Wednesday, April 3, 2024

Online Sleuths Solve Bourbon Movie Mystery


Warren William and Alice White in "Employee's Entrance" (1933).

"Pre-code" refers to movies made between 1927 and 1934, before strict enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code (also known as the Hays Code). Pre-code movies featured more sexual innuendo, profanity, promiscuity, and other controversial themes than later films. Such licentiousness would not return to celluloid until the 1960s.

I love pre-code movies.

This one, "Employee's Entrance," is the story of a big city department store struggling to survive in the early years of the Great Depression. It has an "Upstairs/Downstairs" quality, depicting owners and management but also front-line employees. 

When "Employee's Entrance" was released in 1933, National Prohibition was still in effect, yet when ruthless department store president Kurt Anderson shares a drink with Polly, a store employee, he pulls from his desk a pint of Old Taylor Bourbon.

Later in the film, the store throws a big party for employees. Champagne flows freely. No one comments on Prohibition one way or the other. During the party, many of the characters become happily, or not-so-happily, drunk. 

After Roosevelt and the Democrats swept the 1932 elections, it was assumed Prohibition was finished, but it was still in effect when "Employee's Entrance" was released.

During Prohibition, Old Taylor was sold, legally, "for medicinal purposes only." The bottles looked like this.

A Prohibition medicinal pint of Old Taylor Bourbon, in its original box.
It is a different label from the one in the movie. Now, producers change labels all the time, and it's possible that the movie label was a different release. It's also possible the bottle in the movie was a prop, a mockup created by the film's art department, but it seems unlikely they would make a fake label for a real brand.

After I watched "Employee's Entrance" a few weeks ago (and I recommend it if you get the chance. It's a hoot), I captured the above picture and posted it on Facebook. All I wrote was, "From 'Employee's Entrance' (1933). Look what they're drinking." That began a conversation about the bottle's provenance, initially assuming it was a legal Prohibition pint, then noticing the difference between the bottle in the picture and the known Prohibition pint above.

Then someone provided the answer.

A pint bottle of Old Taylor bourbon, made in Canada,
and likely smuggled into the U.S. for illegal sale.
Only so much detail can be gleaned from the movie screen capture, but this looks like the same bottle. What is it? Look closely. It was made by Consolidated Distilleries Limited in Canada. Talk about verisimilitude? Of course, ruthless department store president Kurt Anderson would have access to bootleg liquor, smuggled from Canada.

I've written here before about how Mary Dowling hired Joe Beam to make Waterfill and Frazier bourbon in Mexico. Joe Beam's nephew, Guy Beam, did something similar in Cananda. This Canadian Old Taylor is attributed to a gentleman from Covington, Kentucky, whose name is partially obscured. The idea behind these cross-border distilleries was that the manufacturing was entirely legal. The product could be made and sold legally in the state or province where it was produced. That took the producer entirely out of the equation. The person who bought the whiskey, legally, and exported it into the United States, illegally, committed the crime.

Nevertheless, despite its legal manufacture, you can't necessarily trust everything on the label. Was it bourbon? The law making bourbon whiskey a distinctive product of the United States was still several decades in the future, so that's not an issue. In Canada, as part of their normal whisky production process, distilleries make a corn distillate very similar to bourbon, which they then redistill to near neutrality before aging in used barrels. 

Was this that bourbon-like intermediate distillate? Maybe, it's impossible to know. The only bottle we know about is empty.


Sam Komlenic said...

In my collection of old Pennsylvania whiskey bottles there is an example of Jos. S. Finch's Golden Wedding rye whiskey brand that was distilled in Mexico. I assume it came from Beam's south of the border operation. The brand started in Pittsburgh before Prohibition, was distilled in Mexico during the dry years, and finally moved to Canada by the 70s. I'm wondering if it might be the only brand to have been made in all three North American countries over the course of its existence.

There is a postcard out there that shows Beam's Mexican distillery, with racks of barrels sitting out in the open air and sunshine. I assume that was their solution for fast aging.

If you'll permit me a brief moment of self-promotion Chuck, I'd like your readers to know that my personal collection of over 225 bottles and associated PA whiskey memorabilia will go on permanent display this year in the museum at West Overton Village in Scottdale, Penna., the ancestral home of the Overholt family in this country, established 1803. You can tour Abraham Overholt's home, and the museum is located in the building that had been the mill and distillery. It's a really fascinating place for anyone interested in the origins of American whiskey.

Chuck Cowdery said...

That's great, Sam. Congratulations.

Brian (AKA The Dean) said...

Fantastic. Good to hear, Sam.