Thursday, December 23, 2021

Over the River and Through the Woods


Edna Catherine (Schwartz) Bunsey (1904-1994)
As a kid growing up in Mansfield, Ohio, I did not have to cross a river or go through a woods to get to my Grandmother's house. Okay, I could go through the woods on my bike, and that route crossed a creek or two, but in the car with my family at Christmas, we probably went down Abbeyfeale, up Midland, to Gadfield, then Austin, left on Woodhill Road to Grandma's house at the corner of Woodhill and Andover.

This post mostly is about this picture of Grandma, as a way to say "Merry Christmas" to anyone who reads this blog, but of course it brings back memories.

This grandmother is my mother's mother. That is the family I grew up with. All of Dad's 'people' were in St. Louis or Central Illinois so we rarely saw them. Grandma and Grandpa (Edna and Frank to everyone else) had six kids. Their three oldest girls, which included my mother, married and had six kids each. I am the senior cousin. 

I like this picture, not because it is how I remember Grandma, but because it is not. The woman in this picture looks too quiet and disengaged to be my grandmother. I wouldn't call Grandma loud. Aunt Lee, her sister-in-law, was loud. We are not a quiet bunch, but Grandma could hold a room without raising her voice. Our family was a matriarchy and she ruled. She had many arrows in her quiver, sarcasm not least of them. Her mother, Grandma Schwartz, was still very much in the picture too. It was quite the operation.

In my earliest memories of Christmas, Grandma and Grandpa's house figures more prominently than our own, probably because of the expanded cast of characters. Mom's two youngest siblings were teenagers. I had three younger brothers and, during the period in question, several cousins in our same age bracket. There always was at least one baby being passed around. 

The house had a cozy den. You had to go down a few steps to get to it. Their tree, in that space, always seemed much grander than ours. They had all these cool, old ornaments and--the best part--bubble lights! I could not get enough of the bubble lights.

Grandma and Grandpa had their six kids over a span of 17 years, so they had a collection of toys that they, cleverly, let us play with but did not let us take home. I remember an old chutes and ladders game, some weird blocks, and a thing with knobs that you turned to move marbles through a maze. My favorite was the stereoscopic viewer that was so much cooler than the View-Master I had at home. The pictures were all black-and-white but it was images of pyramids and the Eiffel Tower.

After our three families filled out, there were just too many people to have everyone over to the house on Andover on Christmas Day, so other traditions were established, but we would still get to their house during the season, usually more than once, and saw the cousins and their families in some combination.

This is the time of year when people like to tell you what Christmas is 'about.' Here is my take. 'Christmas' is a name some people give to an annual observance that has been going on, all over the world, since long before the birth of Christ. What is true in every culture, in the more northerly reaches of the northern hemisphere, anyway, is that the world is literally covered in darkness. Everything is dead. It's cold. It all seems to be ending, but we do not despair, because we know the darkness will lift, it is lifting already, a little more each day. That is why we celebrate, take stock, and build memories. 

Monday, December 13, 2021

When Alcohol Was Money

A collection of pioneer stills at the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History in Bardstown, Kentucky.

Whiskey plays an outsize role in American history, largely because this continental nation had an active frontier for nearly 300 years and distilling was a typical pioneer industry. 

Whiskey enthusiasts tend to focus on a narrower window, the middle to late 18th century, a period that saw the beginning of bourbon and the birth of a nation, when the frontier was the land west of the Appalachian Mountains and east of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.

On the frontier, whiskey-making was an adjunct to farming. Almost everyone grew grain and distilled some of it into liquor, one way or another. If you didn't have a still somebody in the neighborhood did. Distilling was the only sensible thing to do with surplus grain. Wherever fruit was plentiful, it was fermented and distilled too. 

Distilled spirits were more than just another consumable. They were valuable. Where currency was scarce, as it typically was on the frontier, alcohol was a handy substitute. Fermented beverages such as beer, cider and wine were fine for drinking, but they were bulky and didn't keep. They weren't much good for high finance. Distill that beer down to about fifty percent alcohol-by-volume (100° proof), then you've got something.

Whiskey (or applejack) was like money in the bank. Everybody had a general idea how much a given quantity was worth, it was easy to divide, and always in demand. You could buy a nice farm with a barrel of whiskey. Abraham Lincoln's father did.

Businesspeople today talk about ‘liquidity.’ On the American frontier, ‘liquidity’ was literal. Alcohol was money. Before bourbon was bourbon it was a medium of exchange vital to the frontier economy.

On the frontier, most people were subsistence farmers. Communities were important but households had to be self-sufficient in food, clothing, and shelter. To live you needed a farm, and to farm you needed land. The constant need for more land inexorably pushed the frontier west. Since Roman times, governments have struggled to provide farmland for retired soldiers. The need for farmland following the French and Indian War (1754-1763) created friction between colonial administrations and the British government, leading to the American Revolution (1775-1783).

America’s original frontier had been the Atlantic coast, two fragile colonies of European immigrants in what would become Massachusetts and Virginia. Brewing and distilling began right away. Europeans brought with them barley, wheat, rye, oats and other Old World grains. The people who were already here introduced them to maize. 

The word ‘corn’ originally referred to any grain. Wheat and rye were types of 'corn.' This usage lives on today in terms like 'barleycorn.' When Europeans encountered maize for the first time, they called it ‘Indian corn.’ Eventually, English speakers in North America shortened that to simply ‘corn’ and the word’s original, broader meaning died out. 

Bourbon is whiskey made from maize, i.e., corn, a New World grain. That is what makes bourbon whiskey uniquely American. The first distilled beverages made in the colonies were not whiskey and the first whiskeys were not made from corn, at least not as the main ingredient. The first fermented beverages were made from fruit; mostly wild berries and grapes. Apples for cider were among the first cultivated fruit. When the first cereals the immigrants planted yielded their first harvests, food for animals and humans was the priority. Only when the fields yielded surpluses for those needs were cereals fermented and distilled. 

As trade got going among the New World colonies, the residue of Caribbean sugar production was shipped to New England where it was distilled into rum for local sale and export. Rum was America's first commercial distilled spirit. In the mid-18th century, bad mojo with Mother England created a clog in the molasses pipeline just as the growing colonial population began to spread into the interior. Only then did Americans start to make whiskey…spirit distilled from a fermented mash of grain…in earnest. 

At first they mostly used familiar cereals they brought from Europe: barley, wheat, rye, and oats, but by the 18th century they knew how to work with corn too. 

If a frontier grain farmer had a surplus of anything it was corn. Corn grew well and was very productive. It was excellent livestock feed, which is how most of it was used, but had limited applications as human food, to European tastes at least. Unlike barley and wheat, corn contains no gluten so it isn't much good for bread. Pioneers tended to eat corn only when they had nothing else, which often enough was the case.

So they turned their surplus corn into alcohol. That wasn’t easy either, nothing on the frontier was easy. Despite obstacles, corn became the go-to grain for distillation in the lands west of the Appalachian Mountains.

To make alcohol, you need a solution of sugar, water, and yeast. Since yeast is almost everywhere, you often don’t need to do anything except mix the sugar and water together. With fruit or any other direct sugar source, such as honey or molasses, starting fermentation is easy. Left alone, a sugar-and-water solution will ferment whether you want it to or not. 

It is harder with grain because you need an additional step. Cereals such as corn, barley, wheat and rye are mostly starch, so first you need to convert that starch into sugar. Seeds convert starch into sugar by producing certain enzymes. Any seed can produce the enzymes, but for our purposes the grain starches must be dissolved in water before the enzymes are introduced. Barley is favored because, when ground, its starches dissolve easily in warm water. Corn is tougher. To get its starches to dissolve takes hotter water, more time, and agitation. 

Corn beer never caught on as a drink, but it was (and is) a terrific base for distillation. Corn the hogs don't eat can be converted into something useful. 

The stage for bourbon was set. 

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

"That Night Was Scary." Pearl Harbor Remembered


Curtiss P-40 Warhawk

Eighty years ago today my father, Ken Cowdery, was at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii. He was a 21-year-old private in the United States Army, lined up for breakfast. Japanese bombers bound for Wheeler Field next door flew over his head, so close he could see the pilot's face.

