Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Old Anvil Bourbon and Louisville's Mellwood Distillery.


I received an inquiry today about Old Anvil Bourbon and the results of my brief research are interesting enough to post, so here goes.

General Distillers was the post-1935 name for the Mellwood Distillery, which was established on the northeast side of Louisville in the 1860s by George W. Swearingen. It operated there until 1918, then came back in the same location after Prohibition under the General Distillers name.

The distillery was located on both the east and west sides of Mellwood Avenue between Frankfort Avenue and Brownsboro Road. There were several distilleries located in that same general area, all making use of Beargrass Creek.

Mellwood was a substantial distillery but, typical for the times, it sold whiskey as a commodity to middle-men who owned the brands and handled all of the sales and distribution. Brown-Forman, makers of Old Forester Bourbon, and a company that is still in business today, bought a lot of its whiskey from Mellwood pre-Prohibition.

After Prohibition, many companies like Brown-Forman that had been middle-men before 1920 bought distilleries and stopped buying from companies like Mellwood/General Distillers. Commodity producers like Mellwood/General continued well into the modern era, but were mostly gone by the mid-1980s. 

Such companies would sometimes issue their own, small brands -- a ‘friends and family’ proposition for the most part. Old Anvil may have been one of those. They would also produce proprietary brands for customers and even for clubs and other associations, even individuals. Old Anvil may have been created that way.

Most likely Old Anvil was a small, local, short-lived brand, possibly even a one-time thing. Note that the picture above says “bottled by.” This suggests the product was merely bottled there and not actually made there, and certainly suggests third-party ownership. This was just a bottling job, Mellwood/General had no other role. There’s no way to know who made the whiskey, though it was probably one of the other distilleries in the neighborhood.

At its height, Mellwood/General had a distillery, seven warehouses, a bottling hall, and other ancillary buildings. It stopped distilling in the 1960s and continued bottling operations for a few more years after that. I have visited the site and there doesn’t appear to be any trace of it remaining.

It's also possible that "General Distillers Corporation" was later used as an assumed business name by someone, a very common practice in the distilled spirits business, in which case it wouldn't even have been bottled at the Mellwood Avenue facility. 

4 comments:

sku said...

Do you know if George was any relation to Al Swearingen of Deadwood fame?

Chuck Cowdery said...

It's a pretty common name. I knew some Swearingens in Louisville and don't know if they were related to either.

hubbit said...

"Brown-Forman, makers of Old Forester Bourbon, and a company that is still in business today, bought a lot of its whiskey from Mellwood pre-Prohibition."

That's one of the things I always feel compelled to bring up whenever a book, an article, or a publicity piece mentions George Garvin Brown as being the first distiller to put his whiskey in a sealed bottle. Brown was not a distiller (at least to my knowledge), but a rectifier. He sourced what he considered to be quality distillate and signed his name to it, but it wasn't his own make. And there's nothing wrong with that so long as it's not misrepresented, which in his case it wasn't.

The label boilerplate on older labels says "This whisky is bottled by us" rather than "is distilled by us", although I believe Jim Murray once wrote that Brown-Forman had to give up a distillery they had in Loretto when Prohibition set in.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Without question, Brown-Forman began as a rectifier. As the industry evolved, many successful rectifiers bought distilleries, among them Brown-Forman. There definitely was a Brown-Forman distillery in St. Mary's before Prohibition and there were others as well.