Saturday, April 13, 2019

A Salute to the Unknown Distillers

Portraits of bourbon legends adorn the walls at Jeff Ruby's Steakhouse,
Lexington, Kentucky. (Photo by Seth Thompson)
In Lexington, Kentucky the new Jeff Ruby's Steakhouse has a 'Bourbon Room,' decorated with images of such bourbon legends as Booker Noe, Jimmy Russell, Elmer Lee, and Bill Samuels. These are the names most bourbon fans know.

But where are the portraits of Paul Kirn and Jimmy Kearns? Who? Those are just two of the dozens, perhaps hundreds, of unknown master distillers, distillers, and plant managers whose portraits probably will never hang in a fancy steakhouse.

Here, for example, are some of the men (and they have pretty much all been men, although that is changing) who made the whiskey at just one defunct distillery, the Yellowstone Distillery on Seventh Street Road in Shively, just south of Louisville.

Yellowstone goes back to J. Bernard Dant's Cold Springs Distillery, which he started at Gethsemane in 1865. He later merged it with Taylor & Williams, a Louisville wholesaler that owned the popular Yellowstone bourbon brand. After Prohibition, J. Bernard and his three sons: Mike, Walter and Sam, and Jimmy Kearns, a nephew, built a new Yellowstone distillery in Shively.

Wilmer Beam, one of the seven distiller sons of Joseph L. Beam, was the distiller. (We would probably say 'master distiller,' but that term wasn't commonly used in those days.) Jimmy Kearns was plant manager and president. When the Thompson family's Glenmore Distilleries bought Yellowstone in 1944, Kearns moved to headquarters as a corporate vice-president and Paul Kirn succeeded him as plant manager. When Willmer Beam retired, Poss Greenwell became the distiller. Jack Beam, Wilmer's nephew, followed Greenwell. He was followed by Joe Ruttle. Bill Creel followed him. When the plant stopped distilling in the 80s, Creel went to Barton in Bardstown.

We only know this particular list, from one distillery spanning about 50 years, because Sam Cecil knew all of them and wrote it down in his book, The Evolution of the Bourbon Whiskey Industry in Kentucky.

Today, the Dant and Beam families are making Yellowstone again at the Limestone Branch Distillery in Lebanon. Proprietors Steve and Paul Beam are descended from both families.

And so it goes in bourbon country.

Legends like Booker and Jimmy deserve all the recognition they receive, but the next time you sip on some fine Kentucky nectar, give a thought to the many unknown distillers and distillery hands who made Kentucky bourbon whiskey what it is today.


Unknown said...

Thanks for mentioning Paul Kirn. My wife was his secretary at Glenmore for about ten years. He was a kind man and a good man. She respected him so much that to this day I’ve never heard her refer to him other than as “Mister Kirn”.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Mr. Cowdery! I like history in general and whisk(e)y history in particular and this is exactly how I approach history - ignore the "textbook" stuff and dig for the rarely mentioned stuff. In this case I agree - the more famous characters deserve their fame - but there is still always more to be savored about the less well known.

Everyone has heard of Thomas Edison but not everyone has heard of Nicola Tesla. There is even a statue of him at Niagara Falls, but you have to look for it!. And yet there are many very interesting things to learn. Likewise, everyone's heard of the now proverbial "Jim and Jack" (et al.) - the "edisons" of American whiskey (the faces on the labels), but there are also the "teslas" (after you've sorted through the completely fictitious names, I guess).

Dare I say "more, please!" :)

Anonymous said...

There is always the public face and the privately-recognized expert. Dilettantes revere Edison, amateurs (in the best love-of-the-game sense) revere Tesla, professionals revere Steinmetz. I only know enough about distillers to know that I know nothing.

Unknown said...

Joe Ruttle was my grandfather, it was nice to see his name mentioned here in this post. I didn’t know much about his role at Yellowstone but I remember he showed me an article once about his service to the company. Proud to be named after him and proud lover of bourbon.

Anonymous said...

Poss Greenwell was my grandfather. Real name was James Monroe. Not sure how he got the nickname.