Thirty years ago, for the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, he wrote down some of his memories. Mostly they were stories we, his children, had been hearing for years. He passed in 2010, so it's nice to have them now in his own words.

The story of the morning attack I have posted on several of these anniversaries, most recently in 2018. This is what happened that evening.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, chaos reigned on the island. Dad was company clerk, "like Radar on M.A.S.H.," he told us. His job that night was to monitor radio traffic, answer phones, and otherwise handle anything the officer in charge, Lt. Waid, needed him to do. Here is the rest of the story, in his own words.


That night was scary, we could hear random bursts of small arms fire from time to time but had no inclination to investigate. The headquarters building was designated as a pick up spot for dependents to gather. The alert plan had this spelled out and busses were provided to haul them down to Honolulu to get them away from any legitimate target areas. While this mob of women and children was gathering downstairs a long burst of automatic weapon fire was heard nearby. The screaming did not subside for at least 10 minutes.

Fortunately, our people were pretty lousy shots at that point because we never heard of anyone being hit.

The worst case of trigger happiness occurred in our battalion. We had a 50 caliber machine gun set up on the roof of the barracks, it was on an anti-aircraft mount and protected by sandbags. Shortly after dark we heard a P-40 coming in low, (under certain wind conditions the normal landing path for Wheeler Field was directly over our barracks). As the plane approached the barracks we heard the 50 caliber open up. We didn't hear a crash so we figured everything was OK. A little while later we got a phone call, it was a Corporal from Wheeler Field asking us to inform the machine gunners that the plane they shot at was a P-40 and they should make sure what they're shooting at.

We had a field telephone line, not connected to the regular lines, over to the roof so we called them and told them to be more careful. They said that they were sorry, that it was an accident and it wouldn't happen again.

About a half hour later we again heard the familiar sound of a P-40 coming in on its landing path, and again we heard the POM, POM, POM of the 50 caliber. A few minutes later the phone rang again, this time it was a Sergeant, he was a bit more agitated and pointed out that we didn't have very many P-40s left and that our guys should quit trying to shoot them down. We called the gun crew again and chewed them out a bit, and they again said that they were sorry, that they were sure that it was a Jap and that they wouldn't do it again.

Sure enough, a bit later we again heard the familiar sound of a P-40 coming in and, unfortunately, the all too familiar sound of the 50 caliber. This time the call from Wheeler was very quick, very loud, (he wouldn't have had to use the telephone) and very angry. It was the pilot of the last plane. After several minutes of invective he said to tell those jerks up on the roof that he was informing all the other pilots still up in the air that if it happened again they should shoot back. 

Lt. Waid and I went up to the roof ourselves and tried to impress these guys with the gravity of what they were doing and the probable consequences.

They seemed to be duly impressed and promised that it would never happen again. Lt. Waid and I got off the roof quickly and went back to headquarters, in time to hear yet another P-40 start its landing approach. You guessed it, again the 50 caliber opened up.

Then we heard the P-40 pilot pour on the coal. We could hear him circle around and approach the landing path again, only this time we heard his 50 calibers firing.

After that, no more phone calls, no more shooting at friendly planes--those guys probably never fired another shot for the rest of the war.

Lt. Waid and I went back up to the roof the next morning. There were several spots in the roof that we were convinced were 50 caliber bullet holes, none real close to the sandbags but close enough to scare the bejabers out of those gunners.

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

The World That Made Me: Nike Missiles


Guarding a Nike Hercules Missile, Fort Barry, CA; c. 1970-71

Nike was the Greek goddess of victory. Today it is a shoe company. Between those two uses, it was the name of an early missile defense system for the United States.

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, most Americans believed an attack by the Soviet Union was likely to come from high-flying Soviet aircraft armed with atomic weapons. By the time I came along (born in 1951) and became aware of such things, we worried more about intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Rockets, not planes. This was especially true after the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962), which I remember vividly. I was eleven.

Designed in that earlier period, the Nike Missile Program was imagined as the last line of defense for American citizens, so the missiles were placed in and around major metropolitan centers. 

My younger neighbors here in Chicago are surprised to learn that Montrose Point, a short and very pleasant walk from my apartment, used to house a Nike missile battery. At its peak there were 23 launch sites in the Chicago area. Two have been preserved for their historic significance, but not Montrose Point. It is now a bird sanctuary. 

All of the Chicago sites were decommissioned long before I moved here. The only active Nike base I personally remember was just outside of Oxford, Ohio, where I lived from 1969 to 1974. I only became aware of it during campus antiwar demonstrations at Miami University when we heard that the National Guard had placed some troops there in case of trouble. 

Subsequently, I drove out to see what I could see. Not much. I recall an imposing fence and gate and some kind of guard house and other structures. I couldn't see any missiles. The location of these installations was never a secret, although some were more public-facing than others. They wanted us to know about them because they were supposed to make us feel safe.  

Around the country, some of the missiles were on military bases but most were on farms, in parks, and in residential neighborhoods. By 1953, the U.S. Army had begun building Nike air defense systems around 40 U.S. cities and military/industrial installations. At its peak ten years later, the Nike defense system included approximately 300 batteries in the United States. The nation's first operational, guided, surface-to-air missile, Nike was an important technological breakthrough in air defense. The Nike system brought together an array of antiaircraft, missile, computer, and radar elements. Nike could detect, identify as friend or foe, track, and destroy enemy aircraft. 

Nike was just one part of continental air defenses during the Cold War. At the same time the U.S. Army was developing and deploying Nike, the U.S. Air Force produced its own surface-to-air missile systems. They were similar and a rivalry over them developed between the services. The U.S. Navy and the Canadian Air Force, as part of the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD), also shared the continental air defense mission.

Decommissioning of the Chicago-area batteries began in 1963. The end for the whole Nike system came in 1974.

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

The Significance of the Crow-Taylor Legacies in Making the World’s Best Whiskey

1869 Gaines, Berry & Company letterhead

My "Time Is Money" post from Saturday prompted a response from Chris Middleton and I'm always delighted when that happens. Chris has contributed here before. He is principal and director of the Whisky Academy, Founding Director of Starward Whiskey Distillery, and former Global Brand Director for Jack Daniel’s. What follows is all his although I have changed the order somewhat, to begin with his assessment of the significance of the legacy of E. H. Taylor Jr. and James C. Crow, followed by some biographical details. 

For more, I recommend his historical series on Whisky Wash, specifically "The James Crow Chronicles," and "Whiskey Chronicles of Edmund Taylor Jr." He begins by explaining how those two series came about.

These series took on a life of their own as I was drawn into the orbit of James Crow’s pioneering work (Chronicle of James Crow) and to how Taylor faithfully followed Crow’s production procedures (Chronicles of Edmund Taylor Jr.). And Crow’s acolytes too, who spread the principles and adapted new learnings and ideas to advance whiskey with emergent technologies and biological processes, all practiced within the proximity of the city of Frankfort. Not manufacturing inferior bourbon whiskey of the 19th century, but topmost ‘hand-made, sour mash all-copper whiskey.’ 

The significance of the Crow-Taylor legacies in making America’s, probably the world’s best whiskey, remained hidden until the human and technical patterns revealed themselves as a cipher awaiting decoding. I have explained some of this plant, processes and ideas that evolved and adapted as technical knowledge advanced over the last half of the 19th century.

Manufacturing of this exceptional whiskey took place at only about a dozen distilleries in and around Glenn’s Creek-Frankfort area, with Crow and Taylor the common dominators. 

The Oscar Pepper distillery was the epicenter, ground zero, due to Crow and later Taylor’s commitment to making whiskey of the highest sensory standards following the Crow principles. Outside of the modernized Buffalo Trace and Woodford Reserve distilleries, I cannot find another distillery approaching the deep history (Scotland, Ireland, Canada) that epitomizes the pedigree, provenance and pursuit of whiskey excellence these two distilleries displayed for more than 170 years. Both in their pre-Prohibition modes of manufacture and their late 20th-century commitment to manufacturing expressions of whiskey excellence. 

My goal was to understand and decode the allegedly secret Crow’s methods and the developments in the manufacturing practices of Crow plan whiskey, centered in the Inner Blue Grass region. After years of analyzing thousands of primary records, it proved richer and more innovative than I expected to discover.

