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 Harry 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.

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

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. After the Revolution was won it saw action against Caribbean 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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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.

Monday, August 16, 2021

Hard Pants and Rabbit Holes


Alice gets it.

As a writer I have two audiences, you and me. It’s kismet when they align. When I started this blog in 2005, I intended it as a platform for whatever I felt like writing. In those early days I wrote about American whiskey but also politics, culture, and everyday life. When I moved the show over to Blogger (i.e., Google) in 2007, and made the masthead I still use, I intended to focus more on American whiskey but still would write about 'other stuff' from time to time. I have, but the ‘other stuff’ has been infrequent. 

Around that same time, 2005-2007, I joined Facebook. A lot of my ‘other stuff’ writing moved over there. But although Facebook allows longish posts, I try not to get too wordy. Longer stuff goes over here.

But back to that tension between the two audiences, you and me. It’s there. Because of my long experience in and around the booze business, especially the American whiskey part of it, I feel I have something to offer, something of value and I feel some obligation to share it. Duty but also opportunity. I’m sensitive to the need to tend my brand. Most people who read me are interested primarily in the whiskey stuff. Whiskey writing has never dominated my income stream but it has played an important role in it since about that same period, early this century. I appreciate the patronage and hesitate to stray too far from that audience’s comfort zone as I perceive it. This blog has been an important link in that chain.

I came up in marketing. Positioning is second nature to me. But another, older part of me, the born iconoclast, always tries to sabotage my best efforts to stay on message. I’m here to announce I’m more and more inclined to let the iconoclast win.

I’ve thought about creating another space for my non-bourbon thoughts but I’m lazy and that seems like too much work. One thing I believe about web sites in general is that they’re useless if they’re not active. If you have a web site that hasn’t been updated since 2013, you might be better off with no web presence at all. This site is underperforming as it is. I can’t support another one.

But things change. I’m mostly retired now. What ‘mostly’ means is I’m still working; I’m just not hustling for it. I was a freelance writer for 35 years. Other gig workers understand. Being retired means getting up every day and doing whatever I want, no deadlines, no meetings, no obligations, no hard pants. 

Since July 21, a good part of every day has been spent exploring a family history rabbit hole that became the nine-part series just concluded. The first installment explains the rabbit hole I went down to get there. I love rabbit holes, always have. Google is rabbit hole heaven.

But Google can’t do it all. Many friends helped me put together the pieces of the Tucker story. I won’t name them to protect their privacy, but they know who they are, and I am grateful to them. 

I’ve always been interested in history. My focus is beginnings. How did this or that come to be. That quest is all about rabbit holes because the beginning of everything was the beginning. Of everything. There was only one beginning. Any other beginning is arbitrary. I have trouble picking one starting point and following it through to a conclusion. But I digress.


So I don’t know if I want to make a prediction, but I feel like there will be more personal stuff here in the future. I may even stop warning readers when there is no bourbon content in a post. You probably can figure that out for yourself.

There is an expression among writers called “writing for the drawer.” Before writing became my profession it was the way I processed my thoughts, experiences, problems, passions, memories, everything. If I had something on my mind, something I needed to work out, I picked up a pen and pad and wrote it down. That’s how I became a writer or discovered I was one. Milton White, one of my professors at Miami University, gave me the only advice a writer needs: “writers write.”

These days, as I lurch into my eighth decade, I’m all about learning and as I learn I process what I learn by writing about it. A lot of that always has been ‘for the drawer’ and always will be. I envision the blog as somewhere between the drawer and publication. The Bourbon Country Reader, my American whiskey newsletter, is on that same continuum but nearer to my books and magazine pieces. The blog is closer to the drawer and may move even closer to the drawer than it has been in the sense of becoming even more personal and idiosyncratic. I don’t know. I just know how I feel today, after concluding that nine-part series. 

I get a buzz from writing. Not all the time and not always the same, but the buzz is the gold. I don’t always know where the gold is. No, that’s wrong. I never know where the gold is. I just know it’s down those rabbit holes.

Friday, August 13, 2021

Beams in My Home Town and Other Personal Stuff (Part 9)


American Vincentians established St. Mary's of the Barrens in Perryville, Missouri, in 1818. It has served as an educational institution, a Vincentian house of formation, and a Vincentian community residence. 

