Sunday, August 25, 2013

Whatever Happened to Old Judge?




Old Judge is a distillery, fairly important in its day, that seems to disappear from history almost as soon as it appears. Was it revived in some form after Prohibition? Not with that name, nor with its #1 brand. The distillery's pre-Prohibition best-seller, Old Fitzgerald, was owned by Louisville's Stitzel-Weller Distillery when Prohibition ended.

This picture, taken in 1961, may have been taken at the distillery once known as Old Judge. The man in the suit, on the right, is Otis Beam, one of the seven distiller sons of Joseph L. Beam. The distillery where this was taken was called 21 Brands. The picture comes from a neat little collection of 16 photos at the University of Louisville Library that can be found here.

21 Brands was owned by Francis T. Hunter, the gold medal winner in tennis at the 1924 Paris Olympics, who in 1933 founded 21 Brands, an importer and distributor of wine and liquor. In 1956, he bought what was then the Rocky Ford Distillery. According to the Dow Jones News Service, it had a production capacity of 40,000 barrels a year, about 2 million gallons. The purchase price was a little more than $1 million. Hunter sold it in the late 1960s to Sid Flashman, who changed the name to Double Springs. The final owner was Abe Schecter, formerly of Barton, who closed it for good in about 1978.

After consulting Sam Cecil's book as well as Trey Zoeller's, it would appear that 21 Brands was Old Judge, refurbished into a modern plant. According to Zoeller, it was also called Old Kennebec, whereas Cecil has those as two separate distilleries.

No one knows who established the original distillery on Benson Creek but it was owned by Charles Herbst, a major international wine and spirits dealer based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Herbst always claimed it was established by John Fitzgerald, after whom Old Fitzgerald was named, but that turns out to be fiction. Herbst's Old Fitzgerald was, however, a very successful pre-Prohibition brand. A photo of the Old Judge Distillery, taken in 1906, was altered to serve as the Jno. E. Fitzgerald Distillery in advertising. Herbst's distillers at Old Judge were members of the Bixler family.

During Prohibition, Herbst sold the Old Fitzgerald brand but not the distillery to Pappy Van Winkle's Stitzel-Weller Distillery. What had been Old Judge was revived and modernized after Prohibition and went through a number of different owners and names, including Sam Clay and Benson Creek, before becoming Rocky Ford and then 21 Brands.

Distilleries like 21 Brands struggled to survive, even though bourbon was booming, because although they had a few small, regional brands they mostly sold bulk whiskey to non-distiller producers, a very competitive, low margin business. When sales began to trend downward at the end of the 1960s, everyone found themselves with too much inventory. Producers that had strong brands in their stables were able to continue but most commodity producers went out of business.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'm having trouble following your opening paragraphs. Are you postulating that 21 Brands Distillery may have been Old Judge Distillery at some early stage?

Chuck Cowdery said...

My theory, at least (I'm not entirely convinced), is that the distillery known before Prohibition as Old Judge came back after Prohibition, updated and modernized, and was called many names, including for a time 21 Brands.

Chuck Cowdery said...

One problem in nailing this down is that there is overlap in the record between this distillery, Buffalo Springs in Stamping Ground, and Old Kennebec, which is also described as 'near Frankfort.' All three had Beams minding the still. Four of the seven brothers--Otis, Roy, Harry, and Desmond--are associated with one, two, or all three of those distilleries. I've seen Buffalo Springs but not the other two so I know that's separate and wasn't 21 Brands, although the windows in the picture look a lot like the windows in the buildings at Buffalo Springs.

EllenJ said...

Old Mr. Boston and Heublein come to mind.

By the way, there really was an Old Mr. Boston once, actually located in BOSTON, MA, not KY. I have a bottle of it from 1943 that we can taste next time you come to visit. It was distilled (in 1937) by Ben Burk at RD #4 in Boston, Massachusetts. The brand still exists, although I don't know if they bottle a bourbon anymore. But "Mr. Boston" has had more distillery relationships than Larry King has had wives. I think one of those was 21 Brands, by way of the Viking Distillery in Albany, Georgia. Barton (and therefore, Sazerac) owns the brand today, and presumably makes whatever spirits are bottled under that name.

I don't know if Heublein ever bottled a bourbon, but they certainly didn't own a bourbon distillery. Neither did Austin Nichols until 1971. Their Wild Turkey bourbon was sourced from several of those independent distilleries that no longer exist, except for the one (Ripy Bros./J.T.S. Brown in Tyrone) that they eventualy bought for themselves.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Chuck, for answering my question so quickly. Now in retrospect you were quite clear in your opening paragraphs. My brain must have been on pause. I love your posts on bourbon history, especially mysteries such as what happened to Old Judge.

Chuck Cowdery said...

I must confess, I rewrote it a little after your astute comment.

Goonboy said...

Hi Chuck,
I think it's about time I chime in here after many months of trying to nail down the "Old Judge" history.
So happy to read all the bits and pieces of the Herbst legacy. Here's my contribution to the lore of the Herbst distillery. It's a visual one!

I have in my possession an entire sealed bottle of Old Judge pure malt whiskey. I'm looking at the original, very brittle paper label as I type. It has since fallen off the bottle due to the age of the glue. This label must be quite rare as I have not seen another anywhere. I have carefully scanned it and put the original between two pieces of acrylic for safe keeping. Would love to post this image along with a photo of the bottle. Any interest. I have a story behind how I acquired this rare piece and can share this in another post if you like.