Monday, July 21, 2014

Charles Nelson and the Green Brier Distillery

As noted in the past, when I find substantial biographical material already written about a prominent whiskey man, it is my practice to use it, not reinvent what is reasonably comprehensive.  So it is with Charles Nelson, shown here, a Tennessee whiskey distiller and dealer with a substantial record of accomplishment.   In this case, the biography was written by Nelson’s great-great-great grandsons, Andy and Charlie Nelson, who in 2012 began bottling a whiskey they said was from their ancestor’s recipes.  On their website they told this story about Nelson and his Green Brier Distillery:

Charles Nelson was born July 4, 1835 in Hagenow, a small town in the Mecklenburg-Schwerin state of northern Germany. He was the eldest of six children whose father, John Philip Nelson, owned a soap and candle factory. When Charles was 15, his father decided he wanted to move his family to America for a better life. He sold his soap and candle factory, converted all of the family’s earthly possessions to gold and had special clothing made to hold all of that gold on his person during the journey. In late October of 1850, he gathered his family and boarded the Helena Sloman to set sail for America.

As fate would have it, on November 19 of that year, intense storms and gale force winds sent many of the nearly 180 passengers overboard. John Philip Nelson was one of those unfortunate souls and weighed down by the family fortune, he sank directly to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Luckily, the rest of the family arrived safely in New York, but with only the clothes on their backs, and 15 year-old Charles found himself man of the house.

Penniless yet determined, Charles and his brother began doing the only thing they knew how to do: make soap and candles. After saving some money, the Nelson family moved west, settling in Cincinnati, Ohio. It was there that Charles, merely 17 years of age, entered the butcher business and acquainted himself with a number of fellow craftsmen who educated him in the art of producing and selling distilled spirits, particularly whiskey.

Several years later, just before the start of the Civil War, Charles set out for Nashville seeking a fresh start and another American dream took tenuous root. He opened a new grocery store built on the foundation of his three best-selling products: coffee, meat and whiskey. These products quickly built Charles a reputation that went unmatched in Nashville’s merchant circles. His honesty and fair dealings brought about great prosperity for his business as well as an elevated social status in the community. Very quickly, Charles realized that the demand for his whiskey far exceeded his supply, revealing to him the opportunity to focus solely on whiskey.

....As for Charles, he bought the distillery [shown here] that was making his whiskey in Greenbrier, TN, and a patent for improved distillation, and expanded the production capacity in order to keep up with demand. With this expansion, Nelson was not only creating more jobs, he was making a name for Tennessee Whiskey. By 1885, there were hundreds of whiskey distilleries in Tennessee, but only a handful was producing significant volume. The three most notable were Cascade (now George Dickel), Jack Daniel’s, and Charles Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery. That year, Charles Nelson sold nearly 380,000 gallons of Nelson’s Green Brier Tennessee Whiskey in markets ranging from Jacksonville, FL to San Francisco, CA to Paris, France, while Jack Daniel’s production capacity was just 23,000 gallons.

In addition to the volume he sold of his own whiskey, Nelson was one of the first to actually bottle and sell whiskey rather than selling it by the jug or the barrel. The distillery, which was commonly known as “Old Number Five” due to the fact that it was registered distillery number five and was located in the fifth tax district, became a favorite stop of federal regulators and tax inspectors due to the warmth and hospitality shown to them by Nelson and his employees. It is safe to say that by introducing the category of Tennessee Whiskey to the world and offering a superior product, Charles Nelson had indeed become a household name.

After decades of great struggle and brilliant triumph, Charles Nelson passed away on December 13, 1891. His wife Louisa assumed control of the business, becoming one of the only women to ever run a distillery. In 1909, statewide Prohibition forced Louisa to discontinue operations and Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery closed its doors.

Addemdum: An article in Wikipedia added information about Nelson and Green Brier to describe why the  distillery site, one that includes the still standing barrel house shown below, merits inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places:

Nelson's Greenbrier Distillery was a major contributor to the economy and growth of the town of Greenbrier during the late 19th century. It employed about 25 people directly and provided a market for farmers' corn, locally made barrels, and other products. Its presence resulted in the construction of a railroad line and station in Greenbrier.