For the story of Mansfield and Beam's Mill, you have to go back to Part 1. We have moved on to Kentucky and my many-times-great-great-grandfather, Joseph 'Short' Tucker.

Short did well during his years in Bardstown, Kentucky. A 1793 tax roll for Nelson County shows him owning 15 head of cattle, five horses, and about 250 acres of land.

But he was restless. 

At that time, the land on both sides of the Mississippi River bordering what is now Missouri and Illinois was under French and Spanish colonial administration. Looking to expand the population, Spain invited American Catholics to settle there. One of the Maryland Catholics in Kentucky, 20-year-old Isidore Moore, was chosen to scout the possibilities. He looked at land on both sides of the river in 1792, again in 1797, and for a third time in 1800. There in the grasslands south of Ste. Genevieve he found something he liked. The area became known as 'the barrens' because it had so few trees.

Soon Short and some neighbors were on their way to western Illinois, where they lived briefly before crossing the river into what is now Missouri. The site for the settlement, what is now Perryville, was selected by Short Tucker and two other men. The names of Perryville and Perry County were chosen much later to honor O. H. Perry, the 1812 naval hero we talked about in Part 6. In those early days it was simply called 'the barrens settlement.'

The first rough cabins were built and occupied by 1803. In that same year, the community formally became part of the United States due to the Louisiana Purchase. Missouri became the 24th state in 1821.

As had been the case when they arrived in Kentucky, one of the group's top priorities was to attract a priest so they could properly practice their Catholic faith. 

In those days, clerics of all stripes often made harrowing journeys to tend their far flung frontier flocks. One such circuit preacher was Father Marie Joseph Dunand, a Trappist priest fleeing the French Revolution. He first visited the Barrens settlement in 1809, stayed at Short Tucker's home, and said mass there for the community. Father Dunand promised that if the settlers built a church he would visit them more often. In two months the church was ready and Short traveled to St. Louis to remind the priest of his promise. Dunand knew the 100-mile journey was difficult but since Short was about 70 at the time and Dunand was 30 years younger, he felt he couldn't very well refuse.  

Joseph 'Short' Tucker was active in the church community until his death in 1816. 

As the Barren's community grew, it renewed ties with the priests of the Vincentian Order who had built the group's first church and school in Kentucky. Father Charles de la Croix, a skilled architect, designed a new church and school for Missouri modeled on the recently completed Seminary of St. Thomas in Bardstown. They named it St. Mary's of the Barrens. The Vincentians were soon joined by Sisters of Loretto, also from Kentucky, who ran the school.

Short Tucker had been joined on his westward trek by several of his sons, one of whom was named Thomas. His son, William, had a son named Narious (maybe spelled Nereus), who was the father of Joseph Kendrick Tucker, the carpenter who died shortly before my father was born and after whom my father was named. 

According to the U. S. census, Joe and Nancy were still farming in Ste. Genevieve County's Saline Township in 1900. We don't know exactly when or why this Joseph Tucker left the Barrens community to become a carpenter in St. Louis, but that was the beginning of the 20th century, when people everywhere were leaving farms for cities. My grandparents met in St. Louis and were married there in 1916.

The 1900 census also shows that Nancy, my great-grandmother, was born in Kentucky, as were both of her parents. It is another Kentucky connection I didn't know I had. How she wound up in Missouri is another story yet to be discovered.

Myrtle Gertrude Tucker Cowdery Mansfield,
1948 (photo by her son, Tom Cowdery)

Joe and Nancy had four children; my grandmother, another girl named Genevieve (like the county), and two boys. According to dad, all three of them were con artists. Genevieve, he said, was quite good at it. When grandma died one of his Tucker uncles stole a bottle of Four Roses from her house that was rightfully dad's. 

Great-Grandma Tucker (Nancy) remarried and became Mrs. Felix Demonget. He ran the buffing and polishing department of the Hess & Culbertson Jewelry Co. in St. Louis. I met her once, in St. Louis, when I was very young and she was very old. 