JAMES C. CROW: After an exhaustive record search of student’s attendance rolls at all the Scottish universities teaching medicine and science between 1726 to 1866 (Edinburgh, Glasgow, Marischal College, St Andrews, and Kings College Aberdeen), not one Crow was awarded a diploma or any graduation certificate at any of these universities. 

Working with the Edinburgh University archivist, we deuced Crow may have attended ‘selected classes.’ In other words, he self-funded the particular lecturers and classes that he was keen to study, which did not entitle him to matriculate. At Edinburgh University at this time were some of the foremost scientists in fermentation and distillation. As a mature student, married with a child, and limited funds, this would have been a practical method to help advance his career prospects. Although why he abruptly left Scotland for Philadelphia in 1823 remains a mystery. Debts? 

The first use of the salutation ‘Dr.’ James Crow appeared decades after his death in the local Woodford Weekly, then later picked up by the New York Times and St Louis Register, both publishing a story on Crow in September 1897. After Prohibition, the Old Crow whiskey trademark owned by National Distillers began propagated this term in their advertising campaigns after the Second World War. And like so many misattributions, the doctor moniker moved from error or misdirected praise, to marketing artifice, to become unquestioning fact. 

EDMUND H. TAYLOR Jr.: Taylor joined Gaines, Berry & Company in April 1865. Previously, he ran a separate business as a commodity trader in cotton, corn and tobacco at Wolf Island, Missouri, after his finance ventures failed in Lexington and Versailles by 1860. 

Twenty-seven old William Albertus Gaines returned to Frankfort in 1859, where he worked as a clerk for Walter Carr Chiles for two years, then appointed Frankfort’s postmaster in March 1861. He held this position for four years until the death of President Lincoln in April 1865. That month he founded Gaines, Berry & Company to become a local whiskey wholesaler. Before Gaines obtained his government position, there are indications he had discussions with Berry about the pair starting a whiskey business. 

Hiram Berry held the majority of the shares in the new company, he previously traded livestock and cotton for the Union Army in Frankfort during the War years. At the same time, he established Gaines, Berry & Company, he also formed a trading pool for cotton with Samuel Pepper (Oscar’s brother), James Watson and Edmund Taylor Jr. However, the partners were unable to agree on terms, and the venture soon failed. 

Taylor’s uncle and namesake, Edmund Haynes Taylor senior, was the cashier at the Frankfort branch of the Bank the Kentucky from 1835 until his death in 1872. He served the Bank’s State board of directors and two Frankfort branch presidents (Peter Dudley and Thomas Lindsay). Under Kentucky regulations owners were not permitted to hold executive roles in a bank. Before the antebellum period, the president of the Lexington branch of the Bank of Kentucky was Robert Todd, father-in-law to President Lincoln. 

Saturday, November 6, 2021

With Whiskey, Time Is Money


E. H. Taylor, Whiskey Mogul
In the early days of American distilling, and in most distilling cultures throughout history, the proposition was simple. You got some fruit or grain, fermented it, distilled it, and then either consumed it or sold it. The whole process took maybe a week. Looked at from a business perspective, that's how long your capital was tied-up. You spent some money and within a few days you recovered your investment plus profit.

Something happened in a few places to upset that happy paradigm. Aging happened. Instead of a return on investment in a few days, it was going to take years. Years! How is that supposed to work?

In the United States, deliberately aging whiskey in new, charred oak barrels began about 200 years ago. We don't know exactly when but that's a conclusion based on what was being advertised at various times. Even after aged spirits became common, 'common' spirits (the unaged stuff) remained popular. 

But as aged spirits became the norm, producers struggled to meet market demand. It wasn't easy to sell aged whiskey consistently for enough to finance its long maturation period. Aged whiskey had to compete with compound whiskey, a cheap knock-off that used artificial flavoring and coloring to imitate the flavor of wood-aged spirit. The market was chaotic and distillers easily became overextended. Unable to meet their obligations, many were forced to sell their businesses for whatever they could get. Often the new owner fared no better. Distilleries changing hands frequently.

Edmund Haynes Taylor (1830-1923) is a significant figure in American whiskey history for many reasons. He started or operated at least seven different distilleries, helped transform whiskey-making from an adjunct of farming into an industry, pioneered modern brand marketing, and was a leading advocate for federal government oversight of whiskey production and labeling. 

He was also the mayor of Frankfort and an award-winning cattle breeder. Busy guy.

But his most enduring contributions to the industry may be in the matter of financing. Taylor began his business career in a bank owned by his uncle and namesake. While opening a branch in Versailles, he got to know distillers Oscar Pepper and Dr. James C. Crow. After Crow's death in 1856, some whiskey distilled by Crow was still in barrels and his former assistant knew how to make more, so Pepper and Taylor hatched a plan to capitalize on the reputation of Crow's barrel-aged whiskey. The Old Crow brand was born. 

In 1860, Taylor and his bank organized Gaines, Berry and Co., Distillers, later reorganized as W. A. Gaines & Co., to make and sell Old Crow Whiskey.

Taylor's financing innovations, however, were not a perfect solution. Taylor himself became overextended to a customer named George Stagg and lost control of his largest distillery, today's Buffalo Trace.

After Prohibition was repealed in 1933, money was again a problem. Families like the Beams, successful whiskey-makers before the drought, had to look outside the family and beyond the Commonwealth for money. The Beams found it in Chicago, in investors Harry Blum, Harry Homel and Oliver Jacobson. Homel and Jacobson were investment bankers. They had an innovative idea of how to finance aging stock. Don't. Instead, sell it right away, like distillers did before aging, except sell it to your distributors. They'll buy the new make whiskey and pay you to age and eventually bottle it for them. Everyone expects the whiskey will become more valuable as it ages. This system spread out that risk. The distillery could put its capital into making more whiskey immediately.

The idea worked well for Beam. In a few years, Blum bought Homel and Jacobson out. They took their money, and their idea, down the road to Heaven Hill. It worked there too.

In the early days of craft distilling, many struggled with this same dilemma. Some still do. 

Today, companies such as IJW Whiskey, CaskX and others are offering innovations of their own. Just like those Beam and Heaven Hill distributors, now you can place a bet on whiskey appreciation, not the sensory kind, the financial kind. This particular model is new and still unproven. Most of the whiskey in these schemes is from relatively new producers with no track record. Still, we saw just a few years ago what can happen to bulk whiskey prices when the market gets tight. With tariff relief, a new export boom could be right around the corner.

Or not. But that's the adventure, right?

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

That Time I Saw an Old Man Play Guitar


Jimmy Raney, as I remember him. (Photo by Greg Turner)

I lived in Louisville from 1978 until 1987 and have spent a lot of time there since, except these last two years. Even after I moved, until about 1994 I was in Kentucky almost as much as I was in Chicago.

I remember once, during some kind of festival, being up by the Brown Hotel in an outdoor plaza, watching and listening to an elderly man play electric guitar. He wasn’t busking, it was part of the festival, but very low key, casual. Louisville is a big city that sometimes manages a small-town feel. It was afternoon, sunny and warm. A nice day.

There wasn’t a stage, or a band, just the man, on a bench, with his guitar and amp. I joined the small crowd gathered around him. He was just playing. No chatting up the audience. No vocals. I don’t recall recognizing any melodies. It was jazz, freeform, mesmerizing. I happened upon him but stayed until he finished. His music left a mark.

I remember that instance clearly, but I know I saw him other times in other places too. I may have seen him with saxophonist Jamey Aebersold, the renowned jazz educator who is a familiar presence around Louisville. Louisville had a nice, little jazz scene then. A guy I knew from work played acoustic bass in a combo at the Seelbach Hotel's bar. I enjoyed the music but didn't think a lot about it.  

At some point I learned that old guitarist’s name and looked him up.

It was Jimmy Raney.

His name probably doesn’t ring a bell unless you’re a big fan of 1950s American jazz. Raney was a ubiquitous sideman. He began his career in Chicago in 1944. Thereafter he played with Woody Herman, Artie Shaw, and many others. He is most remembered for his time in the 1950s with Red Norvo and Stan Getz. He won the DownBeat Magazine critics poll for guitar in 1954 and 1955. The New York Times called him "one of the most gifted and influential postwar jazz guitarists in the world".

