Friday, April 15, 2011

Fixing Whiskey in Mahoneyville










Identified by McClure’s magazine in 1920 as the U.S.Government’s “chief analyst of whiskey,” a professor named Tolman declared that the widely sold brand of liquor merchandised as “Arlington Pure Rye” was simply neutral spirits colored and flavored. In short, this purported whiskey was an outright fraud on the public. The conclusions of the Federal inspector must have caused a chaos in Mahoneyville.

Not that Mahoneyville ever really existed. In modern parlance, it was a “virtual” place, apparently encompassing Alexandria, Portsmouth and Norfolk,Virginia, and eventually Baltimore, Maryland. Nonetheless, an investor could have bought stock in its distillery. Mahoneyville was the brainchild of two brothers, Edward and John Mahoney of Portsmouth. An 1872 local directory listed them as wine and liquor dealers doing business under the name J & E Mahoney at 11 and 13 High Street. Edward was president and John was treasurer.

Subsequently the pair hatched the idea of moving into distilling whiskey and calling the operation “Mahoneyville.” They located the distillery in Alexandria, as indicated in a 1893 ad. Liquor tax records from the Federal Government indicate that Mahoneyville Distilling carried out transactions at its Alexandria area facility from 1898 at least through 1914. The brothers also adopted Northern Virginia names for their whiskeys: Arlington Pure Rye and Cameron Springs Whiskey. Their other liquor brands also reflected Commonweath origins: Belle of Virginia Blended Rye, Lake Drummond Rye, and Hampton Roads Whiskey.

The company registered most of these trade names with the U.S. during 1905 and 1906. Monogram Whiskey, another Mahoney product, was not among them. Although labels long ago have been washed away from most of its containers, Mahoney whiskey bottles were strongly embossed and can be readily identified. Subsequent bottles are more elaborately lettered and identify the Mahoneys as “distillers” At some point the brothers also acknowledged their role as “rectifiers,” that is, outfits that mixed whiskey -- and too often other substances -- to obtain a more tasty, smoother product. Early in the 20th Century, the Mahoneys opened a store in Norfolk and began to cite that location on their bottles.

The brother’s liquor empire included several entities. In addition to Mahoneyville Distilling and J & E Mahoney, the family members operated the Edward L. Mahoney Company of Norfolk (1898-1913) and E. Mahoney & Son of Norfolk (1906-1908). A mini-jug from the latter firm boasts that the whiskey inside is “On the Square,” adding: “You know the rest, it is Mahoney’s best.” John and Edward also branched out into selling beer, advertising themselves as agents for the Consumer Brewing Company and its Bronco Export Beer.

Mahoneyville came to a screeching halt in Virginia in 1916 when the state voted for a complete prohibition of alcoholic beverages. The Mahoneys then moved their operations to Maryland where they set up shop at 30 S. Calvert Street in Baltimore. They continued to sell their whiskeys from that location from 1917 until 1920 when the Nation went completely dry and the business closed.

My guess is that the adulteration of Arlington Pure Rye, as decried by Professor Tolman and McClure’s magazine, was a result of the Mahoneys shutting down the Alexandria distillery and moving entirely into rectifying whiskey in Baltimore. Instead of creating and aging their products, they were mixing up ingredients in batches in a back room and slapping the old labels on it. To paraphrase Shakespeare: Something rotten was going on in Mahoneyville.

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