Whiskey production at the Greenbrier distillery ended after Tennessee enacted prohibition on July 1, 1909, but whiskey that had been produced before that time continued to be sold in other states until 1915. Although Robertson County whiskey had enjoyed a reputation for superior quality, the county's whiskey industry was not revived after Prohibition ended.

The property's listing on the National Register reflects its importance in industry and commerce, as well as its association with proprietor Charles Nelson, who was prominent in areas including banking, farming, and barrel-making. The listed property is a 5-acre area, although the distillery occupied a much larger area. Most of the distillery buildings are no longer present. The only historic buildings that remain are an early 20th-century warehouse, a spring house that supplied fresh water to the distillery, and a barrel house. The site includes a dam across Rocky Fork Creek. One old mash tub and remnants of building foundations are found on the grounds.

And a last word from Charles Nelson’s obituary:

“Mr. Nelson was in the fullest sense a public-spirited citizen. Every enterprise intended for the good of Nashville received his hearty support and generous help. He was a man not of words but of actions.” – Nashville Daily American (Dec. 14, 1891)

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Maybe It Didn’t Always Pay to Meet Abe Freeman

“It will pay you to meet me,” claimed Abraham Freeman, pictured here, the flamboyant proprietor of a “cut price” liquor business in Atlantic City, New Jersey.   Fellows named Brown, Fleming and Sooy would have taken issue with that assertion.  They probably would have been much happier had they never met Freeman -- but that story comes later.  First, we should meet whiskey man Abe.

Historical records indicate that Freeman was born in London, England, in 1871, although one census listed him as a native of Germany.  His parents were German Jewish émigrés to England, Isaac Freeman (sometimes given as Freedman or Friedman) and Esther (Hester) Altmark.  The second of at least three Freeman sons, Abraham emigrated to the United States from England at an early age, likely settling first in Philadelphia.  There he met his wife, Rose Meyerhoff and wed her in Philadelphia in 1885.  She was the daughter of a German immigrant couple, Raphael (called Robert) Meyerhoff and Julie Isenberg.   Abe was 24 and Rose a year younger.  By the following year the couple had moved to Atlantic City, New Jersey, where Abe went to work for his father-in-law.  Meyerhoff about 1882 had  established a liquor business on Atlantic Avenue, the street shown here in an early 1900s postcard.

The 1910 U.S. census found the Freemans at home in the Third Ward of Atlantic City with three daughters,  Julia, 16;  Irma, 14, and Dorothy, 11.  Living with the family was the widower Robert Meyerhoff and two servants.   Now in his mid-seventies,  Meyerhoff by death or design turned the business over to Freeman sometime after 1910.  By 1913 Abe was aggressively advertising “Freeman’s Cut Price Liquor Store.”  His price list featured his picture and the assertion that “It Will Pay to Meet Me.” Freeman’s list featured a full line of whiskeys, champagnes,and other wines at “New York Cut Prices.”  His  case whiskeys included an array of national brands, including Overholt, Green River, Gibson, Clarke, Trimble, Wilson, Gallagher & Burton, and Mt. Vernon.   Under Freeman’s management the business prospered.  In 1911 he expanded the premises, adding a warehouse and a garage at the rear of his store.

In addition to his retail trade Freeman sold bulk whiskey on a wholesale basis to saloons and restaurants, often providing it in stoneware jugs with cobalt script of his name.  He also gave his customers, both wholesale and retail, several varieties of shot glasses all of them with measuring lines on them and topped with what appears to be a moose or elk head.  Since he gave these items away, he must have been popular with many folks in Atlantic City.   But likely not with Mssrs. Brown, Fleming and Sooy.

