In the 17th and 18th centuries, large numbers of Germans and German-Swiss migrated to William Penn’s American colony known as Pennsylvania. Most were fleeing religious persecution. Many were members of Anabaptist sects such as the Amish and Mennonites.
One large group settled in the area around modern Lancaster and came to be known as the Pennsylvania Dutch. Among them was the Shenk family, Swiss Mennonites who farmed in what is now Lebanon County’s Heidelberg Township. In 1753, Johann Shenk built a small distillery on his farm. Like most early American farmer-distillers, he distilled his own surplus grain and that of his neighbors, keeping about five percent as his fee.
Shenk and his descendants continued and expanded their whiskey-making business. Pacifists themselves, they supplied whiskey to American troops during the Revolutionary War. The business was successful and remained in the family until Prohibition closed it, and every other American distillery, in 1920.
Subsequent, non-family owners revived the distillery after Prohibition ended. It remained at its original location, near Schaefferstown, and had several owners, including Schenley, the world’s largest distilled spirits company at the time. It primarily made whiskey, both bourbon and rye.
From 1950 until 1972, the distillery’s chief distiller was Charles Everett Beam, one of the seven distiller sons of Joseph L. Beam. He brought with him his famous family’s whiskey recipes. Shortly after he arrived, he asked his brothers to ship him some of the family’s yeast.
Even though it was once part of a large company, the distillery itself was small. When sales of American whiskey began their steep decline in the late 1960s, the distillery struggled to survive. It was devastated by Hurricane Agnes in 1972. To infuse some much needed cash into the company, a wealthy whiskey broker and former owner gave it a contract to make 20,000 gallons of bourbon whiskey. He had no immediate use for the whiskey so he paid the annual storage charges and left it there, aging in 400 oak barrels, until he was forced to remove it by the company’s final collapse 15 years later.
That broker’s name was Adolph Hirsch and his bourbon, bottled between 1989 and 2003, became famous as A. H. Hirsch Reserve Straight Bourbon Whiskey. Almost impossible to find today, A. H. Hirsch has become one of the most revered American whiskeys in history.
The complete story is told in my new book, The Best Bourbon You’ll Never Taste. The True Story Of A. H. Hirsch Reserve Straight Bourbon Whiskey, Distilled In The Spring of 1974. It is currently available as an ebook in the Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble Nook formats. A print edition may follow.