Saturday, September 14, 2013
Bourbon Made in Mexico? Read the Story, Watch the Movie
In 1920, legal distillation of whiskey and all other beverage spirits stopped everywhere in the United States. Between state prohibition and restrictions imposed during WWI, the number of distilleries still operating in the United States had already dwindled to almost none. We now know that a few distilleries continued to operate, but did so outside the law.
Even the six distilleries that got medicinal whiskey licenses could only sell whiskey that was already made. Not until 1928 would they get permission to make more.
Mary Dowling, who took over at the Waterfill & Frazier Distillery after her husband died, wasn't ready to give up in 1920. She devised a bold and unique solution. She hired Joseph L. Beam, then considered the dean of Kentucky's bourbon distillers (1st row, middle). His assignment was to dismantle Waterfill & Frazier, load it onto a truck, and haul it to Juarez, Mexico. There he would put it back together and resume making bourbon, legally.
Beam's job was to make it. What happened to it after that was someone else's problem.
We know he took sons Harry and Otis along to help, and perhaps some of the others. He had seven of them (pictured above), trained them all to be distillers, and all of them found work once it was legal again here.
Most of what we know about this story comes from the children and grandchildren of the participants but it has never been in doubt. The Juarez distillery continued to operate after 1933. A few years ago, when they finally replaced the last of the original equipment, they contacted Vendome Copper & Brass Works in Louisville, who made it. They offered to return anything Vendome might want, Vendome just had to pay the shipping cost. Vendome asked for and received the doubler, which they have on display at their Louisville offices.
Recently, another piece of likely evidence surfaced at the Texas Archive of the Moving Image. It is :44 seconds of newsreel film, dated 1931. Here is how they describe it: "This film helps illustrate the impact of prohibition upon border communities, 1920-1933. It is possible that the company featured in the film is that of Stillwater and Frazier, which began production in 1927 and continued through the 1970s under the name D&W. During prohibition, a number of bars and clubs previously located in El Paso moved over the border into Juarez."
Not exactly on point, but close enough. No one in the film has been identified but Beam family members who have seen it say the man standing on the barrels with a clipboard could be Joe L., who returned to Kentucky before the end of Prohibition to run for Jailer of Nelson County, a position to which he was elected twice. He went on to found Heaven Hill Distilleries.