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.