Grandma and Grandpa divorced and both remarried. Grandma married Manny Mansfield and they lived in Sausalito, California for many years. Dad visited them there during the war, on his way back to the Pacific. She returned to St. Louis after Manny died and ran a small boarding house. Grandpa's second wife I knew as Grandma Helen. As they all lived in St. Louis and we lived in Ohio I didn't know any of them very well. 

So this may be a good place to end this saga. Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Beams in My Home Town and Other Personal Stuff (Part 8)


St. Mary's of the Barrens Roman Catholic Church, Perryville, Missouri.
If you are just joining us and interested in the Beam family in Mansfield, Ohio, my home town, you need to go back to Part 1. We have moved on to other history regarding my family and its tenuous connection to the birth of bourbon. Because that connection is so tenuous, this series contains very little bourbon content.

Although as an adult I lived in Kentucky for ten years, I never knew of any family connections to the Commonwealth. Last time, in Part 7, we learned that, much to my surprise, my great-grandfather, Homer Cowdery, was born in Vanceburg, Kentucky.

Now we come to my dad's mother, who was born Myrtle Gertrude Tucker in St. Mary, Missouri, in 1896. St. Mary is a city in Ste. Genevieve County, hard by the Mississippi River about 70 miles south of St. Louis. You don't need to be a historian to figure out that all those 'saints' mean many of the earliest European-American settlers to the area were Catholic. 

Grandma Cowdery was Catholic, albeit not observant. Dad was baptized Catholic but couldn't remember ever going to church as a kid. He never considered himself Catholic although he married a Catholic and we were all raised in the Church. Mom's family was very Catholic and they were the family I grew up with. We were in Ohio and dad's family was all in Missouri or Illinois, so we saw them rarely.

My Grandma Cowdery, Myrtle, was the daughter of Joseph Kendrick Tucker and Nancy Mildred Pritchett. Joe and Nancy were joined in Holy Matrimony on April 2, 1894, at St. Mary's of the Barrens Roman Catholic Church in Perryville, Missouri. (Pictured above.)

St. Mary's of the Barrens was mother church of the Tucker clan, so Joe and Nancy probably would have been married there even if they weren't living there at the time. We know they were in nearby St. Mary when Grandma was born two years later. At some point the young family moved to the big city, St. Louis.

Joe was a carpenter. He died in a workplace accident in 1919. He was 48. At the time of his death his eldest daughter was pregnant with her second child, my dad, who was baptized with the name of his late grandfather, and so became Joseph Kendrick Cowdery.

When I was young, dad told me Great-Grandpa Tucker fell off a scaffold while working on an addition to the Anheuser-Busch Brewery (i.e., Budweiser) in St. Louis. He fell because he was drunk. (In later years, dad disavowed the story.) Dad would have known because his father, James H. 'Jim' Cowdery, was working on the same job as a laborer specializing in concrete. Grandpa Cowdery and Great-Grandpa Tucker were colleagues in the construction trades and that's how grandma and grandpa met.

Dad was known as Joe through high school, but took the opportunity to switch to Ken when he started college. He always signed his name "J. K. Cowdery" but was known as Ken. Kendrick is my middle name too. My cousin, son of dad's older brother, got it as his first name. 

Dad remembered his childhood in St. Louis in great detail but never learned much in the way of family history. I was only 11 when grandpa died but I remember asking him about family history. He said he didn't know any. "The Cowderys are just all-American mutts," was how he put it. 

But this is about Myrtle, dad's mom. She told him she was of Irish descent. Therefore, when I was growing up we celebrated mom's German heritage with pork roast and sauerkraut on New Year's Eve and dad's Irish ancestry with corned beef and cabbage every January first. I always believed I was one-quarter Irish.

Grandpa died in 1962 and grandma died the following year. It was after that that my Uncle Tom, dad's older brother, discovered grandpa Homer's name in a genealogy book that he found in the New York Public Library. In 1978, a distant family member had the book republished and we all got copies. The Cowderys, it turns out, were very English. 

