Monday, June 6, 2011

Baltimore's Whiskey Scoundrel - George T. Gambrill

Behind many pre-Prohibition whiskey brands lie stories, but few have the soap opera quality of Maryland’s Roxbury Rye. Its saga begins with its founder, George T. Gambrill, whose reputation as a scoundrel seems to have pursued him throughout a long life.

Gambrill is a familiar name in Maryland. One ancestor was James Gambrill who bought the grain mill at Monacacy, Maryland, in 1856, only to find it 10 years later the centerpiece for a Civil War battle.

A 1973 genealogical publication records three hundred years of the family in the state. Many Gambrills, George included, were involved in the grain and milling trade. One observer has called the extended family “a milling dynasty.”

Born about 1845, George’s first brush with the courts was in 1864 when, in his late teens, he was forced to declare bankruptcy, unable to pay a host of creditors. Later he would claim that he had been drawn into the affairs of Gambrill Bros., his grain dealer relatives, and being young and naive, had been made the fall guy. Besides, he avowed, he had paid off his all creditors by 1868.

In 1870, according to Baltimore city directories, George was back in business as a principal in Gambrill & Williar, grain dealers. Their offices were in the posh Eutaw House, a downtown hotel, shown here, where Edgar Allen Poe is said to have written “The Raven.” Ten years later we find George with another grain firm, Trail & Gambrill. Since wheat, rye and corn are the basis of whiskeys, it seems a natural move for him to branch out from grain to grain alcohol as an ingredient in spirituous liquids. In the 1890 census he was recorded as a distiller.

In 1893 Gambrill registered Roxbury Rye as a brand with the government, with a distillery in Roxbury, Maryland, a village in Washington County about twenty-three miles from Baltimore. Despite being located in Maryland, he incorporated the company in West Virginia, probably to avoid taxes. An energetic salesman, Gambrill built Roxbury Rye into a nationally recognized brand in relatively few years.

He merchandised his liquor in attractive quart bottles. Shown here is one with original label featuring George’s initials in a logo. The bottles themselves were embossed in script that read: “Roxbury Rye...Geo. T. Gambrill ... Baltimore, Md.” A labeled pint from the distillery claims to be “The Purest Rye Whiskey in the United States. Gambrill also issued embossed mini bottles and at least one attractive back- of-the-bar decanter. He also sold whiskey in ceramic jugs.

Before long Gambrill’s distillery was Maryland’s sixth largest in terms of capacity. It also maintained impressive sales offices in Baltimore at 115 West Baltimore St. In 1900 Roxbury Rye was important enough to be among a handful of American distilleries exhibiting at the Paris Exposition. He clearly had prospered.

But Gambrill continually found it difficult to play it straight. In 1901 he was back in court fighting a case brought against him by a man named John Schooley. Schooley claimed that Gambrill had reneged on a deal to give him lodging, money and distillery warehousing space in return for overseeing the Roxbury operation. Schooley also claimed slander because of a letter allegedly written by Gambrill saying Schooley “stole my coal.”

In addition to denying that the letter was in his handwriting, Gambrill made a bizarre defense claiming that he really wasn’t in the distillery business at all since his entire product for five years -- 3,000 barrels of whiskey -- had been promised to Steinhardt Brothers of New York City and that, in effect, the Steinhardts were running his distillery. The court rejected that notion and quickly found for Schooley. A 1902 appeal by Gambrill failed.

Meanwhile, Roxbury’s Baltimore sales operation was taking a hit. On the afternoon of Jan. 4, 1901, a fire broke out in an adjoining building and spread to Gambrill’s Baltimore Street offices. According to a New York Times account, the Roxbury Rye Company, mostly from water damage, lost $10,000 in inventory and the building was damaged to the extent of $510,000, worth several millions today. His losses were said to be covered by insurance. The cause of the fire was never discovered. Barely three years later, the Great Baltimore Fire of February 1904, shown here, totally destroyed this building and all the contents. Gambrill subsequently appointed a Baltimore sales agent and continued running the distillery at Roxbury.

Once again George was having problems keeping on the right side of the law. A grain speculator, he bet the wrong way on wheat prices, lost his shirt, and once again was unable to pay creditors. The special master in bankruptcy for the case was a distinguished Baltimore lawyer named John Hinkley, who twice was elected National Secretary of the American Bar Association. Hinkley had the goods on Gambrill. His written opinion described the schemes Gambrill had devised to swindle his creditors, chief among them the Merchant’s Bank of Baltimore.

Hinkley concluded that the financial losses added up to something more than mismanagement. They were out and out fraud. As a result Gambrill was hauled into court in 1910, accused of putting up the same whiskey as collateral for separate, forfeited loans totaling a half million dollars. He was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to four years in prison. Although he appealed, his Roxbury distillery was shut down and George exited the liquor business. He sold the brand name to other Baltimore interests. As a result Roxbury Rye continued to be sold until Prohibition.

Meanwhile, Gambrill vigorously resisted going to jail. He filed motions left and right, appealing his conviction, much as he had against John Schooley. A dozen years later, for murky reasons, he still had not served a single day behind bars. Instead, according to U.S. Census records, he was residing comfortably with is wife Margaret in a four-story Baltimore row house in the 700 block of St. Paul Street, shown here in a contemporary photo.

While awaiting the outcome of his legal battles, George watched the onset of Prohibition in 1920. The whiskey he created and brought into national prominence disappeared forever. Finally in 1922, a judge quashed the fraud conviction citing Gambrill’s failing health and advanced years ( age 77). It may have been the old fellow’s last con game: George managed to live another eight years, dying in 1930 at the age of 85.


  1. I have a bottle like the first in this article, with the raised lettering. How can I find out the value?

  2. Kolsonch: My suggestion is that you email Bob Ford of the Baltimore Bottle Club with a photo of the bottle. He is an expert on Balto bottles. His email is Tell him I suggested you write. The best market would be the Baltimore collectors.