Thursday, March 29, 2012

Max Fleischmann: Ohio Distiller Extraordinary

Shown here in a caricature at the helm of a sailing boat is Max Fleischmann, whose rich life encompassed infantryman, combat balloonist, yachtsman, big game hunter, world traveler, businessman, philanthropist, and, as we remember him here, distiller of one of America’s most famous brands of liquor - Fleischmann’s.

The story begins with Max’s father, Charles, and his uncle, Maximilian. The elder Fleischmanns came from Austria-Hungary in the 1860s. With the help of a wealthy Cincinnati businessman named James Gaff they created the cake yeast business that overnight revolutionized baking in America and made the trio multi-millionaires.

Gaff had made his money in whiskey. In 1843 he and his brother Thomas had built the T.& J.W. Gaff & Co. distillery in downtown Aurora, Indiana, on the banks of Hogan Creek. It made bourbon, rye, and Thistle Dew scotch whiskey. It was perhaps natural that when Gaff linked with the Fleischmanns, they also began liquor-making operations. They founded two distilleries in nearby Riverside, Ohio, about 1872, three years before young Max’s birth.

Fleischmann distilleries gained a national market by being the first American operation to produce gin during the 1870s. Rivaling imported British and Dutch gins, their American made -- and less expensive -- product proved to be highly popular. A 1900 ad boasted that the company was “The Gin Distillers of the United States.” Among its brands of “dry, sweet and neutral” gins were Pilgrim, Perfection, White Tavern Tom, and Dan Duke.

As the Fleischmann company was flourishing, Max was growing up. Even before his graduation from the Ohio Military Institute in Riverside 1896, he began working in the family whiskey business. His career was put on hold in 1898 by the Spanish American War. Young Max enlisted in the First Ohio Volunteer Infantry and was sent to Jacksonville, Florida, where the Ohio troops stayed in reserve until the the war ended. He was ordered back to Cincinnati, discharged, and went back to the family business.

While thus engaged, Fleischmann also became a world class balloonist, as shown here in his 1907 ascension. As recounted by the New York Times, after taking off from Cincinnati, Max reached 5,000 feet. As he descended, he is reported to have jettisoned some liquor. At the outset of World War One Max enlisted, was sent to France, was injured in a poison gas attack, and became as the commandant of the U.S. Army Balloon School in Arcadia, California. All his life he would be addressed as “Major.”

The Fleischmanns produced popular brands of whiskey. The flagship label was Magnolia Whiskey, shown here in a 1909 ad. It came both in amber and aqua embossed bottles. The Magnolia brand had been bought from S.N. Pike and Company which first sold it in 1849. Fleischmann also marketed a range of liquors in fancy ceramic jugs and merchandised its other brands with ads in national publications and through glass-painted saloon signs, as shown here.

In the two decades between the wars, Max proved to be a brilliant marketer and strategist for the firm, but something less than a day to day manager. His major interests lay in his hunting, specimen collecting and scientific expeditions around the world as well as yachting, horse racing and part ownership of the Cincinnati Reds baseball team.

Max’s exploits earned him national press attention while his brother Julius ran the Fleischmann distillery and yeast empire. Things changed radically in 1925 when Julius suddenly dropped dead. Max rushed back to the U.S. from an expedition exploring the White Nile of Africa and immediately was elected Chairman of the Board.

Prohibition shut down the firm’s distilling business for a time but the Fleischmann interests, perhaps because of their diversity of products, and unlike many others, survived the loss. In 1929 Max masterminded a series of mergers with other firms to form Standard Brands. He became first board chairman and the largest stockholder of the new firm that eventually included the Nabisco line of foods. Max continued to serve as Chairman of the Finance Committee of Standard Brands until his death in 1951.

After the end of Prohibition, the Fleischmann Company began producing alcoholic beverages once again. In 1940, operating under the Fleischmann name, Max bought out the Daviess County Distillery in Owensboro, Kentucky. That distillery had a long and hallowed history in Kentucky bourbon manufacture but had been sold to the American Medicinal Spirits Company during Prohibition. Max’s firm based its revived distilling operations in Owensboro, producing brands like Preferred Blended Whiskey, Royal Vodka and distilled Dry Gin. In time it expanded its production facilities to Dayton, New Jersey; Plainfield, Illinois; and Clinton, Iowa. Major Max characteristically watched this growth from afar -- at his home in Santa Barbara, California, or aboard one of the 22 yachts he owned in his lifetime.

In subsequent years, Max, shown here in later life, and his wife became known for their philanthropy. They are remembered best for their substantial contributions to the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History and, in their final adopted state, the University of Nevada Agricultural College, which is named for Max. The couple also gave large donations to many other worthy causes. Max died in 1951 at the age of 76, a much beloved figure.

Today Fleischmann is still a familiar brand on liquor store shelves, part of Barton Distillers which in turn is part of the Constellation Brands group. Barton’s production facilities are located at Bardstown KY. Among current products are Fleischmann’s Vodka, Gin, Preferred Whiskey, Brandy, Rye and Flavored Vodkas.


  1. This is a great history!

    Random question: I've recently stumbled upon collecting Fleischmann's Mixer's Manuals - I'm up to eleven, with a couple of early century pamphlets that cover just gin cocktail recipes. Would you be able to point me in the direction of a site or a person who might be able to tell me the printing years of the manuals, and possibly an overview of them all (to see how much more collecting I need to do!)?

    Thanks again for the research you've already pulled together!

  2. Dear Shane: Thanks for your kind remarks and sharing about your collection. Most of the recipe books would be post-Prohibition. Many were published in the late 1930s just after Repeal to remind bartenders and the public alike about how to mix drinks. I am not surprised that they lean toward gin because that, rather than whiskey, is where the company made its biggest mark. As for anyone having more of them than you do -- or a complete collection -- I would be in touch with the company. My experience is that the distillers themselves usually are forthcoming through their information departments. Good luck! Jack