Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Andrew Pfirrmann: Whiskey and Hot Water

William H. H. Miller
John W. Foster

Andrew Pfirrmann came to America as a youth, had a successful career as the liquor trade, was mourned by colleagues upon his death, but apparently could not help getting into “hot water” with his whiskey business, in one instance becoming the center of an international incident involving top officials of the U.S. Government.

Pfirrmann was born in Rhenish Bavaria in 1926 of parents who reputedly saw that he was given a good primary and secondary education. At age 17 he emigrated to came to the U.S., landing in New York City and working there a clerk and salesman, possibly in the liquor trade. Pfirrmann arrived in Cincinnati in December 1847 during the Ohio River flood of that month, shown here in a contemporary drawing. It would not be the last time Andrew would land in deep water.

In Cincinnati Pfirrmann found a place he would call home for the rest of his life. He married an Ohio-born woman whose name was Bertha. The 1880 U.S. Census found them living together in Cincinnati with a very young son named Irwin. By this time Pfirrmann was well established in the liquor business. A company bearing his name first appears in Cincinnati directories in 1866, located at 359 Walnut St. In 1870 he joined with a fellow German immigrant named Jacob Pfau Jr. to create the firm of Pfirrmann & Pfau, located on Vine St. The whiskey traders flourished, according to contemporary accounts, often logging sales of $50,000 a month, the equivalent of hundreds of thousands today.

When Pfau became ill during the early 1880s and ultimately died in 1883, Pfirrmann purchased his share of the business and ran it virtually by himself. At the same time he was serving as president (1876-1883) of the German National Bank of Cincinnati and looking after extensive real estate interests. Those demands on his time were accounted the reasons for his subsequent business reversals. His liquor business experienced a cash shortage that led to bankruptcy. The event rocked the local business community and made national news. A New York Times headline of March 15, 1883, read: “Failure of Whiskey Dealers; Suspension of Pfirrmann & Pfau, of Cincinnati.”

The company had debts of $425,000 and no ready money to pay its creditors, but did count $960,000 in assets, the value of 30,000 barrels of whiskey, most of it held in bond in warehouses. The Times opined: “It is not thought that anybody will be much hurt.” Pfirrmann weathered that setback, came through bankruptcy and took a new partner, a Cincinnati local named George Herzog.

During ensuing years, the business, reorganized as A. Pfirrmann & Co., was accorded by contemporaries as “one of the leading wholesale liquor firms of this city.” The German immigrant was also becoming a well-known Cincinnati community leader. He was a charter member of the Hanselman Lodge of Masons and an active participant in the Chamber of Commerce.

About 1885 together Pfirrmann and Herzog started a second wholesale liquor firm with business offices in the Pike Building in downtown Cincinnati. They called it the American Export and Warehouse Company. Their flagship brand was Export Whiskey, as advertised on the plate shown here. A popular idea at the time was that whiskey sloshing around in barrels on the high seas was mellowed and aged in beneficial ways that sedentary storing in warehouses failed to do. A number of American distillers regularly sent their whiskey to Jamaica and other islands of the Caribbean or even further abroad.

In 1883 Pfirrmann and his partner reputedly launched 313 barrels of whiskey on the high seas. The liquor shipped aboard the American schooner Warren B. Potter, the U.S. brigantine Payson Tucker, and the Norwegian bark Frej -- all bound for Bermuda. The barrels were offloaded there and stored in warehouses owned by a British citizen.

About 1890 American Export sold its Bermuda-based liquor to Nathan Hofheimer, a nationally known speculator in whiskey. When Hofheimer returned the whiskey to the U.S. and sampled it, he concluded it had been watered and he had been defrauded of a substantial amount of money. A barrel of whiskey holds 40 gallons. American Export’s 313 barrels equaled 12,520 gallons, more than 50,000 quarts of liquor. At an average sale price of $1.25 per quart for aged whiskey, the shipment was worth about $1.25 million in today’s dollar.

While the barrels had been stored in Bermuda, Hofheimer alleged in a lawsuit against American Export, the whiskey had been doctored and manipulated. His case rested on obtaining copies of correspondence sent from Cincinnati by Pfirrmann and others to the warehouse owner. Hofheimer believed the letters contained proof that the Bermuda resident had been directed to adulterate the liquor while in his possession.

The problem was that the letters resided in a British colony. The attempt to obtain them had to come from the top of the U.S. Government. The Attorney General at the time, William H. H. Miller, shown here, took up the case for Hofheimer. The then Secretary of State, John W. Foster, the following photo, personally attested to Miller’s signature on diplomatic documents addressed to the British Governor General of Bermuda, requesting the letters that potentially could incriminate Pfirrmann and others.

Details of the case are recorded in the 1894 edition of American Admiralty and Its Jurisprudence. Nowhere, however, does the journal describe the outcome of Hofheimer’s case. There is no evidence that the letters were ever turned over. The lawsuit went nowhere without them. As indicated in a later photograph, Bermuda continued for years to be a favorite offloading spot for illicit whiskey.

The American Export and Warehouse Co. disappeared from Cincinnati directories in 1888. In the early 1890s other liquor firms with which Pfirrmann had been associated vanished from view. That may have been the result of the his death on April 12, 1892, at his residence. Pfirrmann was 66. No cause of death was given.

Was Andrew Pfirrmann a scoundrel who cheated creditors and customers? A Chamber of Commerce obituary seems to paint a different picture. Signed by colleagues, including others in the liquor business, the memorial states in part: “He loved his adopted country and by word and deed always strove for good government.” Perhaps meaningfully, however, the obituary makes no mention at all of Pfirrmann’s business practices.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this history of Andrew Pfirrmann! He was also in business briefly with ny great grandfather Gustav Thonssen in St. Louis in the early 1870s. They had a company called Thonssen & Pfirrman that made billiard tables and picture frames.

    Here is a link to more info:

    You have Pfirrmann's birth year incorrect. It should be 1826.