But that was the Cowdery line. I still knew next to nothing about grandma's line, the Tuckers. I always thought the Irish claim seemed odd because Tucker is not an Irish-sounding name. A few years ago, I began to research the Tucker side of the family. The more I learned, the more it became clear that the Tuckers were not Irish. Grandma may have assumed they were because they were Catholic and most of the Catholics she knew growing up in St. Louis were Irish. It is possible her mother, Nancy, claimed Irish heritage. But Nancy's maiden name, Pritchett, isn't Irish either. It is the Anglicized version of a Welsh name. Her mother's name was Martha Anderson, also not very Irish.

As for the Tuckers, they definitely were Catholics, but they were English Catholics with a storied history centered around the church pictured above. 

While another of my ancestors, Jacob Cowdery Junior, was fighting for Connecticut in the American Revolution, my ancestor Joseph 'Short' Tucker was doing the same for Maryland. 

‘Short’ Tucker was born in Virginia, perhaps as early as 1739, but moved to Maryland in his youth. His Revolutionary War service on Maryland’s behalf is well documented, as is much of his life thereafter. 

A century earlier, back in England, George Calvert, First Baron Baltimore, had applied to England's King Charles I for a royal charter for what was to become the Province of Maryland. The colony was named to honor the Queen, Henrietta Maria. Although England then was officially Protestant, its queen was Catholic, a princess of France by birth.

Just as the Massachusetts Bay Colony of my Cowdery ancestors was founded as a haven for Puritans, Maryland was a refuge for Catholics, England's other oppressed religious minority. 

In Maryland, Short Tucker joined the state militia. After the war he joined a group of Catholics who wanted to quit Maryland for the western frontier. Maryland by this time was no longer the haven it was intended to be. As more Protestants moved in, outnumbering Catholics, they began to bedevil their Catholic neighbors.

Short was born in Virginia, where Catholics were scarce, so it is possible he or his parents were converts. He was very devout, as converts often are. 

After the Revolution, lands in the North American interior were opened for settlement and many veterans received land grants in return for their service. A group of about 60, including Short Tucker and his young family, formulated a plan to relocate to Kentucky, taking advantage of the 'corn writs' being offered to veterans. They planned to settle close together for mutual support and in hope of forming a parish and attracting a priest. 

The first group of about ten families left in 1785, led by Basil Hayden. They and subsequent Marylanders settled in what today are the Kentucky counties of Nelson, Marion, and Washington, popularly known as the Kentucky Holy Lands. Among other accomplishments, they were some of the founders of Kentucky’s bourbon industry. Among them was a Mennonite from Pennsylvania who had Catholic relatives in the group, Jacob Beam, ancestor of all of Kentucky's whiskey-making Beams.

They were successful in attracting priests. The French Revolution was underway and many religious fled from there to America to escape the violent anti-clericalism that was part of that movement. Many of them came to Kentucky, either to stay or on their way further west into the American interior.

This is getting a bit long so we will continue it next time, in Part 9.

Saturday, August 7, 2021

Beams in My Home Town and Other Personal Stuff (Part 7)


Homer Cowdery, my great-grandfather, was born in Vanceburg, Kentucky.

I'm continuing with the series name but we're finished with the Beams, Johnny Appleseed and the War of 1812, and leaving Mansfield, Ohio, my home town, just as I did when I left for college in 1969. I never lived there fulltime again, but visited frequently until my father's death in 2010.

After college and working in advertising in Dayton, then Columbus, I took a job in Louisville, Kentucky. I didn't know much about Kentucky. I had been there once as a kid with my family, to see Mammoth Cave and other attractions. 

I did know about Kentucky bourbon. My parents drank it. They each had one drink before dinner every night, bourbon on the rocks, which they had in the kitchen while chatting as mom finished preparing dinner. Unless we had something urgent, my siblings and I knew to leave them alone until we were called to table. As the oldest, I occasionally mixed drinks for them, then went back to "The Three Stooges" in the other room. (I'm talking about the TV show, not my three younger brothers.)

My parents were frugal so they always drank the least expensive Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey in the store, which for most of my childhood was Mattingly and Moore. There were cheaper whiskeys, of course, blends and what-have-you, but my parents were interested only in Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey. 

I was raised right.

