Monday, September 26, 2022

A Century Ago, a Whiskey Warehouse Fire Inspired a Popular Novel

 

Red Likker, a novel by Irvin S. Cobb (1929)
Almost a century ago, a spectacular and suspicious fire at a whiskey warehouse in Kentucky inspired a popular author to write a fictional history of bourbon.

Irvin S. Cobb was an American author, humorist, and columnist who was born in Kentucky but lived most of his life in New York. He authored more than 60 books and 300 short stories. His novel, Red Likker, was published in 1929. It concerns a Kentucky family named Bird and follows them from their pioneer beginnings through Attila Bird’s service in the Civil War, on the Confederate side. 

The Birds are whiskey makers and after the war, Colonel Bird becomes a successful Kentucky distiller. The story ends with Prohibition and its climax is based on actual events that occurred at the Forks of Elkhorn Distillery, then owned by R. A. Baker and Thomas Hinds. That site today is a bottling and maturation facility for Beam Suntory. Some people remember it as the Old Grand-Dad Distillery.

Cobb’s Colonel Bird is a man of high principles, brought sharply into focus by the duplicity of everyone around him. He is nearing the end of his long life. The government won’t allow him to sell the whiskey maturing in his warehouses, a product that was legal when he made it. He is approached by scoundrels willing to buy it, but who also threaten to steal it if he won’t sell. In the end he burns it all to the ground, after first cancelling his fire insurance because, you know, principles.

The real Forks of Elkhorn fire occurred on July 21, 1924. It destroyed a federally-licensed concentration warehouse that apparently held both case goods and maturing barrels, as one newspaper described “bottles, barrels and cases popped all Monday night in the dying flames.” The Lexington Herald reported that 2,200 cases and 1,500 barrels of whiskey were destroyed. Two additional warehouses were saved.

Most of the maturing whiskey that was lost belonged to Mary Dowling. She had made it at her Waterfill & Frazier Distillery in Anderson County but was required by the Feds to move it to Frankfort following her arrest for illegal sales. The remainder was owned by the distillery. Although faulty wiring appeared to be the cause, there was a report that the insurance had been cancelled just a few days before the fire occurred, which inspired Cobb’s climax. Baker and Hinds subsequently sold the facility to the Paul Jones Company, best known for their Four Roses brand. 

The fire occurred just as whiskey interests were arguing for a reduction in fire insurance rates, since there was “virtually no fire risk” in the government’s concentration warehouses, so they claimed. Three days after the fire, the Kentucky Actuarial Bureau announced that no rate reduction would be granted.

Monday, September 19, 2022

The Truth About Moonshine.


The romanticized image of moonshine.
Hate sits alone on the hood of his car.
Without much regard to the moon or the stars.
Lazily killing the last of a jar
of the strongest stuff you can drink.


From The Ballad Of Love And Hate by the Avett Brothers

Okay, class, what is Hate drinking?

Why moonshine, of course. The jar reference gives it away. So does the last line, although that's one of the many myths about moonshine.

So, what is moonshine? Moonshine is any distilled spirit, regardless of type, that is made by an unregistered distillery. Unregistered means illegal, underground, off-the-grid. It is illegal to distill alcohol without registering your still and obtaining a license for it, even at home just for fun. The license is federal but the state gets involved too.

Distilleries have to register so they can be taxed. Taxes are about half the price of any distilled alcoholic beverage, more than virtually any other product and a lot more than you may think. 

Because 'moonshine' is just a spirit that was illegally made, it is not a type of spirit. Therefore, 'legal moonshine' is an oxymoron. The people who regulate such things, at both the state and federal levels, allow producers to call their products 'moonshine' as long as the product is also identified by its actual, official classification.

Theoretically, a producer can call anything 'moonshine,' but legal moonshine is usually one of three recognized distilled spirit types. (1) neutral spirit, i.e., vodka. (2) cane spirit, i.e., 'sugar shine.' (3) un-aged corn whiskey.  

Of the three, (2) is the most authentic. As Max Watman explains in his excellent book, Chasing the White Dog, real moonshiners (the illegal kind) use table sugar almost exclusively because it is cheap, readily available, and ferments easily.

Moonshining is still practiced today. The goal is to make it fast and cheap, don't get caught, and don't kill anybody, generally in that order of priority. People think moonshine is strong because it tastes bad and they equate that flavor with alcohol strength, but a lot of moonshine isn't even at the minimum of 80° proof (40% alcohol by volume) at which most straight spirits are sold. It just tastes bad. 

