John Sherman Cooper: Senator. Diplomat. Attorney. Bourbon icon?
The last of those distinctions comes courtesy of Damon Thayer, current Majority Leader of the Kentucky State Senate and Georgetown businessman.
Along with co-founder Andre Regard, Thayer has launched the Kentucky Senator Bourbon brand, which pays homage to notable statesmen from the Bluegrass State’s past.
Cooper is featured on the upcoming fourth bottle in the line — which has also had bottles for former Vice President Alben W. Barkley (a Democrat, noted the Republican Thayer, in suggesting his willingness to work across the aisle when it comes to this brand of spirits), Kentucky’s first GOP Senator William J. DeBoe, and John G. Carlisle, a member of the “Bourbon Democrats” aligned with classical liberalism and who worked to protect citizens from tainted whiskey. All represented Kentucky at some point in the United States Senate.
On the back of every bottle is a photo of the subject along with a short bio.
“We like to say we serve up great bourbon with a side of Kentucky history,” said Thayer, who talked about the bourbon line on Tuesday afternoon at the Somerset-Pulaski County Chamber of Commerce luncheon, held as usual at The Center for Rural Development in Somerset, as the featured speaker for the month of June.
“(Cooper) was an incredibly accomplished man, one of the most consequential Kentuckians of the 20th century,” said Thayer. “Close friend with (President) John F. Kennedy, when they were in the U.S. Senate together. … Served on the Warren Commission to investigate the death, the assassination of President Kennedy. The first Republican in Kentucky history to be elected to more than one term in the U.S. Senate. Ambassador to India. Friend to presidents. Mentor to U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell. A true diplomat and a great Kentuckian. I’m proud that we’re naming our next bourbon release after Somerset’s John Sherman Cooper.”
A Somerset native, Cooper was indeed all the things that Thayer said about him. He served in the State House of Representatives from 1928-1930, was an ambassador to India for President Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s and to East Germany in the ‘70s under Gerald Ford, and went to the U.S. Senate three different times ‚ 1946-49, 1952-55, and 1956-1973. He was also a Pulaski County Judge, a local circuit judge, and earned the Bronze Star Medal for his service in World War II. His senate victory was by the largest margin any Republican had seen for a Kentucky office at that time.
Thayer himself has enjoyed an accomplished political career in Frankfort. Representing District 17, Thayer came to the State Senate in 2003, and was later selected the Majority Floor Leader. He has become known as a champion of the bourbon industry in state government and is only the eighth legislator ever to receive the 100 Proof Award presented by the Kentucky Distillers’ Association to elected officials who promote and protect the distinctly Kentucky spirit.
“We had a lot of laws that were passed after prohibition that were barriers for growth in the brewing business,” said Thayer. “As the son of small business owners and the owner of a couple of small businesses myself, I’ve spent most of my career in Frankfort trying to remove artificial barriers to free enterprise.
“About 10 years ago, we started taking a serious look at our bourbon laws …, “ he added. “…We changed all of those laws, and you all know what’s happened with the growth of this bourbon industry. It’s one of the true success stories in Kentucky’s economy.”
Thayer said he started getting invited to a lot of ribbon cuttings and groundbreakings in the bourbon industry and found an affection for it. Doing some research, he discovered a lapsed brand, Kentucky Senator Bourbon, which originally started in northern Kentucky but “sort of petered out” in the 1970s, he noted.
“So I came up with this crazy idea one day to revive the Kentucky Senator Bourbon Brand, bring it back as a premium brand, and name it after U.S. Senators from Kentucky,” he said. “There’s 52 of them; (the state) has been around since 1792, we were the 15th state admitted to the Union, so we’ve had U.S. Senators for a long time.”
After running the idea by the Kentucky Ethics Commission, Thayer brought in attorney Regard and Kentucky Senator Bourbon was born. They decided to become a non-distiller producer to get off the ground — they’re working on making their own in the future as a contract distiller — and buy existing bourbon and bottle it under their label.
With 95 percent of the world’s bourbon distilled in Kentucky and laws in place that Thayer himself voted for stating that any bourbon with the word “Kentucky” in the name has to be made in the commonwealth, they managed to find exactly what they needed despite what seemed like a daunting challenge.
“We got really lucky,” said Thayer. “At the end of 2020, early 2021, we found out through a broker that there was some 15-year-old bourbon coming on the market in a tote, a food-grade, industrial-sized, commercial-grade tote. About eight barrels worth of 15-year-old bourbon had been dumped in these totes and the brokers were selling it. … That turned out to be some fantastic-tasting bourbon.”
After the Barkley bottle, which “won multiple awards (and) got great reviews,” noted Thayer, they “lucked into some more bourbon” four months later, buying 25 barrels of then-five-year-old bourbon from a broker, and used it to develop the next bottles after aging.
Next week, the Cooper bourbon will be bottled, eight years old, with a golden color scheme representative of Centre College, which Cooper attended.
According to Kentucky law, if someone has been deceased 50 years or longer, their name, image and likeness can be used for commercial purposes. If it’s been less than 50 years, you have to get permission from their family to use those elements. Cooper died in 1991, so Thayer went to try to speak with the subject’s sister-in-law Cornelia Cooper, and when she wasn’t able to make that meeting, talked about the issue with Frank Cain, a nephew of the Somerset Senator, and got approval to go ahead with the plans for the Cooper bottle.
Thayer said to be on the lookout for the release of the bottle by the end of the month. He said that SPEDA President Chris Girdler is wanting to hold a launch party for it later this summer, and the distributor has been told to make sure that local liquor stores can get a supply.
“Several liquor store owners from this area have already been in touch with me to find out how they can get an allotment, so I’m glad to see that there’s going to be demand for that here in Somerset,” said Thayer.
“You can start a small business in Kentucky on a hope and a dream and an idea and a little bit of investors’ money and a little bit of your own personal savings,” he added, “and hopefully some day, we can take this thing big-time to where we’re not just selling here in Kentucky but we can sell it around the country.”
Thayer was given a “Friend of the Chamber” award following his speech at Tuesday’s luncheon. Also, before that speech, Tom Bennett, Strategic Consultant for the American Battlefield Trust, recognized both Thayer and Somerset’s own State Senator Rick Girdler, who was in attendance, for their efforts in helping create the Kentucky Battlefield Trust Fund to help preserve battlefield sites like the one from the Battle of Mill Springs here in Pulaski County.