Monday, September 26, 2022

A Century Ago, a Whiskey Warehouse Fire Inspired a Popular Novel


Red Likker, a novel by Irvin S. Cobb (1929)
Almost a century ago, a spectacular and suspicious fire at a whiskey warehouse in Kentucky inspired a popular author to write a fictional history of bourbon.

Irvin S. Cobb was an American author, humorist, and columnist who was born in Kentucky but lived most of his life in New York. He authored more than 60 books and 300 short stories. His novel, Red Likker, was published in 1929. It concerns a Kentucky family named Bird and follows them from their pioneer beginnings through Attila Bird’s service in the Civil War, on the Confederate side. 

The Birds are whiskey makers and after the war, Colonel Bird becomes a successful Kentucky distiller. The story ends with Prohibition and its climax is based on actual events that occurred at the Forks of Elkhorn Distillery, then owned by R. A. Baker and Thomas Hinds. That site today is a bottling and maturation facility for Beam Suntory. Some people remember it as the Old Grand-Dad Distillery.

Cobb’s Colonel Bird is a man of high principles, brought sharply into focus by the duplicity of everyone around him. He is nearing the end of his long life. The government won’t allow him to sell the whiskey maturing in his warehouses, a product that was legal when he made it. He is approached by scoundrels willing to buy it, but who also threaten to steal it if he won’t sell. In the end he burns it all to the ground, after first cancelling his fire insurance because, you know, principles.

The real Forks of Elkhorn fire occurred on July 21, 1924. It destroyed a federally-licensed concentration warehouse that apparently held both case goods and maturing barrels, as one newspaper described “bottles, barrels and cases popped all Monday night in the dying flames.” The Lexington Herald reported that 2,200 cases and 1,500 barrels of whiskey were destroyed. Two additional warehouses were saved.

Most of the maturing whiskey that was lost belonged to Mary Dowling. She had made it at her Waterfill & Frazier Distillery in Anderson County but was required by the Feds to move it to Frankfort following her arrest for illegal sales. The remainder was owned by the distillery. Although faulty wiring appeared to be the cause, there was a report that the insurance had been cancelled just a few days before the fire occurred, which inspired Cobb’s climax. Baker and Hinds subsequently sold the facility to the Paul Jones Company, best known for their Four Roses brand. 

The fire occurred just as whiskey interests were arguing for a reduction in fire insurance rates, since there was “virtually no fire risk” in the government’s concentration warehouses, so they claimed. Three days after the fire, the Kentucky Actuarial Bureau announced that no rate reduction would be granted.

Monday, September 19, 2022

The Truth About Moonshine.

The romanticized image of moonshine.
Hate sits alone on the hood of his car.
Without much regard to the moon or the stars.
Lazily killing the last of a jar
of the strongest stuff you can drink.

From The Ballad Of Love And Hate by the Avett Brothers

Okay, class, what is Hate drinking?

Why moonshine, of course. The jar reference gives it away. So does the last line, although that's one of the many myths about moonshine.

So, what is moonshine? Moonshine is any distilled spirit, regardless of type, that is made by an unregistered distillery. Unregistered means illegal, underground, off-the-grid. It is illegal to distill alcohol without registering your still and obtaining a license for it, even at home just for fun. The license is federal but the state gets involved too.

Distilleries have to register so they can be taxed. Taxes are about half the price of any distilled alcoholic beverage, more than virtually any other product and a lot more than you may think. 

Because 'moonshine' is just a spirit that was illegally made, it is not a type of spirit. Therefore, 'legal moonshine' is an oxymoron. The people who regulate such things, at both the state and federal levels, allow producers to call their products 'moonshine' as long as the product is also identified by its actual, official classification.

Theoretically, a producer can call anything 'moonshine,' but legal moonshine is usually one of three recognized distilled spirit types. (1) neutral spirit, i.e., vodka. (2) cane spirit, i.e., 'sugar shine.' (3) un-aged corn whiskey.  