They wrote that in his obituary. Jimmy Raney died in 1995. He was 67.

The obituary writer, Peter Watrous, also wrote this: “Mr. Raney's improvising, at its best, made clear that he had developed a lucid and distinct conception of both the swing and be-bop vocabularies. His lines often resolved on odd, pungent notes, and mid-solo his phrases rolled easily from his guitar as he constructed lengthy passages. His harmonic conception could be bleak and a touch bitter; he rarely relied on obvious or easy note choices. And he always varied his long lines with melodies and riffs.”

To the extent I understood any of that, it is how I remember the old man I saw playing in front of the Brown Hotel one sunny afternoon.

I learned that Raney was born and raised in Louisville. His father, a sportswriter for the Louisville Courier-Journal, died in 1944. Jimmy was 17. Traumatized by his father's death, he fled to Chicago where he had family and where there were more opportunities to play music for money than there were in Louisville. Once established, he relocated to New York, where he enjoyed his greatest success. 

Raney left New York, and music, to return to Louisville in the late sixties, reportedly due to issues with alcohol. He resumed his career in the 70s and worked steadily thereafter, often with his son, Doug, who also played guitar and had a similar style, but he never again achieved the fame he knew in the 1950s. 

Doug Raney is gone now too. He died in 2016 of heart failure. He was 59. 

Jimmy had another son, Jon, an amateur pianist who works in IT. He maintains a website called “The Raney Legacy” at He has an active blog. His extensive biography of his dad is here. I also recommend his post on the 94th anniversary of his father’s birth in August of this year. 

One last thing. By the time I saw Raney, just a few years before his death, he was almost completely deaf from Ménière's disease. I can’t imagine how such a thing is possible, to play so beautifully even though you can’t hear what you’re playing. I didn’t know that when I heard him, only later. 

Is there a takeaway from this? Not much of one, just reminiscing. But you never know about another person’s life and isn’t the internet marvelous for the curious?


Tuesday, October 26, 2021

ADM Sells Storied Peoria Distillery to BioUrja


Hiram Walker Peoria in the 1940s.

The Peoria JournalStar reported it like this: "After almost 40 years, Archer Daniels Midland Co. no longer will be the primary firm that produces ethanol in Peoria. Instead, a Houston-based company will take over the dry-mill ethanol plant ADM has operated since 1982 at the foot of Edmund Street along the Illinois River."

The new owner is BioUrja, an international supplier and trader of commodities such as biofuels, petroleum products, natural gas liquids, electric power, metal alloy tubing, grain, and animal feed products. 

ADM is reducing its ethanol capacity to redeploy that capital more profitably elsewhere while BioUrja is excited about diversifying its biofuels business into higher-value distilled ethanol products such as beverage and industrial alcohol, the Peoria plant's specialty. This comes on the heels of another major neutral spirits distiller, Kansas-based MGP, moving itself up the value chain by acquiring Luxco.

Peoria and the nearby town of Pekin were once whiskey producers on a scale that rivaled Kentucky. The infamous 19th century Whiskey Trust was based there. The distillery BioUrja is buying used to make whiskey, and a lot of it. ADM bought it and converted it to neutral spirit production in 1982. The seller then was Hiram Walker, a Canadian distiller best known for Canadian Club. 

Hiram Walker was a 19th century Detroit grocer who owned a distillery across the border in Canada. He always intended to sell his products primarily in the United States but located the distillery there because he anticipated Prohibition. In so doing, Walker introduced Americans to the lighter Canadian style of whiskey. Because of Detroit's proximity to the Canadian border, Walker's plant supplied a lot of whiskey to the U.S. market before, during and after Prohibition.

Canadian law officially did not permit the export of spirits into the U.S. market during Prohibition, but row boats would show up daily at the Walkerville docks, declare their destination as “Jamaica,” and be sent on their way loaded down with all the whiskey they could carry. 

The Walker family owned the distillery until 1926, when it was acquired by Harry Hatch, a Canadian entrepreneur who started out with a small liquor store in Whitby, Ontario. 

When Prohibition ended in 1933, Hatch's Hiram Walker and Sons, Inc. decided to reenter the newly-legal U.S. market in a big way. Their Peoria distillery was the largest in the world and made Walker’s DeLuxe and Ten High, both straight bourbons; Imperial Whiskey, a popular blend; and other Hiram Walker products.

That distillery's predecessor on the same riverfront site was Joseph Benedict Greenhut's Great Western Distillery, built in 1881. The production of whiskey and neutral spirits was booming in Peoria and each new distillery was bigger than the last and, therefore, the biggest distillery in the world.

Six years later, Great Western and 65 other distilleries merged to form the Distillers & Cattle Feeders' Trust, popularly known as the Whiskey Trust. Greenhut became its president.

The Trust used its resources to buy more distilleries, many of which it closed. The idea was to limit production industry-wide to reduce competition and protect profits. Although the Trust was technically legal (it would not be today), it engaged in many illegal practices such as intimidating any distillery owners who did not want to sell.

That was Peoria then. The Peoria Historical Society's "Roll out the Barrel" Tour focuses on Peoria’s years as “Whiskey Capital of the World.” Peoria's Bradley University has a collection of interviews and other records in its Cullom-Davis Library. That's appropriate since part of the Bradley family's wealth came from the alcohol business. 

As you come into Peoria from the north you see it, where once there were distilleries as far as the eye could see. There is still one, the big one. It's still converting corn and water into alcohol, as they have done on that site for more than 150 years. There's just a new name above the door.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

A Piece of Bourbon History Is Leaving Chicago

This is the view Beam Suntory is giving up, of the Chicago River from the Merchandise Mart's rooftop deck.

Back in January, Beam Suntory announced it will move corporate headquarters from Chicago to New York sometime next year. At least 100 employees will relocate. The current office, in Chicago’s Merchandise Mart, will remain Beam Suntory’s largest global office and home to its North American business unit. Parent company Suntory Holdings already has offices in the same Madison Avenue building where Beam Suntory is going.

But this isn't about that. That is just an excuse to look back on the history of Jim Beam in Chicago, where I live.

The Beam story begins, of course, with Jacob Beam's arrival in Kentucky more than 200 years ago. His descendant, James Beauregard Beam, brought the family's whiskey business into the 20th century only to see it snuffed out by Prohibition. After Repeal, Jim Beam, his brother, and their sons restarted the distillery but soon ran out of money, not because they were failing but because they were succeeding too well. It would take a lot of new capital to keep the company growing. The Beams didn't have it and neither did most of their neighbors in Kentucky's whiskey heartland. It was a common problem.

Perhaps in part because Chicago had been so wide-open during Prohibition, the midwestern metropolis seemed a natural place to concentrate legal whiskey distribution after Repeal. More importantly, investors could be found there. The Beams hooked up with three Chicago-based money men: Harry Homel, Oliver Jacobson, and Phillip Blum. The heirs of Tom Moore found Oscar Getz and Lester Abelson, who started Barton. In both instances, the distilleries were in Kentucky but the businesses were run out of Chicago.

Phillip Blum's son, Harry, eventually bought out Jacobson and Homel, who reinvested their funds in Heaven Hill. The Homel family hung on there until about 2005.

Harry Blum and his wife, Maribel, must have lived in my neighborhood because one of the buildings on the campus of Anshe Emet Synagogue, just down the block, is the Harry and Maribel Blum Community Hall. Two of the largest charitable foundations in Illinois are those of the Blums and of their daughter and son-in-law, the Kovlers, who also made their money from Jim Beam. 

The Jim Beam Distillery, of course, remained in Kentucky, in Bullitt County, about 30 miles south of Louisville. They eventually bought a second distillery a few miles away. Until the early 1990s, brothers Baker and David Beam minded the stills at the Bullitt County place, a 24-hour operation. Their cousin Booker Noe ran the plant in Nelson County. All of the manufacturing was done in Kentucky. All of the sales, marketing, finance, and corporate management was done in Chicago.

In 1967, Blum sold Beam to American Tobacco, which was using its cigarette profits to become a diversified conglomerate; soon renamed American Brands, then Fortune Brands. In addition to Jim Beam, the company would come to own Titlist, Moen, Master Lock and many other companies/brands. It was based in Connecticut, but Beam's headquarters remained in Chicago; downtown until 1988, then in a new office complex in Deerfield, a Chicago suburb. It had just merged with National Distillers and become a much larger company. 

