At the heart of the business, whiskey production in the United States is the intersection of capital-intensive industrial and agricultural capacity coupled with unrelenting marketing. It also doesn’t hurt if you have enough market share to hold your own negotiating with the U.S.-mandated middlemen standing between producers and retailers.
Because of the shock of Prohibition and then boom, subsequent bust, and renewed consumer demand for bourbon, the general story has been much the same as the rest of the American economy in the 20th Century: corporate consolidation. Like the largest airlines in the mid-2000s, bourbon producers with enough capital on hand during the darker days purchased and swapped brands from folding distilleries, leading to a shuffled deck of what were once venerable standalone brands from family producers.
Heaven Hill was one of the companies that acquired numerous brands, including brands associated with today’s bottles: J.W. Dant and J.T.S. Brown.
The story of the J.W. Dant brand and its many owners is similar to many other legacy brands: circuitous. Purportedly, Joseph Washington “J.W.” Dant distilled bourbon as a teenager in 1836 using a copper pipe ran through a hollow poplar log as his still, a then-common method to reduce the costs associated with distillation and copper. This made sense for its time, because for much of the early and mid 19th century, distillation was a home preservation technique to retain the value of excess grain.
Eventually, however, in 1870 J.W. Dant founded the Dant Distillery Company, producing J.W. Dant-branded whiskey. J.W. Dant died in 1902 and requested in his will that “no whiskey subsequently be branded with [his] name.” Ignoring his father’s will, George W. Dant took over the company. Following George’s death in 1943, the company and its associated intellectual property were sold to one of the post-Prohibition mega players, United Distillers of America. What remained of the Dant Distillery Company was then turned around and in 1953 sold to Schenley, another massive post-Prohibition company, with Schenley itself acquired by Guinness in 1987. The J.W. Dant brand and trademarks were purchased by Heaven Hill in 1993 as part of a broader package for $30 million.
The history of J.W. Dant came to the fore in the past few years as a result of litigation by Heaven Hill. In 2018, three Dant descendants opened Log Still Distilling and later discussed the new company by referencing their familial relationship to J.W. Dant and their family’s whiskey. Heaven Hill took issue with Log Still linking the company to the Dant Distilling Company and J.W. Dant history, and filed a civil suit against Log Still in spring 2021 for trademark infringement and unfair competition action. The court opinion notes that in 2019, prior to the lawsuit, one of the Log Still co-founders had attempted to coax Heaven Hill into selling the brand, but the company refused.
J.W. Dant is an almost wholly non-marketed bourbon in today’s environment of massive brand sponsorships. In the 2021 colorful court opinion in favor of Heaven Hill’s request for a preliminary injunction against Log Still over the alleged use of the J.W. Dant name and trademarks, the document notes that Heaven Hill spent less than $12,000 total on marketing the J.W. Dant label over an unspecified period of 16 years. In addition, Heaven Hill’s net revenue from sales of J.W. Dant brands fell sharply from $1 million in 2004 to $600 thousand in 2020.
Neither J.W. Dant Bottled in Bond nor J.T.S. Brown Bottled in Bond appear on Heaven Hill’s website. Consistent with the low marketing budget for J.W. Dant, they are not widely marketed where I have lived, and I only found out they existed while wandering into Heaven Hill’s gift shop looking for novelties (incidentally, no distillery I visited in Kentucky makes baby onesies with bourbon labeling).
J.T.S. Brown brand bourbon has a similarly storied history, including J.T.S. Brown Jr.’s establishing J.T.S. Brown & Brother in 1870 and his early involvement in creating and marketing Old Forester with his younger half-brother, George Garvin Brown. According to Fred Minnick, in the 1930s and 1940s, the J.T.S. Brown brand was one of the brands that came back post-Prohibition. Like J.W. Dant, the J.T.S. Brown brand eventually made its way to Heaven Hill, and both are sold in the same glass bottles, albeit with different labels.
Though I could not confirm for a fact due to the absence of documentation from Heaven Hill, both J.T.S. Brown and J.W. Dant very likely have the same “Heaven Hill regular” mashbill common to the company’s rye-flavored bourbons: 78% corn, 10% rye, 12% malted barley. There is sparse information about these bourbon’s ages, but, because they are both bottled in bond, they are at least four years old. Their pricing suggests they probably are relatively young for bonded bourbon.
J.W. Dant Bottled in Bond – Review
100 proof (50% ABV). Widely available for $15-$18.
Color: Deep copper.
On the nose: A gentle but flat nose brings apple, pear, black cherry, and caramel; in the background, a moderately prominent clove and walnut, nutmeg, anise, and black pepper brings it together. Innocuous except for a light hit of acetone, but nothing to sing about, either.
In the mouth: Moderate viscosity carries lemon and a mineral note on the front of the palate, followed by a gentle crème brûlée caramel on the mid palate transitioning to cigar tobacco on the back, and a very mild astringent lingering pleasant oak tannin and light fennel on the finish. All of these flavors are muted, with none standing out as particularly noteworthy.
This is a wholly inoffensive pour. Nothing particularly objectionable or praiseworthy stood out during tasting. Heaven Hill has very adeptly avoided imparting an immature flavor profile in J.W. Dant despite its low price, and for that Heaven Hill should be congratulated. You certainly can do worse at $15 a bottle, but its affordability is not sufficient to overcome the pour’s flatness. J.W. Dant has direct competition from another comparable Heaven Hill brand in roughly the same price range, Evan Williams Bottled in Bond, which simply has a more decisive, richer nose and a moderately superior flavor. What settled the debate between 4 and 5 is that Malt’s criteria for a score of 5 is that the reviewer would share it with guests. This is not the case for J.W. Dant.
J.T.S. Brown Bottled in Bond – Review
100 proof (50% ABV). Widely available for $15-$18.
Color: Oloroso sherry.
On the nose: Moldering fall leaves, cherry, almond, fresh sourdough starter, rye grain, lemon, toffee, nutmeg, dry white wine, and allspice balance one another on a gentle yet robust nose.
In the mouth: A thick, silky texture carries dominant and robust mineral and brown sugar notes from the front through the mid-palate before dropping off suddenly with brief vanilla eclair holding from the back palate into the finish. The finish primarily brings black pepper, mint, and (regrettably) over-oaked California Chardonnay.
Compared to J.W. Dant, J.T.S. Brown definitely brings a more assertive glass of bourbon. The nose is genuinely delightful, and the most prominent scents evolved every time I came in for more. The palate is mostly anodyne and brief, though its texture is so silky as to be luxurious. The finish is just okay but certainly not sufficient to overtake how pleasant the bourbon noses at $15 a bottle. The price redeems what is otherwise merely just a decent bourbon, bumping it to a 5. Unlike J.W. Dant, I certainly would pour this for guests.
Images courtesy of Total Wine.