The three men figured in a bizarre episode in Freeman’s life:  While automobiles were not an entirely new conveyance, they were expensive and many people, including Abe, did not own one but he liked “joy riding” with friends around town and the countryside.   In 1913 Freeman engaged a vehicle from one William Brown who rented out his open touring car for $4 an hour (a whopping $100 in present currency) and provided a chauffeur, in this case Mr. Fleming.   Loading the automobile with friends,  Freeman jumped into the front seat beside Fleming and they took off.  Enroute, a gust of wind blew the driver’s hat in the air and in an effort to catch it Fleming let go of the wheel momentarily.  Seizing the opportunity to drive, Freeman grabbed the steering wheel and swerved the automobile to the side of the road and crashed into a ditch.  According to an account given in court:  “All the occupants of the car were more or less injured and Fleming sustained a dislocated shoulder.”

Freeman’s troubles had just begun. The car was left where it had been ditched and Abe hied off to the nearest inhabited place where he met, likely for the first time, Mr. Sooy.  He hired Sooy and some assistants on the spot to remove Brown’s damaged car from the ditch.  By the time the party returned to the scene of the accident, it had turned dark. They carried a gas lantern to assist their work, sitting it on the ground to light the scene.  As they began to raise the car an odor of gasoline was detected where it apparently had leaked from the gas tank and soaked into the earth.  In an instant the flame from the lantern touched off the fumes and the ground caught fire, spreading quickly to Brown’s expensive automobile.  The vehicle swiftly was consumed by flames and rendered a total loss.   When Brown sued Freeman for damages, the liquor dealer contended that it was Sooy’s fault and he himself bore no responsibility.  The court of first jurisdiction disagreed and told him to pay up.  Continuing to object, Freeman appealed the verdict to the New Jersey Court of Errors and Appeals. There the result was the same.  Sooy was found to be in the employ of Freeman and as the employer Freeman was liable.  He paid.

Still other troubles were ahead.  A year later, Federal Food and Drug agents entered Freeman’s 1532 Atlantic Avenue premises and seized 20 cases of “Radio-Active Mountain Valley Water.” Each case contained a dozen green embossed glass bottles.  The product,  reputedly from Hot Springs, Arkansas, carried a label claiming to be a remedy for Bright’s (kidney) disease, diabetes, cystitis, and rheumatism.   This was a period when nostrum peddlers, taking advantage of public ignorance about radioactivity were pushing such mineral waters as panaceas.   In the case of Mountain Valley Water, scientists had determined that patients would have to consume an entire liter at one time to get even a modicum of radioactivity.  Moreover, there was no evidence that the water was useful in the treatment of the diseases as claimed.  Although Abe Freeman was the distributor, this time the fine of $500 fell on the Mountain Valley Water Company.

In addition to selling Mountain Valley Water, Freeman was the Atlantic City agent for another bottled water called “Clysmic.”  This product, which was the self-declared “King of Table Waters,”  made no specific therapeutic claims but advertised that it “promotes health, pleases the palate and exhilarates the mind.”   Just in case the mind needed additional exhilarating, Clysmic provided customers with a serving tray that depicted a bare breasted,  beauty with long tresses sitting in a stream with an elk drinking at her side.

Freeman had a relatively short time to make his mark in the whiskey trade, possibly as brief as seven or eight years after taking over for his father-in-law.  Although New Jersey was not a “dry” state, the enactment of National Prohibition meant the end of all liquor sales, even cut rate ones.  Abe shut his doors on Atlantic Avenue, never to open them again.  Records indicate two dates of death for Freeman.   One shows him passing in Atlantic City in 1927; a second in 1948 in Forest Hills, New York.

But the story does not end there.  The Freemans’ daughter Irma married a man named Mark Bertram Bacharach, a well-known syndicated newspaper columnist.  That couple produced one of the most celebrated American singers, song writers, composers, pianists and record producer of the 20th Century, Burt Freeman Bacharach.  Obviously named after his grandfather, Bacharach, a six time Grammy Award winner and three times Academy Award winner,  might or might not have known his grandfather.  The song writer was born in 1928, one year after Freeman died according to one record; by another account he would have been 20 years old and certainly have known Abe Freeman, a man who wanted people to meet him.


Monday, July 7, 2014

John Gibson Built It -- They Came and Kept Coming

More than a century before the movie “Field of Dreams,” popularized the phrase, “Build it and they will come,”  John Gibson built his distillery on the banks of the Monogahela River south of Pittsburgh and made “Gibson” a whiskey name that prevailed long after he had died and even into the era of Prohibition.  Customers kept coming for seventy years.