Chicago is in Cook County. The next county north is Lake. The border between them is a major thoroughfare called, conveniently, Lake Cook Road. Beam's offices were on the north side of the street, hence in Lake County. I did a lot of business there between 1988 and 1994. One of their near neighbors was the Berto Center, where the Chicago Bulls had their offices and practice facility until 2014. 

Diversified conglomerates were all the rage in the 1960s but fell out of favor by the end of the century. Wall Street wanted 'pure plays.' Fortune eventually divested all of its other businesses and in 2011 became Beam Inc. That didn't last long. In 2014 it sold itself to Suntory. In 2016, Beam Suntory moved back downtown, to the historic Merchandise Mart building.

Although the top management echelon is decamping, what remains is significant. There is a lot of history there. Beam folks started to travel regularly between Kentucky and Chicago 80+ years ago. Chicago is slightly more convenient to Kentucky than New York, so that may help keep Chicago in the mix. It remains to be seen if there will be more Beam folks traveling from Muhammad Ali International to LaGuardia and Kennedy than O'Hare and Midway in the years to come. 

Friday, October 8, 2021

Whatever Floats Your Boat


Navy foresters at NSA Crane assess a white oak tree set aside for future use in repairing the USS Constitution. (U.S. Navy/Bill Couch)

Whiskey has only four ingredients and one of them is white oak, but there is a certain 50,000 acre stand of white oak trees that will never be used to make whiskey barrels. It is in southern Indiana, about 25 miles southwest of Bloomington, near the village of Crane.

Crane, Indiana is very much a company town and that company is the United States of America, specifically our Navy. Southern Indiana may seem like an odd place for a naval base, since it can't be reached by water, but Naval Support Activity (NSA) Crane is there nonetheless. 

NSA Crane was established in 1941 under the Bureau of Ordnance as the Naval Ammunition Depot. Weapons are produced, tested and stored there. It is remote; there aren't many people. That is by design, since Crane is where the Navy makes things that go boom. 

As naval weaponry became more sophisticated, so did Crane. Today, Crane provides a variety of advanced technical products to the Navy, but one of its products is ancient: hardwood timber, white oak.

It is hard to overstate the historical importance of white oak. Because it is so hard, humans didn't make much use of it until we developed iron tools that were strong enough to work it. After that, we used white oak for everything: buildings, weapons, containers, furniture, vehicles. Sure, there are other hardwoods, but plentiful and strong white oak is the unglamorous workhorse of wood.

White oak is used for whiskey barrels for several reasons. Strength is one of them. Barrels made from it are very sturdy and durable. Even more important is that they don't leak. Occlusions in the wood's large pores, called tyloses, protect the tree's sap when it is alive and provide leak resistance thereafter. The tyloses also contain a water-soluble compound that tastes a lot like vanilla, but that's a bonus.

White oak was, for centuries, used to make containers for all kinds of liquids. Even well into the 20th century, beer was kegged in white oak barrels. So was crude oil and many of the products made from it, such as kerosene. Today, most things are better off in metal or plastic; it's mostly wine- and whiskey-makers that still need white oak barrels.

White oak trees harvested for whiskey barrels are usually 60-75 years old, but that's not old enough for the Navy. For shipbuilding--or, in this case, repair--trees in the 200-year range are preferred. Those, too, once were plentiful but today not so much. Providing a stock of old growth white oak is part of NSA Crane's mission too.

The base at Crane covers about 62,000 acres and most of that is white oak forest. The stand's informal name is Constitution Grove and its mission is to provide enough white oak timber to keep afloat the USS Constitution, the oldest ship in the world that still is afloat. The Constitution was made from the same type of wood used to make whiskey barrels, white oak.

Although white oak is very durable, it doesn't last forever. Wooden warships usually don't last 227 years, but the Constitution is special. From time to time, parts of it need to be replaced. It is a real world ship of Theseus.

The USS Constitution is the only still-commissioned ship in the U.S. Navy that has sunk another vessel. (Shown here, doing it.)

Begun in 1794 and launched in 1797, the USS Constitution was one of six three-masted heavy frigates authorized by the Naval Act of 1794 and the third one constructed. It saw action against Mediterranean pirates and against Great Britain during the War of 1812. It was used for training during the Civil War, an era that saw the introduction of iron-clad ships. Soon the age of wooden warships was over. Today, the Constitution is a museum ship permanently docked in Boston's Charlestown Navy Yard

If after keeping the Constitution shipshape the Navy finds itself with excess white oak timber, Independent Stave has a stave mill in Salem, over toward Louisville, about 60 miles SSE of Crane. (A little closer if you take it out the back door.) It will be well-used. Maybe Spirits of French Lick can work something out.

Thursday, September 30, 2021

The Indiana distillery formerly known as Seagram's, LDI, and MGP is now Ross & Squibb (sort of)


The huge letters atop several buildings in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, still say 'SEAGRAMS,' but the famed GNS and whiskey-maker is now Ross & Squibb Distillery.

Back in January it was announced that MGP Ingredients, based in Atchison, Kansas, had acquired St. Louis-based Luxco. Nothing much seemed to happen after that. In Kentucky, it was business-as-usual at Luxco's Limestone Branch in Lebanon and Lux Row in Bardstown, as well as at MGP's Indiana distillery. Until Wednesday, when it was announced that the oft-renamed Indiana joint will be known henceforth by two names plucked from its past, Ross & Squibb.

Sort of.

The press release says this:  "Luxco will rename the 174-year-old, Lawrenceburg, Indiana, distiller of its branded spirits Ross & Squibb Distillery™ as it joins the Luxco family of brands. Effective immediately, the distiller of George Remus Straight Bourbon Whiskey and Rossville Union Straight Rye Whiskey will go by its new name."

The 'sort of' part comes later in the release where it says this:  "MGP will continue to produce bourbon, rye, whiskey, gin and grain-neutral spirits from this facility under its current name:  MGPI of Indiana, LLC."

It's a lot to unpack.

Luxco is a 63-year-old company. For most of that time it was a successful regional rectifier, a non-distiller producer with most of its business in St. Louis and vicinity. Along the way it picked up a few small national brands such as Ezra Brooks Bourbon, Everclear Grain Neutral Spirit, and Saint Brendan’s Irish Cream Liqueur. For many years, it bought almost all of its bourbon from Heaven Hill. Before that, its David Nicholson wheated bourbon came from Stitzel-Weller. 

The bourbon boom has been good for Luxco. In 2014, it acquired a one-half interest in craft distillery Limestone Branch, now the home of Yellowstone Bourbon. In 2018, Luxco opened Lux Row, a major distillery. For the year that ended October 31, 2020, Luxco generated approximate net revenues of $202 million and 9-liter case volume of 4.8 million.

At the time of the sale to MGP, Luxco was still owned by its founding Lux family and Donn Lux, formerly chairman and CEO of Luxco, is now a member of MGP's board. He and his fellow shareholders also are now $475 million richer.

MGP is public but tightly controlled by its founding Cray family. Cloud Cray started it in 1941, buying a small distillery which he enlarged to make ethanol for the war industries. It was known as Midwest Grain Processors. After the war, it continued to make ethanol for beverage and industrial use, as well specialty proteins and starches extracted from wheat. His son, Bud, who succeeded him, just passed away last year at age 96. Bud's daughter, Karen Seaberg, chairs MGP's board today. For calendar 2020, MGP reported net income of $40.3 million on sales of $395.5 million.

MGP has long been one of the country's largest distillers of grain neutral spirits (GNS, aka vodka) but has struggled with the low margins typical of commodity production. Its 2011 acquisition of the Lawrenceburg distillery, which makes GNS but also makes whiskey, was a bid to move into "higher value-added products," as they put it. So instead of commodity GNS, the company now also sold commodity whiskey, a minor improvement. It toyed with the next step up, selling branded products, but progress was glacial. Buying Luxco seemed to solve that problem at a stroke.