I lived and worked in Louisville from February of 1978 until March of 1988. I worked in marketing and did a lot of business with local liquor companies. It was a bad time for bourbon sales but all of the companies sold other things and mostly I worked on those 'other things.' I took a job in Chicago in 1987 but had residences in both Louisville and Chicago for about a year and after that continued to visit Kentucky frequently, as I still do. 

In 1991, I began work on the documentary that became "Made and Bottled in Kentucky," which ran on most American public television stations and still appears from time to time on KET, Kentucky's public TV network. I was hooked, and I've been writing about American whiskey ever since.

I have other interests, of course. In addition to the history of American whiskey I am interested in history more generally and, by extension, genealogy. What I knew about my family history growing up was that mom's family was from Cleveland with mostly German roots. One of my maternal great-grandfathers, Jack Schwartz, was a bookkeeper at Cleveland's Standard Brewery. The other one, Frank Bunsey, worked at the White Motor Company as one of the world's first car salesmen. Mom's family moved to Mansfield in 1940, when she was 11. They were beer drinkers mostly, although my grandfather (mom's dad, also Frank Bunsey) also drank scotch.

Dad was from St. Louis but his grandfather, Homer Cowdery, came from Coolville, Ohio, in the southeastern part of the state close to the Ohio River. As a young man, Homer took a job on a riverboat and eventually settled in St. Louis. 

Coolville is on the Hocking River. Where the Hocking joins the Ohio, that's West Virginia on the other shore, but if you drift a few more miles that shore becomes Kentucky. As I learned more about my family's origins, I learned they mostly lived near what is today Keno, Ohio, and operated a gristmill there in the early 19th century. That leads me to suspect some of them distilled, since many millers did, but I have no evidence.

I suppose I could invent a story about old Josiah Cowdery, cooking up a batch of corn likker in some Meigs County hollar. I wouldn't be the first person to invent a story about a distant ancestor's distilling prowess. 

Then I found something surprising, census records that showed my great-grandfather, Homer Cowdery, was born in Vanceburg, Kentucky, in 1865. The same census shows his two younger brothers having been born back in Ohio, so what were his parents doing in Vanceburg when he was born?

We don't know, but we know Homer's father, Josiah, struggled financially. Vanceburg had been a staunch Union town during the just-concluded Civil War and was booming, so he may have gone there looking for work.

I also learned that Grandpa Homer had lied about his age, adding two or three years. He was a big guy and as a teenager probably looked older than he was. I suspect he made himself older to get that first riverboat job and get the hell out of there. His youngest brother, Perry, followed him to St. Louis, then continued on to Texas. The middle brother, Heman, stayed in southeastern Ohio and is buried there. There still are Cowderys around, mostly across the river in Parkersburg, West Virginia. Most are descended from Heman.

Next time, in Part 8, I discover that my dad's mother had a surprising Kentucky connection with a direct link to the origins of Kentucky bourbon.

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Beams in My Home Town and Other Personal Stuff (Part 6)


Perry's Victory and International Peace Memorial was established to honor those who fought in the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812, and to celebrate the long-lasting peace among Great Britain, Canada and the U.S. The Memorial, a Doric column rising 352 feet over Lake Erie, is situated 5 miles from the longest undefended border in the world. (National Park Service)
Ohio did not have a role in the American Revolution and no significant Civil War battles were fought on Ohio soil, but the War of 1812 was another matter. In that conflict, Ohio was the front line. Many battles were fought on Ohio soil and in the waters of Lake Erie. In Part 4, I mentioned how most kids who grow up in Mansfield visit the Copus Monument on a field trip at some point. Many Ohio kids also visit the Perry's Victory and International Peace Memorial at Put-in-Bay.

The wonderfully-named Put-in-Bay is a town on South Bass Island, one of several small islands in Lake Erie just north of Sandusky and Sandusky Bay, about 75 miles north of Mansfield. It's a beautiful area with many popular attractions. Trips to Put-in-Bay often are combined with visits to Sandusky's Cedar Point amusement park. 