Born in 1794 in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Gibson emigrated to the United States at an early age, settling in Philadelphia and apparently working in the whiskey trade. According to company materials, in 1837 he struck out on his own, running a successful liquor business in Philadelphia.  Local histories suggest he was also distilling, possibly on a limited basis for local consumption.  That changed in 1856 when the now prosperous Ulsterman purchased 40 acres of land on the east side of the Monongahela River, not far from Pittsburgh, and erected the Gibsonton Mills Distillery.  Also known as the Monongahela Distillery, it was designated RD#14 in the 23rd District of Pennsylvania.  Reports of the time note that it was solidly built of limestone blocks from  a nearby quarry.

As Gibson was moving toward business prominence in Philadelphia,  he found a wife. She was Rebecca, a native-born Pennsylvanian who was 11 years his junior. The 1860 U.S. census found the couple living in the 12th Ward of Philadelphia with three of their female children, ranging in age from 17 to 30.  Not at home was their son, Henry Clay Gibson, a twenty year old who was working with his father in the liquor business.  John Gibson died, age 68, and was buried in Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill Cemetery while his grieving wife and children stood by the grave.

With John Gibson’s death, the business passed to Henry, just  22 years old.  Whether it was his youth and relative inexperience or other motivations,  Henry soon formed an association with two local businessmen, Andrew M. Moore and Joseph F. Sinnott.  Sinnott like John Gibson had emigrated from Ireland.  The company now became John Gibson’s Son & Co.  Shown here in maturity, Henry Gibson with his partners continued to expand the sales of their whiskey to national proportions and with it expanded the Gibsonton Distillery. 

The drawing of the distillery above was one of a series done by Ernest Hexamer, an insurance surveyor based on Philadelphia. He conducted his first survey of the facility in 1870, mapping the buildings and noting details of its operation.  Initially Hexamer found that the distillery was constructed of cut stone, measuring 2-1/2 ft wide. It housed three stills - one large wooden still and two smaller copper stills. All three were heated by steam. Hexamer recorded three bonded warehouses with a fourth under construction.  All were built of stone about four stories high with basements and slate roofs. John Gibson clearly had built for the ages.  When Hexamer returned ten years later two more stone warehouses had been added. The surveyor's 1880 drawing leads off this post. At that point the Gibson facility employed 55 men and three boys. 

By 1880, John Gibson’s Son & Co. was booming.  It featured a blizzard of brands: "Gibson's Rip Van Winkle," "Choice Old Cabinet,”  "Choice Old Monongahela,”  "Deer Creek No. 4,” "Gibson,” "Gibson's,” "Gibson's Bourbon.” "Gibson's Gilt Edge,” "Gibson's High Proof,” "Gibson's Monogram Rye,”  "Gibson's Old Cabinet,”  "Gibson's Old Nectar 1840,"Gibsonton Mills” "John Gibson's Rye,” "Pure Monongahela Rye,” and "Record Gibson's Rye."  Part of the company success may have been its willingness to let retail customers claim a share in the prestige of Gibson whiskeys by including their names on whiskey labels.  Shown here is the label for Pure Old Gibson Rye Whiskey with space for a retail outlet to add its own name and often “bottled by” same.  Customers could also put out their own saloon signs showing a Gibson product.  As shown here, Al Voiland Co. of Kansas City issued one showing at least six nude women swirling around a bottle of Gibson’s.

Despite the study stone construction, the Gibsonton distillery suffered the same plague as many other distillers of the time -- fire.  In December 1882 a blaze in warehouse No. 1 destroyed 3,000 barrels of whiskey.   Only six months later in June 1883 a barrel of Gibson’s aging whiskey blew out its bung and sprayed whiskey over a lamp with an open flame being carried by a distillery worker.  The resulting conflagration quickly engulfed one warehouse and then spread to a second.  The loss to John Gibson’s Son & Company was 10,000 barrels of whiskey up in flames, according to the New York Times.  The value was set at $500,000 or, the equivalent of $12.5 million today.