Of the three, (2) is the most authentic. As Max Watman explains in his excellent book, Chasing the White Dog, real moonshiners (the illegal kind) use table sugar almost exclusively because it is cheap, readily available, and ferments easily.

Moonshining is still practiced today. The goal is to make it fast and cheap, don't get caught, and don't kill anybody, generally in that order of priority. People think moonshine is strong because it tastes bad and they equate that flavor with alcohol strength, but a lot of moonshine isn't even at the minimum of 80° proof (40% alcohol by volume) at which most straight spirits are sold. It just tastes bad. 

The romantic image of moonshine is of a rustic craftsman, an artisan making The Real Thing, uncompromised by Big Business. The reality is that moonshiners are more like the people who make methamphetamine, and often they are the same people. Moonshiners are criminals, out for a fast buck, generally by preying on the poor and ignorant.

Not that a moonshiner can't also be a good distiller gone bad. Back in the 1940s, after he left Heaven Hill in a huff, Harry Beam fell on hard times and did a little 'shining to make ends meet. Yes, those Beams. Harry's dad and Jim Beam were first cousins.

But 99 percent of moonshine is nothing special and some of it is dangerous, as in poisonous, so if you are ever offered some maybe have a tiny sip, just to be polite.

Thursday, September 1, 2022

About That Whiskey Warehouse Demolished Yesterday


The Nelson Distillery Warehouse, Louisville, looking east from Lexington Road. (Demolished 8/31/2022.)

As reported by, the Nelson Distillery Warehouse at Louisville's Distillery Commons complex is being demolished after an emergency order labeled it 'unsafe.' The order said it was in "imminent danger" of failing or collapsing. 

A red brick structure on a limestone foundation, it was built as a whiskey maturation warehouse in 1895. Empty and unused for 50 years, it sat at a very prominent intersection mere feet from Lexington Road, a major route between downtown and Louisville's residential east side. What was 'imminent' was the desire of a developer to build condos there.

The building was unquestionably in bad shape. Many maturation warehouses in Kentucky sat empty during the last quarter of the 20th century, when bourbon sales were in the doldrums. As things began to improve in the early aughts, producers identified all available existing warehouses, acquired and renovated them as needed, and put them back into service. Some required extensive renovation. In Frankfort, Buffalo Trace took a former warehouse that had been converted into a state office building and turned it back into a maturation warehouse. 

After all the existing warehouses were brought back, new construction began. The need for maturation facilities continues to grow.

So why wasn't the Nelson Warehouse among the restorations? The condition of the building, after decades of neglect, is only one of the reasons. Masonry warehouses generally are not favored by producers, nor are warehouses in urban areas, where neighbors will fuss about Baudoinia compniacensis, the 'whiskey fungus.' A maturation warehouse is mostly wood and high-proof alcohol, so it is kind of flammable. You don't want that too close to people.

The preference now is for steel buildings in remote, rural areas. There is also a preference for doing everything--distilling, maturation, and bottling--at one site. A lone maturation warehouse, at that location, makes no sense.

There were many distilleries in that neighborhood after about 1860. The Nelson Warehouse was one of the last pieces of what became a mammoth complex of distilleries and related enterprises, all based around Beargrass Creek, a few miles upstream from its confluence with the Ohio River. The complex ultimately became part of the Kentucky Distilleries and Warehouse Company, the Kentucky arm of the Whiskey Trust. It was a major whiskey producer until Prohibition.

Like most Trust distilleries, the complex at Payne and Lexington made vast quantities of commodity whiskey, sold under many different brand names. It was huge. The largest maturation warehouse ever built was there. It held 145,000 barrels. The Nelson Warehouse held about 40,000.

Two former warehouses and other buildings from the distillery complex remain as Distillery Commons, a mixed-use development. The adjacent Irish Hill residential neighborhood is still largely intact. The modest housing there was originally built for distillery workers, who numbered in the thousands. The site's other neighbor is Cave Hill Cemetery.