(A personal note. My great-great grandfather on my mother's side, Charles Bunsey, my namesake, was a farmer in the Sandusky area before he moved to Cleveland. Another, more distant relative was Marcellus F. Cowdery, who was the first superintendent of the Sandusky City Schools and a leader in education throughout Ohio in the 1840s. M. F. Cowdery wrote a collection of "Moral Lessons" which were widely used in public schools. M. F. Cowdery's uncle, Oliver Cowdery, was an early leader of the Mormon Church and a scribe to Joseph Smith. Oliver also lived in Ohio during that period, much further east in Kirtland. Cowdery Street in Sandusky was named in honor of M. F. Cowdery, but all that came later. Back now to the War of 1812. What follows comes from the National Park Service, which runs the Perry Monument at Put-in-Bay.)

At dawn on the morning of September 10, 1813, a lookout spotted six British vessels to the northwest of Put-in-Bay beyond Rattlesnake Island. Immediately, Master Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry issued a flurry of orders and made preparations to sail forth to engage the British.

With Perry's fleet on Lake Erie the British supply route from Fort Malden to Port Dover had been severed. The British had to either fight or abandon Fort Malden, which protected the Detroit River at Detroit. The British squadron consisted of six ships with sixty-three cannon while the American flotilla comprised nine vessels and fifty-four guns. The British were armed with long guns that could throw a cannonball approximately one mile, accurately to about one-half mile. The American ships, primarily armed with carronades, had less than half the range of a long gun. The carronades could inflict much more damage at close range. Perry needed the wind to his back to close within carronade range.

When the squadron sailed from Put-in-Bay harbor at 7 a.m. the American vessels were steering west-northwest; the wind was blowing from the west-southwest. For more than two hours Perry repeatedly tacked his ships to put the wind to his back, but without success. The frustrated Perry conceded to mother nature at 10 a.m., issuing orders to turn his fleet in the opposite direction. But before the order could be executed the wind suddenly shifted and blew from the southeast, placing the wind directly behind the Americans.

Perry's opponent, Commander Robert Heriot Barclay, was an experienced Royal Navy officer who had fought with Lord Nelson at Trafalgar in 1805, and two years later he lost an arm fighting the French. Barclay's options did not alter when the wind shifted, so the Scotsman pointed his bow sprits to the westward, and hove to in line of battle.

With the wind at his back and the British battle line finally revealed, Perry made his own tactical adjustments. The schooners Ariel and Scorpion were placed off the flagship's weather bow to engage the first British vessel and to prevent the enemy from raking his fleet. The Lawrence, a 20-gun brig serving as Perry's flagship, was third in line and would engage the Detroit, Barclay's 19-gun flagship. Next in line floated the Caledonia, a small brig with only three guns. Fifth in the American line of battle was the Niagara, Perry's other 20-gun brig and the Lawrence's sistership.

The Niagara, captained by Master Commandant Jesse Elliott, would engage the 17-gun Queen Charlotte, the second largest British ship. Lastly came the smaller schooners and sloop; these would engage the smaller British vessels.

Just before the engagement opened Perry hoisted his battle flag to the flagship's main truck. The large navy blue banner was emblazoned with the crudely inscribed words, "DONT GIVE UP THE SHIP." For his battle slogan Perry used the dying words of Captain James Lawrence, a friend of the commodore who was killed on June 1, 1813. Perry's flagship was named for the fallen Lawrence and the dead hero's inspiring words clearly indicated Perry's determination to prevail.

By 2:30 p.m. Perry's flagship was a floating wreck; every gun on her engaged side was disabled and four of every five men fit for duty were either killed or wounded. Perry was facing the dismal prospect of surrender.

Then, as he gazed across to the Niagara, still out of range and relatively undamaged, the commodore made a fateful decision. Collecting four unwounded men Perry manned the flagship's first cutter and rowed through a hail of shot to the Niagara. Miraculously Perry and his boat crew reached the Niagara unscathed.

Following a brief conversation the flotilla commander dispatched Elliott in the same small boat to hurry along the lagging gunboats. Perry then prepared the Niagara for immediate action, put the helm up, and sailed toward the British line.

