‘Large Company’ ordered craft distiller to change name

Facing legal pressure from a “large corporation,” Bourbon County’s The Gentleman Distillery has changed its name to Hartfield & Company.

Andrew Buchanan changed the name of his distillery to Hartfield & Co., a family distilling name dating back to the 1800s. It was The Gentleman Distillery.
Andrew Buchanan changed the name of his distillery to Hartfield & Co., a family distilling name dating back to the 1800s. It was The Gentleman Distillery.

Founder Andrew Buchanan would not name the company, but the lawyer said to surrender all TTB approvals and stop any business under the Gentleman Distillery name. “He said {Gentleman Distillery} infringed upon trademarks they owned,” Buchanan said.

Sazerac owns the trademarks Kentucky Gentleman and Virginia Gentleman, Gentleman-named American whiskey products. I queried Sazerac for comment about whether it sent the cease-and-desist letter. A spokesperson said the company has a “couple of hundred” active cease-and-desist orders, and that it does not comment on litigation matters. The spokesperson neither confirmed nor denied the letter.

Brown-Forman owns the rights to Gentleman Jack, but the company told me it did not send a cease-and-desist letter to the Gentleman Distillery. (The original version of this story did not mention Gentleman Jack.)

For Buchanan, this marks the second time he’s changed the name of his new distillery, the first in Bourbon County since Prohibition. He originally planned to name it the Bourbon County Distillery, but a fellow Paris, Ky., resident applied for state approvals before him. Buchanan decided to name it “The Gentleman Distillery.”

In this latest matter, Buchanan considered fighting and was advised he could win, but realized he couldn’t afford $250,000 in legal fees.

“We were just about to release the bourbon. The letter was well timed. They knew we were about to enter bourbon marketplace and they were trying to stop us from using that name,” Buchanan said.

Buchanan thinks there’s something bigger at play. He believes the craft distillers are putting public pressure on the larger distillers and that they will not allow the same momentum in whiskey that happened in beer. (Read: Budweiser mocks craft beer.)

“There’s this feeling amongst the craft distillers that the big distilleries aren’t going to let this happen as easily as big beer did. They need to defend their trademarks, but they seem to be very aware that we can take 5% of marketplace,” Buchanan says.

Meanwhile, Buchanan’s new distillery name Hartfield & Company is a family name on his father’s side. The Hartfields were bourbon distillers in the 1800s in Green County, Kentucky.

As for the greater significance of this story, the bourbon business has a history of sending cease-and-desist letters to anybody who even remotely infringes upon their trademarks. Use a dripping wax on an alcohol product and just see how long it takes Maker’s Mark to send a letter, or create a bottle that looks remotely similar to Woodford Reserve and Brown-Forman lawyers come a knocking. Of course, there’s always the famous dispute between Sazerac and the Kentucky Distillers Association over the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Long story short, there have been thousands of these kinds of stories, which is why I dedicated significant space to bourbon lawsuits in Bourbon Curious.

But you can’t help but feel for Buchanan and other smaller distilleries, such as Wilderness Trace, which had to change its name to Wilderness Trail. Their efforts should be put forth operating a still, not dealing with lawyers. Something tells me that this is just the beginning, though.

 

Stay In Touch!

2 Replies to “‘Large Company’ ordered craft distiller to change name”

  1. I cheer for the craft distillers and this may well be a case of bullying. However, I find the parallel with craft beer lazy and specious. I’m not looking at you Fred, it’s Buchanan who brings it up here and many others before him.

    Everybody who tried a Bud side-by-side a decent craft beer can tell that one is an industrial product, made and sold cheaply, with no respect for taste and tradition, whereas the other is the opposite: something to cherish and enjoy, created with flavor and quality in mind by someone who cares about the beer and who respects the drinker.

    This parallel simply does not work when it comes to American whiskey. The large distilleries use well-established production processes, steeped in tradition, and with individual connections to the roots of American distilling. So far nobody put forth an argument that they produce *worse* whisky than a craft distillery, on account of being large. In fact, the opposite is true, since the large distilleries have better access to resources (grains, barrels, space) than craft distillers, enjoy economies of scale, and more importantly they have the 4-6 years lead-in time needed for the first barrels to age – most craft distillers can’t afford to wait this long to sell their stuff.

    The entry price is another big separating factor from beer: it’s no big deal to shell out $3 for a bottle of craft beer instead of a $1 Coors: if you don’t like it, you poured out $3 down the drain. But it’s a completely different gamble to pay $60 for a bottle of mystery spirit that you’ll ultimately not like.

    So enough already with a comparison that just doesn’t work! Good luck to all craft distilleries, but for now they are too far from earning the kind of reputation that craft breweries enjoy – or that large distillers do, for that matter! – , and they’ll need to earn that on an individual basis before they become close to a threat to large distillers.

    1. Well stated. While I do question the timing of this, I do kinda have to agree that “The Gentleman” is a little too close and could cause market confusion. It looks and sounds like it could be a premium version of Ky. Gentleman. In that regard it was a poor choice of name, and should have been rethought a while ago. I do feel sorry that he has to go through this

      That said, I agree there’s no comparison between micro distillers and micro brewers. The difference in beer is analogous to the difference between the best burger joint in town and McDonalds. The same situation doesn’t exactly exist in bourbon. The large producers are already making a great product. Sure, they all have their bottom shelf brands, but those actually make the higher quality ones better by using up the poorer quality whiskey that therefore doesn’t go into the good stuff.

Comments are closed.