After Prohibition, under the ownership of National Distillers, no distillation was done there but the site was a major maturation, bottling, and distribution facility, primarily for National's Old Grand-Dad bourbon brand. When the decision was made to close the plant, the bottling house continued to operate until the last warehouse was empty. That happened in 1974.

In 1979, Ray Schuhmann bought the property and began the development of Distillery Commons. Schuhmann's main business was commercial photography and one of his clients was General Electric, which has its major appliances factory in Louisville. The vast, empty spaces in the distillery buildings allowed him to build photography sets to show appliances like ovens, refrigerators, washers, and dryers in realistic settings. Because there was so much space he could just leave the sets in place. Another part of the complex was redeveloped into a recording studio. Another part became an entertainment venue. The Nelson Warehouse stood empty at the easternmost point of the complex, a 45° angle formed by the intersection of Payne Street and Lexington Road, partially hidden by some trees and a billboard.

No one ever found a use for it.

There was a proposal, drafted in 2020, to give the Nelson Warehouse official landmark designation. 

The impracticality and undesirability of returning the structure to service as a maturation warehouse probably doomed it. Everything else in the complex was either restored and repurposed, or demolished and replaced, many years ago. The Nelson Warehouse only stood there like it did for as long as it did because no one wanted it or the land under it badly enough to do anything about it. Until now.

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

What Do 'High Rye' and 'Low Rye' Mean?

To be called bourbon it must be at least 51% corn. The rest may be any grain.

"What does the industry mean when they say 'high' or 'low' rye bourbon?"

It is a common question, often misunderstood.

First, this is rye-recipe bourbon we are talking about, not rye whiskey, which must be at least 51% rye and can be 100% rye.

Second, 'high rye' and 'low rye' are terms used more by enthusiasts than producers. Four Roses is one of the few major producers to use the terms, although they typically characterize their two bourbon mash bills as 'standard' and 'high,' because both have more rye than most standard bourbons. The two mash bills at Four Roses are 20% and 35% rye, respectively. In the rest of the industry, 12% to 15% rye is standard for most rye-recipe bourbons.

Buffalo Trace, which also makes two rye-recipe bourbon mash bills, explicitly rejects the high/low terminology. They won't reveal their exact mash bills, but #1 is probably around 8% rye, while #2 is nearer to the 12% to 15% standard. That means the Sazerac-owned brands made at Buffalo Trace, such as Eagle Rare, Benchmark, and Buffalo Trace itself are all low rye bourbons. The recipe seems to go back to when Schenley owned the place as well as Bernheim in Louisville. Old Charter, I. W. Harper, and other Schenley bourbons made at Bernheim (and occasionally at what is now Buffalo Trace) used that 8% rye recipe, just like Schenley's George Dickel, which copied it from Jack Daniel's.  

Bulleit is one of the few producers that boasts about the rye content of its bourbon. They use the Four Roses 35% rye mash bill. Old Grand-Dad/Basil Hayden, made by Beam Suntory, is the other true 'high rye' mash bill from a major producer, at about 30%. Their other recipe, the one used for Jim Beam and most of their other bourbons, is about 15% rye.

At Brown-Forman, the Woodford/Old Forester recipe is 18% rye, so their two recipes are 'standard' and 'low,' like Buffalo Trace. 

Around the rest of the majors, Evan Williams, Elijah Craig, and the other Heaven Hill rye-recipe bourbons are all in the standard range. Same for Wild Turkey/Russell's Reserve and most other major brands. 

Third, since there is no industry standard for these terms, producers are free to use whatever term they think will stimulate sales. Some play fast and loose. Logically, since a bourbon recipe must be at least 51% corn and most contain at least 5% malt, the maximum amount of 'something else' possible is 44%. A reasonable understanding of the terms might be: 1-10% = 'low,' 11-20% = 'standard,' and 21-44% = 'high.' 

Someone could use enzymes instead of malt and make a bourbon that is 51% corn and 49% rye, and now someone probably will.

