Friday, July 14, 2017

Was Fleischmann's the First American Gin?

In the latest edition of The Bourbon Country Reader, we look at the tenure of Ferdie Falk and Bob Baranaskas at what is now Buffalo Trace. Baranaskas had been president of Fleischmann's Distilling prior to he and Falk buying the Frankfort distillery in 1983.

The Reader article provides a little background about the Fleischmann company, which claimed to be the first American producer of gin. Our good friend in Australia, Chris Middleton, disagrees.

Maybe it is a moot point, Fleischmann’s claiming to be America’s first gin distiller. Maybe it was their advertising hubris or category ignorance that led to such an erroneous statement. They were not the first distiller of gin in America. Neither were they the first domestic brand of gin. Not by a country mile. I checked Sazerac, where it states on their Fleischmann's site ‘…and America had its first distilled gin as well.’ I suppose because they put this statement on the front of their label, that’s sufficient evidence of its veracity.

Some years ago I looked into the US gin/geneva history. It is a difficult category to get a clear fix on the historical consumption, imports and local production before Prohibition.

Gin distilleries, also distilleries producing gin (e.g. molasses spirit, rectified with juniper) established themselves along the east coast by the 18th century. Immigrating Dutch distillers were likely early users of rye spirit; whereas British-American distillers were accustomed to using barley malt or molasses as the spirit base. The base doesn’t legally matter as it’s juniper flavored ethanol that essentially defines the category. No doubt small household distillers and apothecaries (with small compounding stills) were making gin much earlier. Juniper cones (berries) were a staple herbal/botanical of American apothecaries since the early 1700s, probably earlier as native juniper (Juniperus virginiana) was substituted for desiccated European cones/berries (Juniperus communis).

Before the Revolutionary War, gin was a popular spirit in the Colonial era i.e. 1760 & 1770s. An imported British habit and custom. Even during the War years gin had strong patronage, both domestic and imported. Gin was perceived and also consumed as a health tonic or elixir, especially among females. Ironically, its early usage was as an abortifacient.

While much of this flavored new-make was imported from England (gin) and Holland (geneva), many domestic distilleries were also serving the local communities, from Vermont (Middleburg Falls gin distillery) to Georgia (Henry Snow, distiller, made Georgia Geneva from 1767 in Savannah). Meanwhile, in the mid-States, Hezekiah Beers Pierrepont bought John Livingston’s gin distillery on Joralemon Street on the East River frontage, Brooklyn, in 1787. During the war, a fire destroyed the Livingston distillery. Pierrepont refurbished the distillery as the Anchor Gin Distillery. For 32 years he sold the Anchor gin brand in the tri-State area. It survived until 1819.

Late 18th and early 19th-century distilling manuals and grocery instructions always included a section of recipes for different types of gin (cordial, Old Tom, genever, French genevier, juniper spirit, etc.). In 1791, a Report to the Secretary of Treasury stated ’the consumption of genever, and gin, in this country, is extensive. It is not long since distilleries of it, have grown up among us to any importance.’ Three years later New England gins were described as ‘equal if not superior to imported’ (American Museum & Universal Magazine, 1794).

Even by 1806, the American Manufacturer Report estimated that of the 15 million gallons of spirit consumed annually, three million were of domestic rum and gin. They described "large gin distilleries in cities." As rectifiers were starting to dominate the cities (Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York), I have wondered how much grain and molasses was diverted into gin rectification and compounding. The old quadfecta of local spirits distilling was rum, whiskey, gin and fruit brandies (apple, peach); grape brandy was an import. There was much imported English gin & Hollands geneva; the bulk rebottled for sale by local agents and wholesalers, such as NYC’s A. M. Binninger’s Old London Dock Gin in 1858. Binninger's also produced the first bottled Kentucky bourbon whiskey brand in 1846.

Fleischmann’s may not be the first; although they probably are the oldest gin brand made in America today. Black Friars Distillery is the oldest working gin distillery in Britain since 1793. They make Plymouth Gin. Lucus Bols is the oldest genever brand in the Netherlands, they started distilling in 1575. Assuming Fleischmann’s has been distilling and compounding gin since 1870, except during Prohibition, that makes Fleischmann’s America’s oldest continuous gin brand, which I believe is the case.


Christopher Briar Williams said...

I've read in multiple sources that Willem Kieft, the sixth Director of the New Netherland colony (later to become New York, of course) established a distillery on Staten Island with the island's patroon, Cornelius Melyn, sometime around 1643 in what is now the neighborhood of New Brighton. They would likely have been making Dutch style genever but also, quite probably, rye whisky--though these sorts of stylistic distictions were probably not very firm back then.
If this is true, which I have no reason to doubt, this puts NYC in the running for first distiller of gin AND whisky in North America. Excelsior!

Billy said...

"Binninger's also produced the first bottled Kentucky bourbon whiskey brand in 1846." If this is true, and i dont doubt it, does this refute Old Foresters claim to be the first bottled Bourbon? Or was O.F. the first bottled Bourbon directly from a distiller and not a rectifier or bottler?

Chuck Cowdery said...

The fine print on Old Forester's 1870 claim is that it was the first bourbon sold only in bottles.

David said...

Was canned bourbon a big thing in 1870? Talk about hair-splitting. That Fleischmann's ad is epic, by the way.