Maybe it will, but today's branding exercise needed work. That massive, red-brick distillery and maturation facility just downriver from Cincinnati will be called by its new name if you buy one of its branded products, such as Rossville Union Straight Rye Whiskey (which is pretty good, but perhaps not $60 good). If you want to buy contract whiskey, bulk whiskey, or GNS, it's still MGP. And if you're in town and need directions, ask a local how to get to Seagram's, because they all still call it that.  

Confusing, right? 

As for the new name itself, the 'Ross' part is a reference to George Ross, who is believed to have established a distillery there in 1847. He called it Rossville despite there being no town of that name in the vicinity. Then again, maybe it was 1857, as Seagram's claimed (see photo, above).

Regardless, Ross was out of the picture by 1875, when James Walsh & Company, a Cincinnati rectifier, bought the place. The Walsh operation was huge and it owned or controlled several distilleries in the region. The offices were in downtown Cincinnati but the main rectification plant was in Covington, Kentucky, at the other end of John Roebling's new bridge over the Ohio River.

Peter O'Shaughnessy was Walsh's partner and his three sons took the company over after Walsh and their father retired. They operated Rossville as a medicinal whiskey bottler during Prohibition. When Prohibition ended they sold it to Joseph E. Seagram and Sons Inc., aka, Seagram's. The Canadian distiller made it their principal U.S. distillery. They bought a grain silo in nearby Aurora to supply it. The O'Shaughnessy brothers then built a new distillery nearby and gave it the Walsh name, but it didn't last long. The enlarged and improved Seagram's plant produced Seagram's Seven Crown Blended Whiskey and Seagram's Gin, two major brands. 

It was Seagram's for 70 years, the longest name tenure in its claimed 174-year history.

The 'Squibb' part of the new name refers to brothers W. P. and G. W. Squibb, who bought a Lawrenceburg distillery called Dunn and Ludlow in 1866. In 1885, their Squibb Distillery installed a column still and made other improvements to increase its capacity to 330 bushels per day. It was a major distillery until Prohibition closed it. Near the end of Prohibition, Schenley bought it and another shuttered distillery nearby, combining them under the name Old Quaker, a popular pre-Pro brand Schenley had acquired.

For MGP, the significance of the Squibb name is its association with George Remus, the notorious Cincinnati-based bootlegger who briefly owned Squibb as part of his phony medicinal whiskey scheme during Prohibition. MGP has been selling a George Remus Bourbon (also good, about $40) as part of its fledgling effort to add profitable branded products to its portfolio.

Schenley and Seagram's were two of the post-Prohibition 'Big Four' distilled spirits producers and Lawrenceburg was the only place they had big distilleries side-by-side. That made Lawrenceburg "Whiskey City," a legacy the local community has recently embraced. In that context, Ross & Squibb is a great name because it salutes those two local whiskey giants, Seagram's and Schenley, without trespassing on anyone's intellectual property.

Schenley stopped distilling at Old Quaker in the late 1980s when it became part of what is now Diageo. They continued bottling until the warehouses ran dry. The bottling plant was sold and for a short time continued to operate as a separate company. Everything else was either demolished or converted to other uses. 

Seagram's Lawrenceburg kept going even after Seagram's itself was dissolved and sold for parts in 2000. The facility first went to Pernod Ricard, which sold it to CL Financial, which sold it to MGP, after first selling the bottling plant to Proximo. Through all that and more, it never closed.

MGP now has six distilleries, in Atchison (KS), Lawrenceburg (IN), Lebanon, Bardstown (KY), Mexico, and Washington, D. C., where it last year bought a quirky little gin maker called Green Hat. 

We just got our first glimpse of how this new MGP/Luxco mash-up will work. It has a few bugs. Maybe better luck next time. 

UPDATE (10/14/21): Hey, look! The new sign is up.

Friday, September 17, 2021

A Tale of Two Jacobs


The furnace at Bourbon Iron Works, established by Jacob Myers in 1791 in Bath County. It was the first iron mill in Kentucky. 

Jacob Boehm was born in 1760 in Pennsylvania. You may know him better by the Americanized version of his name, Jacob Beam, ancestor of all the whiskey-making Beams. 

Jacob Myers was born in Maryland, reportedly in 1738 or 39. His birthdate is not well documented and, based on other life events, was likely a few years later. You probably don’t know him at all, but he was Jacob Beam’s uncle and the person who taught Jacob, and through him all Beams to come, how to make whiskey.

Skills such as whiskey-making typically passed from father to son, but not in Jacob Beam's case. His father died suddenly when Jacob was six. His mother, Margaretha, with five young children and no way to support them in Pennsylvania, returned to her family’s home and farm in Maryland. She was Jacob Myers' sister. Perhaps she named her son Jacob after her brother.

Since the Myers observed the rule of primogeniture, Margaretha and Jacob Myers' oldest brother, Jost, owned the homestead. Fatherless and landless, both Jacobs knew from an early age they would have to make their own way in the world.

The Myers farm was remote and relatively self-sufficient. It included livestock and crops, cereals as well as fruit and tobacco. Most of the farm’s income came from the sale of intoxicants, tobacco as well as beverage alcohol, fermented and distilled. Both Jacobs took a particular interest in the farm’s beverage alcohol enterprise. Jacob Beam, very much the junior partner, learned all he could from his Uncle Jacob.

It is a remarkable fact of American colonial history that after nearly 200 years of settlement, most colonists still lived very close to the Atlantic coast. That began to change in the last quarter of the 18th century. The first European settlement in Kentucky, at Harrodsburg, was established in 1774. Jacob Myers decided to seek his fortune there too.

As more and more settlers came through the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky and Tennessee, their land claims had to be professionally surveyed and registered. Since surveyors typically were paid by retaining a percentage of the land they mapped, many got rich. 

Soon after he arrived in Kentucky, Jacob went to work as a chain carrier on a surveying crew, a low-level position. One day he asked the head of the crew, a man named Fox, to survey some land for him. When Fox refused, Myers announced he would deprive the crew of all the land they had surveyed that day; he would jump their claim. They laughed because they knew he was illiterate and couldn’t transcribe the complicated measurements they had taken, which he would need to establish the claim. 

Myers immediately set off on foot for the land grant office in Harrodsburg. The others slept, starting the same trip on horseback the next morning. Myers beat them by about 90 minutes and was able to register the claim in his own name. How? He may have been illiterate, but he had a very good memory.

Thereafter, Myers mapped and filed land grant claims for more than 145 tracts, encompassing some 30,000 acres, and launched many other enterprises. One of the first was a grist mill and distillery on the Hanging Fork of the Dix River, near modern Danville. Although we don’t know exactly when he started to distill, we know it was before 1781 because in that year he ran for political office and campaigned by giving out free whiskey, a common practice at the time. He still lost, to an “old Indian fighter” named Benjamin Logan. The Myers Mill is mentioned in official documents from 1783 and shows up on a map in 1784. 

By the mid-1780s, settlers were pouring through the Cumberland Gap on foot and floating into Kentucky via the Ohio River. Among them were more members of the Myers and Beam families, including Jacob Beam. Jost Myers had died and the Maryland farm was just about played out. By this time, Jacob Beam was married to one of his Myers cousins, Ann Marie.

The move to Kentucky was facilitated by two family members who were already there, Jacob Myers and an older brother of Jacob Beam, Conrad. Although the Beams were not initially Catholics they migrated with and settled among the Maryland Catholics who populated what are today’s Nelson, Marion, and Washington Counties in Kentucky. Jacob Beam converted. 

In 1791, Jacob Myers started the first iron works in Kentucky, near Owingsville in Bath County. It made everything from farm and household implements to military ordnance. Cannon balls from this foundry (what remains of it is pictured above) were used by the U.S. Navy at the Battle of New Orleans, but Jacob was long out of it by then. Shortly after he started the business, he realized he didn’t have enough capital to run it properly, so he sold it. The Bourbon Iron Works, as it was called, continued in operation until 1838.

Considering his many other enterprises, it is not surprising that Jacob Myers was involved in shipping. In 1793 he began regular service from Pittsburgh to Limestone (today's Maysville), Kentucky’s first official Ohio River port. Myers’ boats hauled passengers as well as freight. The service, strictly one-way in those days before steam power, was later extended to Cincinnati and Louisville.

