Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Cincinnati. Whiskey Town

Nth Degree Distilling is the name of the micro-distillery project being launched by the folks behind The Party Source in Newport, Kentucky. Their official ground-breaking is July 19. That, and the recent sale of LDI, bring to mind the era when Cincinnati was a whiskey town to rival Louisville.

In the pre-Prohibition era, the distilleries were in the countryside. They sold whiskey to middle-men in the cities, who rectified, packaged, re-sold, and shipped it out to customers via railroads or riverboats.

The man who would go on to own the largest post-Prohibition distilled spirits company grew up in the business in Cincinnati. Born in 1891, Lewis S. Rosenstiel belonged to one of the first families of the Queen City’s Jewish community. He was a grandson of Frederick A. Johnson, the first Jewish child born in that city.

Rosenstiel’s family owned a distillery in Milton, Kentucky, south of Cincinnati on the Ohio River. He went to work there as a teenager and ended up running the place, until Prohibition closed it. Rosenstiel and his associates immediately formed a medicinal whiskey company. They bought a Pennsylvania distillery called Schenley for its medicinal license and its name.

Rosenstiel’s Schenley had a hit after Prohibition with a line of inexpensive whiskeys called Old Quaker, a revived pre-Prohibition brand that originated in Peoria, Illinois. Schenley bought two old distilleries in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, near Cincinnati, to make it.

From Quaker Oats to Quaker Oil, ‘Quaker’ has long been used to convey purity and integrity. The real Quakers don’t get anything from all that publicity. In 1939, Time Magazine reported that the Society of Friends was especially offended by Old Quaker Whiskey, since Quakers aren’t supposed to drink. The brand eventually fell out of favor and was discontinued. The distillery was closed in the 1980s, although the associated bottling plant continued to operate into the 1990s under independent ownership.

The medicinal whiskey business gave Schenley a head start when Prohibition ended. It became market leader, with a 25 percent share. In 1937, Rosenstiel moved Schenley from Cincinnati to the Empire State Building in New York.

As owner and chief executive of an alcohol industry leader, Rosenstiel was a frequent target. He was accused of everything from racketeering to cross dressing.

Rosenstiel’s son-in-law, Sidney Frank, who worked with him at Schenley, was a major force in the distilled spirits industry until his death in 2006. His most famous successes were Jagermeister and Grey Goose Vodka.

Cincinnati itself does have one active distillery, a micro called Woodstone Creek.

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