Kentucky has made great contributions to American culture, in many diverse spheres. Uniquely American arts include Kentucky’s historically rural folk art, furniture, quilt-work, and pottery. Our nation’s equestrian life is enriched by the Commonwealth’s horse breeding, shows, and racing. Kentucky writers have made their mark in American literature, stage, and film. Bluegrass and country music owe much to the state, and it’s also known for its shape-note and gospel singing.
And then, of course, there’s that famous Kentucky bourbon—American whiskey, distilled since the late 1700s.
John Marshall, the most famous and influential chief justice of the United States, composed this humorous quatrain in 1825:
In the Bluegrass region
A paradox was born:
The corn was full of kernels,
And the colonels full of corn.
In the western part of Kentucky, Marshall County (known for its lakeshore tourism, fishing, and annual “Big Singing Day”) was named for Chief Justice Marshall in 1842, a few years after he passed to his Heavenly reward. No bourbon for the Kentucky Colonels there: Marshall was a dry county until 2015.
In a state full of hard-charging whiskey men with interesting stories, Samuel Taylor Suit is a standout. Born in 1832 (not in Kentucky but in Maryland), he started working in the whiskey business in 1857 and owned his own distillery in Louisville by 1869. His successes earned him a Kentucky Colonelcy. In 1872 Colonel Suit tried to corner the state’s whiskey market by buying all the old holdings of booze he could, and built a warehouse in downtown Louisville to store it. Luck wasn’t on Suit’s side; the building collapsed during construction. He didn’t give up, though, and had it rebuilt into the city’s largest whiskey storage facility.
Sadly, the Financial Panic of 1873 pulled the barstool from under Colonel Suit’s attempted monopoly on Kentucky whiskey. With the death of his first wife and the failure of his market-cornering, Suit was down but not out—he still was wealthy, and driven. He returned to Maryland (where he owned a huge estate outside Washington, D.C.) and served several years as a state senator. Rich from railroad investments and securities, a friend of President Ulysses Grant and future president Rutherford Hayes, the distiller built a beautiful 15-room castle for his third wife (25 years his junior) in West Virginia. This was after suffering a mansion fire, a bankruptcy, and divorce from his wealthy and socially influential second wife—but also enjoying successes in business, politics, and the Washington social scene.
Today bottle collectors know S.T. Suit for the distinctive and famous “little brown jugs” that carried his liquor.
Coin collectors, meanwhile, have a delightful old merchant token to remember him by. Dated 1850 but likely minted in the 1870s, it publicized Colonel Suit and advertised his Salt River Bourbon. Examples of the token are known in various forms including copper, brass, silvered brass, and white metal. Suit used his political connections to launch an advertising campaign: He convinced Dr. P.T. Keene, the chief health officer of the District of Columbia, to visit his Maryland distillery and provide a testimonial for his liquor—”For Medicinal Purposes, its reliability as to strength and purity make it very desirable. Physicians will appreciate how important it is to their success in the treatment of diseases, as well as to the patient, that the stimulants they prescribe should be of a standard and unvarying quality, which desideratum Col. Suit’s liquors appear to fulfill.”
The “S.T. Suit” token ballyhooed his bourbon’s medicinal properties, no doubt to get around liquor laws and prohibition advocates. It also pushed Colonel Suit’s connection to Kentucky, the undisputed home of American whiskey, with an inscription of “KENTUCKY CURRENCY” and a prominent mention of Jefferson County. Salt River itself, of course, is a well-known Kentucky waterway.
A nice example of Colonel Samuel Taylor Suit’s bourbon token won’t cost you a fortune. For $100 or a little more, plus some diligent searching, you can add this flavorful piece of Kentucky history to your coin collection. This “From the Colonel’s Desk” column barely scratches the surface of Colonel Suit’s life. Open a bottle of your favorite Kentucky bourbon, show off this neat whiskey token, and you can share with your drinking companions the many fascinating stories connected to it.
On March 23, 2021, Governor Andy Beshear commissioned Whitman Publishing’s Dennis Tucker as a Kentucky Colonel—the highest honor awarded by the Commonwealth—in recognition of his career in book publishing and for promoting knowledge of Kentucky’s status as an important subject within American numismatics. Tucker’s column “From the Colonel’s Desk” explores the rich history of Kentucky embodied in coins, tokens, medals, paper money, private currency, and related artifacts of material culture.