At Louisville, the Ohio is blocked by a series of cascades, known as the Falls of the Ohio. Trips typically either ended there or resumed on the other side in a different boat. Today Kentucky’s largest city, Louisville became important because anyone who wanted to continue south on the river had to stop at Louisville and travel overland to Portland, on the other side of the Falls. Although foolhardy captains occasionally tried to shoot the rapids, they rarely succeeded, and generally everything had to be unloaded and transported overland. 

That became a business in its own right. It was thirsty work, a fact exploited by early distillers like Evan Williams. Other local distillers pursued that business too but Williams had the inside track. Louisville was Kentucky's second official port and Williams was its first wharf master. 

As a land speculator, miller, distiller, shipper and iron maker, Jacob Myers was like another better-known early Kentucky entrepreneur, Elijah Craig, who did many of the same things in Scott County. Like Myers when he jumped claim on his surveying crew, frontier entrepreneurs took their opportunities where they found them. They weren’t trying to establish historic “firsts,” they were just trying to make a living for themselves and their families. It took equal parts daring, effort and luck, but many, like Jacob Myers, succeeded spectacularly.

His Beam relations didn’t do too badly either.

Saturday, September 11, 2021

Every Label Tells a Story, Don't It?


Front label

This pint bottle, probably from 1937, has me hooked. It raises so many wonderful questions. Such as: how can a blend of straight whiskies contain whiskey that is just eight months old? Clearly this product was made when fully aged whiskey was in short supply. Back then, the definition of straight whiskey was vague. Today, straight whiskey has to be at least two years old.

Even so, Mr. Dant wants you to know that although some of it is very young, this is all aged whiskey. It is not a little bit of aged whiskey blended with neutral spirit, like most of what was sold in those days. This is something different. Because it also has a nice, rich hue, they note that it contains no "artificial coloring." 

This feels like someone trying to get an innovative product to market, one that makes the most of what little aged stock is available through careful, even 'scientific,' blending (whatever that means). Making young whiskey taste good was a challenge for producers in the years immediately following 1933, just as it was a decade ago in the early days of craft distilling. 

Back label (partial)
The extra, overlaid back label suggests they met some regulatory obstacles.

They tell us all the whiskeys were made it Kentucky, but where? Members of the Dant family were involved with several post-Repeal distilleries. Members of the extended family had connections to even more. It is clear this was a sourced product, maybe from within the family, maybe not. 

Now to the other major question, which Dant is this? There never was a W. W. Dant Distillery in Louisville or anywhere else. Obviously, this is either W. W. Dant himself or a member of his family using the Dant name and reputation to convey expertise. "3rd Generation of Distilling Experience," it says on the label. It's also clear they are carefully avoiding any trademark conflicts with the owners of the then very well-established and popular J. W. Dant brand of bourbon. 

The 'grandfather' is presumably J. W. Dant, but he is not named.

J. W. Dant bourbon is still sold today. It is made by Heaven Hill. Back then it was made by Uncle George.

Hang tag
I don't recall ever seeing a W. W. Dant product before. This was never a big brand. It probably was a one-shot for one reason or another. Yet the tax stamp shows it made it at least as far as Wisconsin, so that's something. 

There were and are a lot of Dants in Kentucky. Mike Veach has a good overview of the family's role in Kentucky's whiskey history here. I tell it from a slightly different direction here.

The family patriarch was Joseph Washington Dant (1820-1902), best known as J. W. Dant. Some Dant family trees show a "Wallace W. Dant" as one of J. W. Dant's seven distiller sons, but that's a mistake. His name was William Wallace Dant. He was known as Wallace, which probably explains the mistake.

In the picture on the label, the grandfather is J. W. Dant, the father is Wallace Dant, though neither is named. Presumably, the son in the picture is the W. W. Dant in question.  

Recently, two groups of Dant descendants have gotten back into the whiskey business. Steve and Paul Beam are Dants on their mother's side. Their Limestone Branch Distillery is in Lebanon, in Marion County. Wally Dant and some other family members have opened Log Still Distillery near New Haven in Nelson County.

The hang tag above is included mostly for amusement. While they seem scrupulous in describing the product, they play fast and loose with the story. The idea that "Grandfather's Distillery in Marion County" was some kind of 'cross-roads' connecting Louisville, Frankfort and Lexington is easily debunked by glancing at a map. More realistically it was on the 'cross-roads' leading to Bardstown, Elizabethtown and Lebanon. But "gentlemen" in "colorful coaches drawn by thorough-breds"? Please!

So who is this W. W. Dant? The answer is not as straightforward as you might think. J. W. Dant, the 'grandfather' in this exercise, had seven sons and many grandsons, several of whose initials were "W. W."

This guy is William Washington Dant, known as Will, a son of Wallace Dant. Will Dant is Wally Dant's great-grandfather. Will Dant's sister, Mary Kathleen, is grandmother to the Limestone Branch Beams, so Wallace Dant is their great-grandfather and Wally Dant's great-great-grandfather.  

Although Wally Dant is descended from J. W. Dant, like all of the Dants, his Log Still Distillery is not on the site of J.W. Dant's Distillery, the place described in the hang tag as "Grandfather's Distillery in Marion County." Log Still is on the site of a much more important Dant family distillery, established by J. W. Dant's eldest son, Joseph Bernard (J. B.), to make Yellowstone bourbon. The J. W. Dant Distillery was nearby, just a few miles east, about one mile inside Marion County, where Dant Station Road intersects with KY-52 today. No trace of that distillery remains. 

J. W. Dant retired in 1891, at age 71, and his son Wallace (Will's dad) took over. Wallace died in 1910 and control passed to George, the youngest brother. Then Prohibition shut them all down.

After Prohibition, J. B. Dant and his sons sold their Nelson County distillery and took the Yellowstone name up to Louisville (suburban Shively, actually), where they built a huge, new distillery that was later sold to Glenmore. Will Dant and a partner bought and restarted the Nelson County place, while uncle George reopened the family's original Marion County distillery. Will wanted to call his place W. W. Dant but uncle George sued him, saying that was too close to J. W. Dant, which George controlled, so they compromised on Dant & Head, Joe Head being the other principal.

In keeping with family tradition, Will Dant and his wife, Martha Jane Ferriell, had a whole bunch of kids. Their eldest was John Wallace Dant, known as Wally. Log Still's Wally Dant is his grandson and namesake, John Wallace Dant III. 

The 'Wally' in between those two, John Wallace Dant Jr., is an interesting story unrelated to the whiskey business except it reminds us how Catholic that area is. Wally Dant Jr. grew up in Louisville, graduated from St. Xavier High School, then Notre Dame, and worked for UPS in Louisville for 33 years, retiring as VP of Air Operations. He had several children, the eldest of whom is Log Still's Wally. After he retired he became very active in his parish church in Louisville, becoming a deacon. After the death of Barbara, his wife, he entered the seminary, became a priest, and served in several different parishes in Marion and Nelson Counties. He died in 2010, age 70.

I grew up Catholic in northern Ohio. Mom was from Cleveland, dad was from St. Louis. From my family history and from American history, I always associated Catholics with urban immigrant communities; Germans in mom's case, but also Irish, Italians, and Poles. Only after I became interested in bourbon history did I learn about the English Catholics from whom I also am descended, who were so instrumental in starting the Kentucky bourbon industry, who brought their Catholic faith and English heritage to the mostly-rural Kentucky Holy Lands a century before the better known Catholic migrations to the big cities of the Northeast and Midwest. Among them were John Baptist Dant, J. W. Dant's father, and my ancestor, Joseph 'Short' Tucker.

This is a long post but I am still nowhere near finished with this label. There is also the box it came in! This is not my bottle. I thank the owner who took these pictures and gave me permission to share them.

One remaining mystery is why, if Will Dant co-owned Dant & Head, isn't this a Dant & Head release? Why did Will Dant do it as a side hustle?

And does anybody know what "Ma Ri Me Scientifically Blended" means? The reference to 'License No. 1' leads me to suspect this was another Will Dant enterprise.

Sunday, September 5, 2021

The U.S. Craft Distilling Movement and How It Got That Way, Pt. 2, Is Now Available


Mural on a warehouse at Green River Distilling Company in Owensboro, Kentucky.