The British, though they had pounded the Lawrence into a crippled hulk, had suffered terribly. During the engagement Barclay was severely wounded, plus the captain and first lieutenant of every British vessel was incapacitated. The English fleet was now commanded by junior officers - brave men, but with little or no experience maneuvering ships in the chaos of combat. When they observed the Niagara bearing down on their line the British attempted to wear ship - to turn their vessels around to bring the unused starboard broadsides to bear. Orders were issued, but amidst the tumult of battle the battered Detroit and Queen Charlotte collided, becoming helplessly entangled.

Taking full advantage of his enemy's blunder, Perry steered the Niagara through the jumbled British battle line. Unleashing both broadsides, the American commodore ravaged the vulnerable British ships. As the Niagara pressed through the British line Perry backed the maintop sail, holding the Niagara stationary while her belching carronades decimated the enemy decks. The wind had also picked up by this time, allowing the sluggish gunboats to rush forward and rake the enemy from astern.

A few minutes after 3 p.m., the British bowed to the inevitable. The four largest vessels surrendered one by one. The gunboats Chippawa and Little Belt sheered off and tried to escape, but they were tracked down and snared by the Scorpion and Trippe. The entire British fleet had been captured.

The American vessels anchored and hasty repairs were underway near West Sister Island when Perry composed his now famous message to General William Henry Harrison (who we met in Part 3). Scrawled in pencil on the back of an old envelope, Perry wrote, "Dear General: We have met the enemy and they are ours. Two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop. Yours with great respect and esteem, O. H. Perry".

The Battle of Lake Erie proved one of the most resounding American triumphs of the War of 1812. It secured control of Lake Erie and forced the British to abandon Fort Malden and retreat. Harrison's army pursued, decisively defeating the small British army and its allied Indian force on October 5, 1813 at the Battle of the Thames. Later, during peace talks, the dual victories of Lake Erie and Thames ensured that the states of Ohio and Michigan would remain the sovereign territory of the United States.

Next time, in Part 7, we head to southeastern Ohio where we will meet my great-grandfather.

Sunday, August 1, 2021

Beams in My Home Town and Other Personal Stuff (Part 5)


This is 'Johnny Appleseed' as most people remember him, an apple-loving Disney character.
Growing up in Mansfield, Ohio, my home town, you heard a lot about John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed. I grew up around the corner from Johnny Appleseed Junior High School and my family often shopped at the Appleseed Shopping Center on the south side of town. From 1962 to 1980, high school sports teams around Mansfield competed in the Johnny Appleseed Conference.

There is a monument to him in Mansfield's South Park, close to the reconstructed blockhouse.

The stories we were told about him as kids weren't much different from the Disney version. He lived in Mansfield during frontier times and planted a lot of appleseeds, hence the nickname. He just liked apples.

John 'Johnny Appleseed' Chapman (1774–1845) is significant to our story because during the War of 1812 he often traveled between the far-flung homesteads, such as Beam's Mill, to warn people of Indian activity and other danger. He plays this role in Hugh Nissenson's novel, The Tree of Life, too.

Chapman was a lay missionary, influenced by the writings of scientist and Swedish Lutheran theologian Emanuel Swedenborg. He never married and never really had a permanent residence. He was around Mansfield a lot for a time but as the frontier moved west, so did he. 

Back east, Chapman had apprenticed as a nurseryman. A nurseryman grows trees from seeds. The strongest seedlings are then transplanted to form orchards. The apple varieties Chapman planted in his nurseries were not 'eating apples,' they were intended for the production of hard cider. Chapman believed apples and the hard cider made from them would be an excellent pioneer industry. Naturally, the alcoholic beverage part of the story never made its way to our young ears.

We did hear he was eccentric, dressed shabbily, and often went barefoot. He was friend to both settlers and natives, kind and generous to all, and so on. In the 60s, he sometimes was portrayed as a sort of proto-hippie. At my Catholic school he was compared to Saint Francis of Assisi.

According to Harper's New Monthly Magazine, Chapman was present when an itinerant missionary was exhorting an open-air congregation in Mansfield. The sermon was severe and tedious on the topic of sinful extravagance, because the early Mansfielders were buying luxuries such as calico and imported tea. "Where now is there a man who, like the primitive Christians, is traveling to heaven barefooted and clad in coarse raiment?" After hearing this exhortation several times, a fed-up Chapman stepped to the front, put his bare foot on the stump that had served as a podium and said, "Here is your primitive Christian!" The sermon ended abruptly.