Whether it was discouragement over the fires or a desire for a change of pace,  Henry Clay Gibson, now considered one of the wealthiest men in Philadelphia, retired from the firm his father had established and turned his attention to assembling one of America’s greatest private art collections.  Although Henry was not sufficiently avant garde  to fancy the Impressionists,  preferring realistic European paintings of the official Salon, he did have a fair representation of such well respected artists as Corot and Courbet.

Moore and Sinnott were now in charge of the whiskey business.   As shown on the letterhead above, they promptly changed the company name to their own.  They continued, however, to use the Gibson name on their products, such as the bottle of Gibson XXXX shown here, adding their own names in smaller print.  They did, however, initiate a Moore and Sinnott brand whiskey.   Henry Gibson apparently had never registered his most famous brands with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office, possibly doubting, as many whiskey men did, that it would be worth the trouble and money.  With the strengthening  of the law by Congress in 1904, however,  the new owners trademarked Gibsonton Mills, John Gibson’s Rye and Record Gibson’s Rye.

As with past management's, Moore & Sinnott  continued to expand the Gibsonton facility.  The final Hexamer survey in 1885 showed that the plant now had a daily mashing capacity of 1,250 bushels and was employing 100 men and six boys.  Three new warehouses had been built and roofed with asbestos, as a precaution against fire.  Moreover,  most of the warehouses had been surrounded by ditches in order to direct burning whiskey away from the distillery buildings and toward a railroad opening.

What happened to Andrew Moore is uncertain, but Joseph Sinnott,  who eventually appeared to own the entire Gibson “empire,” died at age 69 in 1906 and was buried in St. Patrick’s Cemetery, Philadelphia.  At that point his family members appear to have taken management control of the company and for several years the ownership reference was to “the estate of Joseph F. Sinnott,” as seen here on a reverse glass saloon sign.  

In 1908 or 1909,  the company was reorganized once again, this time as the Gibson Distilling Co., Inc.  A labeled flask shown here bears that name. The president was listed as “J Sinnott,” certainly one of Joseph’s sons.   There were three Sinnott sons whose names began with “J,”  Joseph F., James F., and John.  Since the last did not use a middle initial, my guess is that he had inherited the ownership mantle.  The company continued to advertise widely, exemplified by a 1910 trade card with a stereotypical African-American waiter.

The Gibsonton Distillery was shut down in 1919 by the coming of National Prohibition but its whiskey was one of those chosen to be sold under government auspices by prescription for “medicinal use.”  As a result the Gibson Distilling Company continued to be listed in Philadelphia business directories into the 1920s as the contents of its bonded warehouses were sold off.  The distillery site later was acquired by the Pittsburgh Steel Corporation.  It eventually dismantled the buildings and is said to have sold the limestone blocks for $1 a load.   Despite this ignominious demise, the distillery John Gibson established had survived for some seventy years -- through the Civil War,  multiple management changes, World War One and, for a time, even Prohibition.   Gibson had built it and they had come.

Note:  Henry Clay Gibson died in December 1891 after a brief sickness described as “grip,”  a term for influenza.  He was buried near his father, John, in Section W of the Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia.  By this time his art collection of European paintings and American sculpture was considered second to none in the United States, according to press accounts.  Henry willed it to the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts where some of his collection can still be seen.

Friday, July 4, 2014

A.M. Bininger and His Beautiful Bottles (and Labels)

Like many before me,  I have been fascinated by the wide array of colors, shades and shapes of bottles that bear the name A.M. Bininger,  as well as the elaborate and many hued labels employed by this liquor firm for their whiskeys and other alcoholic products.  As in the past when I find an previously written piece that captures the facts behind a whiskey man like Bininger, it makes sense to use it rather than starting anew.  Here I am providing an edited version of material by Donald J. Denzin in his 1994 book, “Antique Eastern Whiskey Bottles.”   Don, a longtime acquaintance, has graciously allowed me to make use of his information on A. M. Bininger for this vignette.  It follows:

Something of Bininger’s long history can be reconstructed...from contemporary records an advertisements.  The company, or perhaps more accurately the family business began in the eighteenth century.  Surviving A.M. Bininger advertisements and labels indicate the firm was “established” in 1778.  This is corroborated by Walter Barrett who, writing in 1863, indicated that the business patriarch of the family, Abraham Bininger, opened a small grocery store [in New York City.]