There is a fourth rye-content category, of course: 'zero.' That usually means wheated bourbons such as Maker's Mark, Larceny, and Weller, but there are bourbons that are 100% corn. Wait, isn't anything 80% corn or above corn whiskey? Not exactly. If an 80-100% corn mash bill whiskey is unaged or aged in used barrels, it is corn whiskey. If it is aged in new, charred oak barrels, it is bourbon, even if it is 100% corn and contains no small grains.

So if someone pitches you what they call a 'high rye' bourbon, ask for the actual mash bill.

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Guess Who Was an International Theater Authority?

In June 2008, the second year of this blog, I wrote a post about Chicago theater based on a performance I had attended the night before, and on an article that day in the Chicago Tribune.

As it happened, the artistic director of the theater company that put on that performance was searching for such things, discovered my post, and quoted, favorably, part of what I wrote in his blog. The weird part is, he discovered it on the web site of The Guardian, a British newspaper. It was a link in the Theater Blog of Chris Wilkinson that used me as a source for the claim that Chicago has eclipsed New York as America's primary city for legitimate theater.

For the record, I am in no way an authority on international theater, Chicago theater, or any other theater. I enjoy live theater and live in a great place for it, so occasionally I am moved to write something.

About all I can say to support my claim about Chicago is that it was said to me by Allan Havis, an old college buddy who said it 30+ years ago, when we were attending a Steppenwolf performance together. Even though he found that night's offering a bit flaccid, he said Chicago had a more vital and important theater community than New York. 

Allan has a bit more standing on the subject than I do, as an internationally-acclaimed playwright, theater scholar, and native New Yorker. We had a good laugh. (See comments, below.)

Friday, August 12, 2022

Was the Edith Farnsworth House a Commie Plot?

The Edith Farnsworth House.
Architect: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, 1951,
on the Fox River just outside Plano, Illinois.
The Edith Farnsworth House is one of the most significant buildings of the 20th century. It is one of the jewels of the Chicago area and not to be missed.

Even before it was built, some people hated the house, and not on aesthetic grounds. They considered it subversive. In short, communist. They believed the design dictum "less is more," as embodied by this modernist masterpiece, was a communist plot to condition people to accept the lowest-common-denominator leveling that was inevitable in a forced egalitarian society. 

It didn't seem to matter that Edith Farnsworth was a wealthy physician who commissioned the house as a weekend retreat. We could all stand such leveling.

One of the harshest critics was Elizabeth Gordon, editor of House Beautiful. In 1953, she edited a forward-looking issue of the magazine that included an essay, "The Threat to the Next America," in which she explained her theories about the subversive agenda of modernism advocates. 

Some quotes: 

"They are trying to convince you that you can appreciate beauty only if you suffer – because they say beauty and comfort are incompatible." 

"They are a self-chosen elite who are trying to tell us what we should like and how we should live." 

"For if we can be sold on accepting dictators in matters of taste and how our homes are to be ordered, our minds are certainly well prepared to accept dictators in other departments of life." 

"Break people’s confidence in reason and their own common sense and they are on the way to attaching themselves to a leader, a mass movement, or any sort of authority beyond themselves." 

All this because Edith Farnsworth complained to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe because the house didn't have any closets. 

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

The 1980s, When Bourbon Hit Rock Bottom


As I recount in the new issue of Bourbon+, the 1980s were the worst of times for American whiskey. Sales were off by half, from a high-water mark more than a decade in the past. Producers at first believed the decline would be temporary, a hiccup. It had to be.

But it wasn't.

That is the subject of my "Back In The Day" column in the Summer issue of Bourbon+ Magazine

Part of it is the story of how Buffalo Trace became the distillery it is today. You can read about it here.

I have been on the last page of Bourbon+ with my musings on American whiskey history in every issue published so far, since the beginning. 

The idea of this sample, naturally, is for you to subscribe, which I recommend. Bourbon+ covers American whiskey and everything around it like no one else. It is a beautiful magazine with good writing that goes nicely with a little red likker.