded as “The Most Famous Brand in the World.”

Influencing an industry

“The Judge” wasn’t the only McBrayer to master the art of distilling whiskey. His second cousin established J.H. McBrayer Distillery, located along the nearby Hammond’s Creek. As his family’s whiskey reputation grew, so did McBrayer’s influence on other local figures, many of whom went on to build their very own Kentucky Bourbon legacies. 

Did you know that…

  • Charles M. Dedman was W.H. McBrayer’s nephew and adopted son. To carry on the family’s distilling heritage, he gifted Charles with the land and funding needed to create his very own distillery and Bourbon brand called Kentucky Owl.
  • T.B. Ripy partnered with W. H. McBrayer in 1869 to purchase Distillery #112 in Tyrone, Kentucky. “The Judge” went on to sell his shares to his partner, who renamed the distillery “T. B. Ripy Cliff Springs Distilling Company.” 
  • W.B. Saffell was a longtime employee of McBrayer’s who worked for him for some 20 years. In 1889, the year after “The Judge’s” death, W.B. Saffell established his own distillery—further carrying McBrayer’s Kentucky Bourbon legacy forward.
  • Colonel E.H. Taylor, Jr. purchased the Old McBrayer Distillery, which was once owned by “The Judge.” It’s been said that Taylor believed McBrayer made some of the best whiskey in the region.

His spirit lives on

While “The Judge’s” legacy is rooted in making Kentucky Bourbon, the truth is that whiskey was only the beginning for him. Known as a jack-of-all-trades who helped build his community, W.H. McBrayer was also a family man, a land owner, a businessman, a senator and a cattle dealer. There are many things for which he was remembered, but here are a few you may not have known about.

  1. Admired for having “a noble mind, a clear, far-seeing brain and a strong, generous heart,” Judge McBrayer was a beloved friend, father and companion. At the time of his passing, it was said that “the story of his good deeds would fill volumes.” 
  2. He was a generous man and an active member of the church. He made a significant contribution (that would amount to an estimated $600,000 in today’s currency) to the Central College of Richmond, which later merged with Centre College in Danville, Kentucky.
  3. He helped bring the Louisville Southern Railroad to Anderson County. Serving on the board of directors for the project, McBrayer knew the railroad would be a driving force in connecting Lawrenceburg with the rest of the state. Upon its completion in 1888—just months before his death—he and his family were the first ones to travel by train to Lawrenceburg.
  4. Because of his influence on the railroad through Lawrenceburg, the town of “McBrayer” was named after him. Later demolished to build I-65, all that remains of the area is a vacant store and a railroad sign that denotes where the town once was.

We hope you’ll join us in honoring a man whose story remains very much alive today. Follow McBrayer Legacy Spirits on social media to keep up with our journey. Don’t forget that Legacy Club members will be the first to be informed of our upcoming release dates, so sign up today to be a part of it all—from our family to yours.