Abraham Bininger died in 1836 but his descendants carried on the business. By the mid-nineteen century, the Biningers described themselves variously as “grocers” as “dry goods merchants,” as “sole importers and proprietors of Bininger’s Old London Dock Gin,” and as “importers & jobbers of fine brandies, wines, segars, &c.”  They were probably all of these things.

By the time bottle-making technology had begun to make private molds practical, the family business was comprised of separate businesses with separate New York outlets...A. M. Bininger & Co.  (Abram M. Bininger and John M. Bolton) was based at 329 Greenwich....One thing is very clear:  A. M. Bininger & Co. excelled at distribution.  It seems plausible at any given time, that bottled A.M. Bininger spirits were sold at the other Bininger stores....In any event, the apparent commercial success enjoyed by the business is best explained by multiple sales outlets.  Further, it must not have been uncommon for bottles to have been shipped to distant points because A.M. Bininger bottles have been unearthed by diggers far beyond New York City --  ample testimony to the marketing prowess of a nineteen century business which was “big time” by any standard.  Civil War era Biningers have even turned up in the deep South, giving rise to speculation that Union Army supply lines may have transported them to blue-uniformed soldiers.

....A.M. Bininger & Co. seems to have moved often....In late 1857 or early 1858, A. M. Bininger moved to 17 Broad St....The firm moved again, probably in late 1859, to 338 Broadway....The company flourished during the Civil War years.  Housed at 19 Broad Street from 1861 until 1863 or early 1864, it marketed products in fifteen different bottles, well over half the A.M. Bininger total, with this embossed address.  The names under which its whiskey and gin were sold, “Day Dream,”  “Regulator,”  “Peep O’Day,” “Night Cap,” “Traveler’s Guide,” “Knickerbocker,” and others suggest that the flair associated with Madison Avenue today was at one time a staple on Broad Street as well.

This was also the era in which the widest variety of bottle shapes were pressed into service.  Jugs, urns, flasks, a cannon, and a clock were proudly embossed with 19 Broad St.  The labels too were uniquely fanciful.  Colorfully printed with advanced chromo lithographic techniques, 19 Broad Street labels paraded cherubs, soldiers, buckskinned pioneers, fruit baskets,  pastoral scenes and frolicking children.

....By 1864 A.M. Bininger & Co. had relocated to 375 Broadway.  Directories indicate the company remained there for no more than two years....According to city directories, the company had relocated to 39 Walker Street by 1866 and it moved next to 15 Beaver Street the following year.  No embossed bottles are known from either the Walker or Beaver St. locations.   Not surprisingly, Beaver Street, in southern Manhattan near the port, was a popular quarter for those engaged in the importing of spirits....The business may now have been less robust than in its Broad Street years because A.M. Bininger & Co. had not only eliminated the use of flamboyant bottles, it had consolidated floor space with “liquor dealer” Frank Bininger.  Both shared the 15 Beaver Street address, according to the 1870 city directory.   Similarly, perhaps in response to the same economic pressures,  Andrew and Abraham Bininger had come together under one roof at 92 Liberty Street, a few years earlier.

Embossing now went full circle.  The last known A,M. Bininger bottle, like the very first ones, included no embossed address.  it appears, in fact, as if the older “338 Broadway Old London Dock Gin” was actually used, but adapted with slug plates, to fashion a new generic bottle.  The last bottle is embossed simply, A.M. Bininger & Co., New York” on a single panel.

Circumstantial evidence makes it seem that in its final years the firm may have been made to yield its high-profile style for the sake of economy.  Yet it is just as logical to conclude that forces were personal in nature rather than business-driven.  By 1867 Abram Bininger was no longer a young man.  Whatever the situation, neither the company name nor its bottles appear after the early 1880s.

Happily for collectors of American glass, the legacy left by A. M. Bininger & Co. is a special one.  The bottles, unrivaled at the time for imaginative form, set a standard for later package design which has seldom been matched. 