The romantic image of moonshine is of a rustic craftsman, an artisan making The Real Thing, uncompromised by Big Business. The reality is that moonshiners are more like the people who make methamphetamine, and often they are the same people. Moonshiners are criminals, out for a fast buck, generally by preying on the poor and ignorant.

Not that a moonshiner can't also be a good distiller gone bad. Back in the 1940s, after he left Heaven Hill in a huff, Harry Beam fell on hard times and did a little 'shining to make ends meet. Yes, those Beams. Harry's dad and Jim Beam were first cousins.

But 99 percent of moonshine is nothing special and some of it is dangerous, as in poisonous, so if you are ever offered some maybe have a tiny sip, just to be polite.

Thursday, September 1, 2022

About That Whiskey Warehouse Demolished Yesterday

 

The Nelson Distillery Warehouse, Louisville, looking east from Lexington Road. (Demolished 8/31/2022.)

As reported by WDRB.com, the Nelson Distillery Warehouse at Louisville's Distillery Commons complex is being demolished after an emergency order labeled it 'unsafe.' The order said it was in "imminent danger" of failing or collapsing. 

A red brick structure on a limestone foundation, it was built as a whiskey maturation warehouse in 1895. Empty and unused for 50 years, it sat at a very prominent intersection mere feet from Lexington Road, a major route between downtown and Louisville's residential east side. What was 'imminent' was the desire of a developer to build condos there.

The building was unquestionably in bad shape. Many maturation warehouses in Kentucky sat empty during the last quarter of the 20th century, when bourbon sales were in the doldrums. As things began to improve in the early aughts, producers identified all available existing warehouses, acquired and renovated them as needed, and put them back into service. Some required extensive renovation. In Frankfort, Buffalo Trace took a former warehouse that had been converted into a state office building and turned it back into a maturation warehouse. 

After all the existing warehouses were brought back, new construction began. The need for maturation facilities continues to grow.

So why wasn't the Nelson Warehouse among the restorations? The condition of the building, after decades of neglect, is only one of the reasons. Masonry warehouses generally are not favored by producers, nor are warehouses in urban areas, where neighbors will fuss about Baudoinia compniacensis, the 'whiskey fungus.' A maturation warehouse is mostly wood and high-proof alcohol, so it is kind of flammable. You don't want that too close to people.

The preference now is for steel buildings in remote, rural areas. There is also a preference for doing everything--distilling, maturation, and bottling--at one site. A lone maturation warehouse, at that location, makes no sense.

There were many distilleries in that neighborhood after about 1860. The Nelson Warehouse was one of the last pieces of what became a mammoth complex of distilleries and related enterprises, all based around Beargrass Creek, a few miles upstream from its confluence with the Ohio River. The complex ultimately became part of the Kentucky Distilleries and Warehouse Company, the Kentucky arm of the Whiskey Trust. It was a major whiskey producer until Prohibition.

Like most Trust distilleries, the complex at Payne and Lexington made vast quantities of commodity whiskey, sold under many different brand names. It was huge. The largest maturation warehouse ever built was there. It held 145,000 barrels. The Nelson Warehouse held about 40,000.

Two former warehouses and other buildings from the distillery complex remain as Distillery Commons, a mixed-use development. The adjacent Irish Hill residential neighborhood is still largely intact. The modest housing there was originally built for distillery workers, who numbered in the thousands. The site's other neighbor is Cave Hill Cemetery.

After Prohibition, under the ownership of National Distillers, no distillation was done there but the site was a major maturation, bottling, and distribution facility, primarily for National's Old Grand-Dad bourbon brand. When the decision was made to close the plant, the bottling house continued to operate until the last warehouse was empty. That happened in 1974.

In 1979, Ray Schuhmann bought the property and began the development of Distillery Commons. Schuhmann's main business was commercial photography and one of his clients was General Electric, which has its major appliances factory in Louisville. The vast, empty spaces in the distillery buildings allowed him to build photography sets to show appliances like ovens, refrigerators, washers, and dryers in realistic settings. Because there was so much space he could just leave the sets in place. Another part of the complex was redeveloped into a recording studio. Another part became an entertainment venue. The Nelson Warehouse stood empty at the easternmost point of the complex, a 45° angle formed by the intersection of Payne Street and Lexington Road, partially hidden by some trees and a billboard.

No one ever found a use for it.

There was a proposal, drafted in 2020, to give the Nelson Warehouse official landmark designation. 

The impracticality and undesirability of returning the structure to service as a maturation warehouse probably doomed it. Everything else in the complex was either restored and repurposed, or demolished and replaced, many years ago. The Nelson Warehouse only stood there like it did for as long as it did because no one wanted it or the land under it badly enough to do anything about it. Until now.