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 1929 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 Beam, who returned to Kentucky and became Jailer of Nelson County, a position to which he was elected twice. He went on to found Heaven Hill Distilleries. 


Anonymous said...

My Aunt Jo told me this story years ago :) My great grandfather, Joseph L. Beam, was a amazing man. He did what he had to do to move his family forward. He was a quiet man unlike many of us Beam descendants. His legacy is permanently engraved in the distilling history of Kentucky. Thru time his legacy has faded thru the cracks...My mission has been to put it back :) per Aunt Jo's request. Thanks for posting this :) Love my Pops!!!!

Bettye Jo Boone
Maintenance Tech. at Heaven Hill Distilleries
7the generation Jacob Beam
Great granddaughter of Joseph L. Beam

Anonymous said...

Why are so many barrels laying outside in the elements? Are these barrels headed to an aging warehouse, getting ready to be dumped for bottling, or something else? I assume the facilty had "traditional" aging warehouses somewhere.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Again, we don't know much, but my assumption is that open-air aging was their 'innovation.' Juarez is hot and sunny most of the time, and only gets about 10 inches of rainfall per year. Remember that this distillery was more or less thrown together. Their objective was to make whiskey quickly and cheaply, so the open-air aging makes sense.

Anonymous said...

This is an amazing piece of history for our Beam family. You grow up hearing the stories and tales from the past, but you don't expect it to walk out of history and present itself in such a real way as you've done here. This story was told again at the Beam family reunion just over a week ago by Katie Lou Phillips. Only the "rest of the story" included the fact that she...was there...with her father Otis Beam. If bourbon loves a story, this is as good as it gets.

Joseph Harry Beam

elrichiboy said...

The barrels pictured actually belong to the other American distillery that moved to Juarez during prohibition. They were called Straight American Whiskey. Their distillery is just south of downtown Juarez, in a neighborhood called La Chavena.

The Waterfill and Frazier distillery was located south of Juarez. That community was absorbed by Juarez' growth, but it's still called Waterfill.

Rich Wright
Tour Guide
Juarez Walking Tour

Rodney said...

Came across a reference to Jack Kerouac and his fondness for Johnnie Walker Red and for Juarez Bourbon. I had never heard of Juarez Bourbon so I started an internet search. Of course, it led me to a Chuck Cowdery blog! Jim Beam during the Prohibition! And that comment above from Bettye Jo Boone. Great stuff!

Anonymous said...

I believe my grandfather, Charles W. Bebout, would have worked at one of these distilleries in Mexico. He originally worked at the Susquemac/Richwood distillery in Milton, KY, before it was shut down by prohibition. My grandmother told us stories of moving to Texas. I have my grandfather's work permit (with his picture) allowing him to cross into Jaurez to work. Later, probably right after prohibition was repealed, the family moved to Pennsylvania where he worked as a supervisor at the Schenley distillery. My grandfather had worked with a young Lewis Rosenstiel at Susquemac, who by that time had started building the Schenley Industries empire. Unfortunately, my grandfather passed away in Pennsylvania in 1936 so I never got to meet him, but at least I know where my love of whiskey comes from.

Bob Bebout