Next time, in Part 6, we leave Mansfield and the Beams for one last bit about Ohio and the War of 1812. 

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Beams in My Home Town and Other Personal Stuff (Part 4)


The War of 1812 is often called the Second War for American Independence. It was fought on several fronts, including the Ohio frontier and the Great Lakes.

When the War of 1812 began, the U. S. Army joined local militia protecting settlers in and around the tiny frontier community of Mansfield, Ohio. A diary kept by an American soldier on a march through northern Ohio tells about a visit to Beam’s Mill while his company was camped at Mansfield. 

The entry for November 20, 1812, reads: “We got orders to march and got ridy (sic) and orders was countermanded we went to Beam's mill to press corn and got it by paying 62 1/2 cents per bushel then returned to camp.”

This may have been war profiteering, or perhaps Nissenson got a detail wrong in his novel, The Tree of Life. Nissenson has his protagonist pay Beam about 30 cents to mill 300 pounds, which is around 5 1/3 bushels of shelled corn. If both accounts are accurate, then Beam was charging the U.S. Army more than 10 times the going rate.

Assuming "press" means the same as "mill" or "grind," that is. If it meant something more like "get," then perhaps 62 1/2 cents per bushel was a fair price.

Whichever it was, the Army in those situations typically 'paid' with promissory notes, not gold, and the U.S. government’s promises weren’t as good then as they might be considered today, so perhaps both sides were indifferent to the price being charged as neither expected any actual money would ever change hands.

Arriving as he did in November, the diarist missed the most significant war-related events involving the Beam settlement.

A few miles southeast of Beam’s Mill was a small Indian village known as Greentown. It was close to where Perrysville is today. The inhabitants were mostly Delaware but a few were Mohawk and Mingo. Although the Greentown Indians were considered peaceful, there were concerns about rising tensions, exacerbated by British agents.

American policy in the region was to concentrate the Indian population as much as possible. Late in August of 1812, the people of Greentown were ordered to relocate about 140 miles to the southwest, to Piqua (near present day Dayton) “for their own good.”

The people of Greentown had been assured that the relocation was temporary but immediately after they left, U. S. troops torched the village. The inhabitants were still close enough to see the rising smoke and realized they had been deceived. 

No one can say for sure if what happened next was retaliation for that betrayal, but it always has been assumed that it was.

A few weeks after the torching of Greentown, troops bivouacked at Beam’s Mill were patrolling the area and discovered the bodies of four dead settlers at the nearby farm of George Zimmer. Although it was known that Zimmer had some personal conflicts with local Indians, it was assumed that the Zimmers, their daughter, and a neighbor were killed because of the destruction of Greentown. Maybe not, but their deaths caused many settlers to flee to Beam’s Mill for the security of its blockhouse and bivouacked troops.

Four days later a small detachment of soldiers was dispatched from Beam’s Mill to the nearby farm of James Copus as a precaution. Captain Martin, who was in command of the troops at Beam’s Mill, promised to send more the next day, but his scouts failed to detect any Indian presence so he concluded the danger had passed.

He was wrong.

That night, Indians attacked the farm killing three soldiers and one settler, and wounding several others. The event, known as the Copus Massacre, is commemorated with a small stone monument at the site. Most kids who grow up in Mansfield go there on a field trip at some point. 'Massacre' is probably an overstatement, as the settlers were well-armed and fought back. 'Skirmish' may be closer to the truth.  

There is nothing to mark the graves of approximately twelve soldiers who died of disease while stationed at Beam's Mill. The exact location of their remains is unknown.

After the war, things settled down at Beam's Mill. The blockhouse was taken down and grain milling became the principal activity there. The Beams sold it and after several owners it became known as Campbell's Mill. In the 1840s, a new mill building was constructed on the original foundations. It continued until the 1930s. Today the property is Hattery & Chatlain Nursery. Nothing marks the site today, but that is really where Mansfield began.

Descendants of Jacob Beam still live in the Mansfield area.

Next time, in Part 5, we will meet one of Mansfield's favorite and most famous native sons.