Collectors can only imagine what “Night Cap,” or “Day Dreams,”  “Old Times Family Rye,” or ”Knickerbocker” must have tasted like.  They can, however, still appreciate the company’s bottles and appreciate fully the creativity and craftsmanship which make Bininger glass unique. 

At some opportune moment, perhaps a collector somewhere will propose a toast to old Abram M. Bininger and to the company that used such inventive bottles to sell whiskey to New York City and beyond.

Note:  After I contacted Don about using his material, he sent me the following addenda:

Abraham M. Bininger was defeated when he ran for Alderman of the Fifth Ward (NY Times, Nov. 9, 1854).  He lived at 167 W. 49th Street, a four-block walk away from Times Square.  I found an entry in a 1901 NYC directory that identifies E. Eising as  "successors to A.M. Bininger."  At the time, E. Eising was located at 47 Front St.  (A post on Eising can be found in this blog dated January 2012.)

Additional Note:  The majority of the the images shown here are through the courtesy of Ferdinand Meyer V whose Peachridge Glass website shows off these bottles and their fabulous colors so much better than is possible with the small formats possible through this blog.  I highly recommend a look-in to that site.  

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

George Dickel: The Name, the Fame, and the Fable

 “George Dickel” is a familiar name to anyone who has ever bought a bottle of whiskey.  As shown above, his brand appears on the labels of a variety of Tennessee whiskeys that are displayed on store shelves from coast to coast.  Moreover, Dickel has been hailed as a pioneer and innovator of American whiskey-making.  Truth to tell, it is highly possible that he never made a drop of whiskey in his life.

Shown here from the Dickel whiskey website is a likeness of George in maturity.   He was born in  Darmstadt, Germany,  in 1818.  When he was 26 years old he emigrated to the United States eventually settling in Nashville, Tennessee.  For a time Dickel owned a shoe and boot manufacturing shop.  Subsequently he opened a store in the city sometime in the 1850s where he sold a general line of goods including clothing, housewares, groceries and, as many merchants did, wine and liquor.  The 1870 census listed him as “Merchant,”  following with the cryptic initials “Wh.S.,”  which could be interpreted as “whiskey sales,” or “whole sale..”

Although the Dickel website cites him opening a retail liquor store in 1866 his company does not appear in Nashville business directories until 1874 when they began to list Geo. A. Dickel &  Co. as a liquor dealer, located on North Market Avenue.   Dickel featured his own proprietary brands, buying the whiskey from a range of Tennessee and Kentucky distilleries.    Eventually he narrowed his source down to a single distillery  located near Tullahoma in Coffee County, Tennessee, at a place called Cascade Hollow known for its pristine spring water.  Called the Cascade Distillery, the facility was owned by Matthew Sims and McLin Davis, the latter a distiller.  Dickel is said to have visited Cascade in 1867 and been impressed by its methods of whiskey-making.  Probably through a purchase agreement,  Dickel took all or most of the production of this plant.

With his name embazoned on every label, Dickel sold a Tennessee style sour mash he called Cascade, packaging it for wholesale sales in large ceramic jugs with Bristol glaze and a characteristic blue line at top and bottom.  Retail sales were made in colorfully labeled quart and flask sized glass bottles.  Dickel is credited with coining Cascade’s slogan, “Mellow as Moonlight.”

An early employee of Dickel’s was a man named Victor E. Shwab, who showed such an aptitude for the liquor business that he ultimately was made a partner.  Shwab introduced George, a longtime bachelor, to his sister-in-law, Augusta, and romance bloomed.  Born in Tennessee, Augusta was 22 years younger than George when they wed.  But unlike many May to September marriages,  Dickel had made a wise choice.  Augusta was a canny business woman and skilled at finance.  They would have no children.

As the reputation of Dickel’s Cascade whiskey spread well beyond Tennessee,  the company moved several times to larger quarters on North Market Street.  Then in 1888, the entire picture changed. Dickel was severely injured in a fall from a horse and invalided. He was forced to withdraw from the management of the liquor house he had founded.  Augusta took over and never missed a beat,  working closely with her brother-in-law, V.E. Shwab,  who in 1888 bought a half interest in the Cascade Distillery from Matthew Sims and later purchased the entire facility.

