Saturday, April 21, 2012

S.J. Greenbaum Put Bell(e)s on His Whiskey

S. J. Greenbaum, a Kentucky distiller and wholesaler, produced two brands that rang out strongly to the public:  “Belle of Anderson” and “Bell of Lexington.”  Both found national audiences and are significant elements of the whiskey history of the Bluegrass State.

According to U.S. Census figures,  Greenbaum was born in Germany in 1821.  Although in his business life he always was “S.J. , his given name has been recorded variously as Samuel or Simon.  Facts about his early life are scanty.  We do not know when he arrived in the U.S. or he settled in Kentucky. We know he married later in life, circa 1857, to a woman named Jeanette (called Jennie) who was 17 years his junior. They had two children, Eva,  born in 1858, and  Morris, born a year later.

The 1880 census found him in Louisville, age 59, listing his occupation as salesman for a liquor house.   Author Sam Cecil says that Greenbaum early owned a distillery in Midway, Kentucky,  a Woodford County railroad town on a single track between the cities of Lexington and Frankfort.  The town, shown here in a drawing, had a population of only few hundred. Greenbaum reportedly sold his Midway facilities in 1877 to a grain storage company.  They later burned.  He also is said to have run a distillery in Jessimine County, Kentucky, in the 1880s.  By 1883, according to Cecil,  Greenbaum was back in Midway with a new distillery and producing Belle of Anderson and Bell of Lexington whiskey.  His company quickly became the largest employer in Midway.

Greenbaum’s flagship brand was Belle of Anderson.  He advertised the rye whiskey vigorously, each bottle displaying the distinctive red Star of David on the label. It is shown here on a reverse glass sign provided to saloons.  He merchandised his whiskey in clear glass as well as in small ceramic “scratch” jugs  and milkglass containers.  The latter were llikely meant as back of the bar bottles.  Note the embossed Star of David on the front.  Greenbaum trademarked the label in 1882.

Among other giveaway items advertising Belle of Anderson label several different shot glasses, including one sporting the distinctive red star. Greenbaum also distributed an 1891 New Years greeting, featuring color pictures of two Southern belles in unusual costumes.  A winsome lass with a high peaked hat appears to be holding a riding crop;  the other charmer carries a muff and a cane.  Opened up, the folder holds a calendar and an ad for Belle of Anderson.

In addition to featuring his rye whiskey, Greenbaum also gave major attention to sour mash whiskey, a liquor that was becoming increasingly popular with the drinking public.  He called this brand, Bell of Lexington.  It sold in both quart and flask size, the latter shown here.  Its label notes a Chicago outlet for the firm that was shortlived, showing up in Windy City directories for only one year, 1894.  This whiskey was shipped in strong mitered crates via the railway running through Midway. In one instance Greenbaum sued the railroad company, apparently unsuccessfully, for charging considerably more to ship from Midway than from Lexington or Frankfort.

Greenbaum’s letterheads of the period list him as the president of his corporation and D.J. Lincoln, a Louisville local of Irish descent, as the secretary-treasurer.  Their Louisville offices, about 60 miles from Midway, were located initially on 135 Third Street and from 1887 until 1915 at several addresses on West Main Street.  Over the years Greenbaum featured a number of additional liquor brands,   including "Arlington,” "Glenarme,” "Green Mountain,” "Jessamine,” "Old Bald Mountain Corn,” "Penna. Club Rye,” and "Reading Rye.”  He also issued a "Belle of Bourbon" label on the milk glass Belle of Anderson bottle.

 S.J. Greenbaum died in 1897 and his son Morris took over the operation.  In the 1880 census Morris was 21 years old, living at home, and gave his occupation as “stenographer.”  His father unquestionably had taken him into the whiskey business shortly after and at the age of 38 the son was ready to take on the management of the firm.   In August 1908 a disasterous fire destroyed the warehouses of the Greenbaum Distilling Company in Midway.  About 47,500 barrels of whiskey were burned in one of the largest confligrations ever seen in Central Kentucky.  The loss, which was insured, was about $1 million to the firm and a tax loss to the U.S. Government estimated at $2 million.

Morris became involved with one of the Kentucky “Whiskey Trusts,” called the Kentucky Distilling and Warehouse Co.  From the Trust he acquired all the inventory of the Lexington-based Ashland Distillery, estimated at 18,000 barrels.  Buying a small plot of land adjacent to the distillery warehouse,  he constructed a plant that bottled 40 barrels of whiskey per day and was kept running for a number of years.  The Greenbaum firm reorganized in 1912, changing the name to the Belle of Anderson Distillery.  Morris was listed as president and D.J. Lincoln continued as secretary-treasurer.  In 1915, however, the firm went into bankruptcy and the firm’s whiskey interests in Midway were purchased by outside investors. In 1920 National Prohibition brought an abrupt end to the distillery.  One of the Midway whiskey warehouses S. J. Greenbaum built still survives and is on the National Register of Historical Places.

Note:  There are several differing histories for S. J. Greenbaum regarding other distilleries and companies in which he and later his son might have had an interest.  I have tried to avoid confusing details and concentrate on those facts that seem reasonably well established.  As other information is received, this post will be amended to reflect it. 

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