Green River Distilling Company is in Owensboro, Kentucky. Although it is on the site of several historic distilleries and bears the name of one of them, Green River is essentially a new plant that just started to distill in 2016. Its 54-inch column still gives it the ability to make at least 5-million proof gallons per year. Green River is a big distillery. It has more production capacity than Diageo’s Cascade Hollow/George Dickel. It may not make that much yet, but it is only a matter of time. 

Yet we talk about Green River and other new, equally large distilleries, such as Bardstown Bourbon Company, in the context of 'craft distilling.' Maybe we shouldn't, but what should we call them?

Of the approximately 2,500 beverage alcohol distilleries of all kinds in the United States today, 2,400 of them didn't exist 20 years ago. In that short time, the business of producing and selling distilled spirits in the United States has changed dramatically. Yet the handful of companies with the most market share 20 years ago still have the most, so what's going on?

We have been trying to make sense of it all in the last two issues of The Bourbon Country Reader. Part 2 will go into the mail in the next few days. Click here to subscribe via PayPal (PayPal account or any major credit card, U.S. address only). Click here for other options (including for a non-U.S. address).

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To experience The Bourbon Country Reader for yourself, you need to subscribe. Honoring history, The Bourbon Country Reader still comes to you exclusively on paper, in an envelope, via the USPS. Doing our part to keep the USPS solvent, we use only First Class Mail. It just went up so maybe the subscription price will too. You better subscribe today, before I decide to jack it up.

Yes, a subscription to The Bourbon Country Reader is still a mere $20 per year for addresses in the USA, $25 for everyone else. The Bourbon Country Reader is published six times a year, more-or-less, but your subscription always includes six issues no matter how long it takes. For those of you keeping track, this new one is Volume 20, Number 5

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Thursday, September 2, 2021

Bid Now on an Exclusive Blanton's Barrel Pick Experience, for a Worthy Cause


(NOTE: I usually don't promote this sort of thing, but it's a cool opportunity and the money goes to a worthy cause. It's personal because the daughter of a friend of mine has this condition. Click here to jump straight to the auction.)

This auction is being conducted by Unicorn Auctions in Chicago. It benefits The MOG Project, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization devoted to advocating for those all over the world who are diagnosed with the rare neuroimmune condition, Myelin Oligodendrocyte Glycoprotein Antibody Disease (MOGAD).

MOGAD causes inflammation primarily in the optic nerve but can also affect the spinal cord and brain. MOG is a protein located on the surface of myelin sheaths in the central nervous system. Because of the rare nature of the disorder, it is often misdiagnosed or not diagnosed at all. It affects people of all ages but is especially found in young children.

The MOG Project is devoted to raising awareness, educating doctors, patients and caregivers, advancing research through expert collaboration and fundraising, and providing support and advocacy for our community in hopes of finding a cure.

As the highest bidder, you will start with a visit to Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky. Upon your arrival, you’ll be taken on an extensive, behind-the-scenes tour where you will learn about the rich history of distilling.

Following your personal tour, you will sample directly from several barrels of Blanton’s chosen especially for you by industry experts and learn firsthand about the inimitable magic that happens in Kentucky warehouses.

You’ll taste straight from the barrel, cut down to bottling proof, while the natural aromas and distinct flavors shine through. After you find the barrel that best reflects your discerning taste you’ll be able to mark that exact barrel as your very own and send it on its way to bottle and personalize.

Selecting your very own barrel of Blanton’s is an experience of a lifetime. With demand for one of the distillery’s most popular brands outpacing supply, owning an entire barrel is a rarity for even the biggest of bourbon fans.

Thursday, August 19, 2021

The World that Made Me


Isaly's was a chain of dairies and stores that began in Mansfield, Ohio, my hometown.

For a simple advertising sign, the image above packs a ton of information. It tickles my memory. 

It is easy to date because coonskin caps such as the one worn by the little boy only became popular after the 1954 premier of Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier, a Walt Disney-produced TV show. The headdress worn by the little girl is a reference to the character of Tiger Lily from the Broadway musical adaptation of "Peter Pan," which premiered in 1954 and became a sensation on television when it was first broadcast in 1955. 

I was an ardent fan of both franchises. (I turned 4 in 1955.) I had a Davy Crockett coonskin cap. So did my three brothers. I also knew every song from "Peter Pan." Mom had the album, which in those days consisted of several 78 rpm disks, one song per side. One song in particular, "I Won't Grow Up," spoke to me.

And I was a fan of Isaly's, a dairy and shop that started in Mansfield and in its heyday had locations throughout the Midwest. I was not necessarily a fan of the skyscraper cone depicted here. I was more likely to choose their more famous frozen confection, the Klondike Bar. Ohio was a big dairy producer in those days. The Klondike bar was created in Mansfield, the Good Humor Bar was created in Youngstown, and Big Moo (Borden's) was in Columbus. 

Isaly's also was famous for a non-dairy product, its chipped ham. Ohio produced a lot of pork. Bob Evans Farms was and still is an Ohio company.

In my childhood, on any given day I might have had for lunch a sandwich of Isaly's chipped ham, on Nickel's bread, with a side of Jones Potato Chips, a Stewart's Root Beer to drink and a Klondike Bar for dessert. Every one of those products was made right there in Mansfield.

Mansfield may have been unusual in launching two enduring national brands, but locally-made products such as bread, beer, soft drinks, lunch meat, milk, and ice cream were still the norm back then. 

Stewart's and Isaly's are good examples of this phenomenon. Both started in Mansfield in the 1920s and by the 60s each had become a large, regional operation. Obviously, in each new market they entered they competed against a local incumbent. The most successful of these large, regional companies became national and competed everywhere. Stewart's and Isaly's never became truly national but were absorbed into companies that did.

When I started to work in advertising, local companies were being forced to become more sophisticated about their marketing to compete with encroaching regional and national brands. Even a city as small as Mansfield had advertising professionals able to give them a hand.

I dabbled in advertising in high school and even took a class in it at St. Pete's. My advertising career began in earnest after college in Dayton, Ohio, in 1974, where I made radio and television commercials for a local department store chain, Elder-Beerman. Department store ads dominated newspapers in those days and the stores had huge in-house departments that employed dozens of designers and copywriters. They were just beginning to use radio and television advertising. Elder-Beerman had an in-house agency for that too. There were four of us.   

An uncle worked for an ad agency in Columbus, my next stop. In a city like Dayton or Columbus back then, a typical advertising agency would have as its main clients a bank, a dairy, a meat packer, a bakery, a car dealer, and maybe a retailer or two. My Columbus employer had two divisions. One had that typical portfolio. My uncle worked on the bank account. Our meat packer client was Bob Evans Farms, when it was still run by Bob and his brother.  

Because of my experience in Dayton, I was hired by the other division which specialized in major market department store chains. My big client was Lazarus, a name anyone from Central Ohio will recognize. Lazarus was owned by Federated, a national company that also owned Rikes in Dayton and Shillito's in Cincinnati, but each store was still locally managed and branded.  

Department stores were dying even then. According to some store executives I spoke with, they had been dying since the end of WWII. They were losing share to specialty chains like The Limited (another Columbus operation), and discounters such as Target, K-Mart, Venture, and Wal-Mart, while also competing against established national chains like Sears, Montgomery-Ward and J. C. Penny.

Because none of our department store clients competed directly against each other, we syndicated many of our advertising campaigns by using the same creative for multiple stores.

It was that very particular expertise that took me to Louisville, to an ad agency that had built its business by selling syndicated advertising campaigns to similar local companies that were trying to compete with the national and regional brands then penetrating their markets. It had syndicated campaigns for dairies and bakeries in the past but by the time I got there (1978) that business had pretty much dried up. The national/regional brands had won those categories. Some locals continued as brand names, but they were no longer local companies.

My Louisville employer was at the tail end of its syndicated work for meat packers and had one final hit with a campaign for savings and loan associations. That led to me writing for George Burns, including a four-line song. It was a thrill to work with Burns and his manager, Irving Fein.

That was pretty much the end of the line for local companies in many businesses. Everything now is national or international. Am I pining for 'the good old days'? Not at all, just reflecting on how no matter what you do, whether or not you know it at the time, you are participating in and engaging with something bigger, maybe epochal even. There is always a big picture and you are part of it, we all are.