After suffering for six years with his injuries, George Dickel died, age 76, in 1894.  In his will, and likely orally as well, he instructed Augusta to sell the business upon his death at the “first favorable opportunity.”  Her own woman, she paid no heed to that admonition and maintained her interest and Dickel’s shares in the liquor enterprise.  While Shwab took care of the day to day operations, that now included the Cascade Distillery,  Augusta had the money and time to travel abroad and used the opportunity to tout Dickel whiskey to foreign audiences.  Contemporary accounts have her lavishly entertaining friends and acquaintances in France and Germany.   “All the women folks were spoiled like the Devil...They were good feeders and always had lots of parties,” opined one observer.

Under Shwab’s leadership, the company kept Dickel’s name and continued to grow. The company advertised widely as shown here in an ad for Cascade Pure Whisky that featured a baseball, a ballpark and, most interesting, an early flying machine.  Another mode of transportation that frequently graced Dickel ads was a Mississippi steamboat.  The image here is from top of a wood crate carrying George Dickel Tennessee Whisky.  Like other liquor merchants,  the company issued shot glasses to favored customers.  Augusta and Victor also were dabbling in real estate, purchasing prime property in downtown Nashville.

When Tennessee voted early statewide prohibition in 1909, the pair were forced to shut down both the Nashville liquor business and their Tullahoma distillery.  Operations were moved into Kentucky, first to Hopkinsville and subsequently to Louisville.  In Kentucky Shwab contracted with the Jacob Stilzel Distillery in Jefferson County.  It was a relatively new plant built in 1906 by Fred and Phil Stilzel, sons of Jacob, and provided the product for Cascade “Tennessee” brand whiskey for many years.

In 1916, Augusta Dickel, age 76, died. Having no children of her own, she left the ownership of the liquor business to Shwab.  According to court records, she died very rich, leaving stocks, bonds and securities worth $1 million ($25 million today) to Shwab and upon his death to his six children,  her nephews and nieces.   In his book on women in whiskey, author Fred Minnick paid her this tribute:  “Although Augusta was only an owner on paper, she could have sold her shares to a competing whiskey company, or interfered with operations.  She may not have changed the whiskey world, but August certainly made an impact by not listening to her husband.”

The advent of National Prohibition forced Shwab to shut down all operations related to Geo. A. Dickel & Co.  He died in 1924 and never saw Repeal.  Dickel’s name and the Cascade brand both survived.  In 1937 the Shwab family sold the trademarks to the Schenley Distilling Company that produced a whiskey marketed as Geo. A. Dickel’s Cascade Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey.  The product was now “Kentucky” and not “Tennessee,”;  bourbon, not charcoal filtered sour mash.

In 1858 Schenley decided to take Dickel whiskey back to its roots, perhaps to provide competition for Jack Daniels whiskey in Tennessee.  With the guidance of a master distiller,  the liquor giant rebuilt a distillery at Tullahoma, very near the site of the original Cascade Distillery, as seen above.  Now owned by Diago,  the George Dickel Distillery is the source of the bottles seen at the opening of this article, now long out of exile in Kentucky and back to being a Tennessee product. The distillery features a bust of Dickel at the entrance.

All subsequent Dickel trademark owners have engaged in puffery where George is concerned.  He has been hailed as a pioneer and innovator of American whiskey. The claim is made that he was the first to chill-filter his whiskey, the first to use sugar maple charcoal to eliminate unwanted byproducts, and the inventor of a “virgin wool blanket” as a filter.  While a pleasant fiction, the truth seems to be that Dickel never owned or operated a distillery. Only after Dickel’s fall from a horse and withdrawal from his firm did  his brother-in-law acquire a half interest in the Cascade Distillery.  No matter, liquor store shelves nationwide display his name in large letters on striking labels and George Dickel’s fame goes forward decade after decade.

Note:  Dickel spelled his product, "whisky," without the "e," in contrast to the usual American spelling and similar to the English version.  Various reasons have been given, the most likely that he thought it added prestige to his Tennessee sour mash.