Wednesday, November 17, 2021

The World That Made Me: Nike Missiles


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

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

1869 Gaines, Berry & Company letterhead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 6, 2021

With Whiskey, Time Is Money


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

That Time I Saw an Old Man Play Guitar


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

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

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

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

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

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

It was Jimmy Raney.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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