Dietrich Meschendorf, known as “Dick” among his friends and colleagues, probably ha d never heard of whiskey until he left his native Germany as a youth. Yet later as a Kentucky bourbon-maker he was recognized as an authority and provided advice to two American Presidents about whiskey.
Meschendorf, born in 1858, emigrated to America, according to census records, in 1874 when he was 16 years old. His whereabouts for the next 15 years are shrouded in time but the assumption is that he gravitated to Kentucky and was engaged in the liquor trade and saved his money. In 1889 he entered the public record as an investor and officer of the Old Times Distillery of Louisville.
That facility had been established in 1869 by Kentuckian John Roach, while Meschendorf was still a young boy in Germany. Roach sold it to Anderson Biggs in 1878. When Biggs died in 1889, his wife disapproved of the liquor business and quickly sought to divest it. According to reports Widow Biggs sold it for the first bid she got, a bargain basement $17,000. Among the lucky purchasers was Meschendorf who became Secretary and Treasurer of the company. Having the capacity to produce 350 gallons of whiskey a day, the plant was located close to three train lines with switching capacity to every railroad reaching Louisville. The new owners expanded the distillery significantly. By 1893 it boasted five brick and iron clad warehouses, heated with steam, with the capacity to hold 65,000 barrels of aging product.
When the distillery president died in 1890, Meschendorf took over the management. He was identified by a contemporary publication as “...a young and pushing businessman. And a self-made man deserving of success.” After seven years running the Old Times Distillery with its “Old Times” brand, the immigrant entrepreneur left that organization and bought another Louisville area distillery known as the Mayflower Distillery. That facility had been found about 1880 as D.L. Graves & Company and was located at 242 Transit Street in Louisville. Its flagship brand was “Mayflower Whiskey.” In 1882 Graves sold his interest and the subsequent owner changed the name to the Mayflower Distillery. In 1892 after running the distillery for a decade, the interim owner sold it to Meschendorf who changed the name once again. He called it to the Old Kentucky Distillery.
Insurance underwriter records indicate that Meschendorf’s distillery was of frame construction. The property included three warehouses: Warehouse A -- brick with a metal or slate roof and located 46 ft east of the still. Warehouse B -- brick with a metal or slate roof, located 63 ft SW of the still. Warehouse C -- ironclad with a metal or slate roof, located 6 ft beyond warehouse A. There were also cattle pens 115 feet northeast of the still-house. Dietrich, who served as president and manager of the Old Kentucky Distillery for the rest of his life, wasted no time in expanding further. A tin sign shown here exhibits the facility at its height.
Meschendorf also maintained a Louisville sales office, first located on Broadway at the southeast corner of 28th Street. Subsequent moves took the store to 205 West Main Street in 1897 and to 215 West Main in 1902, along Louisville’s famed “Whiskey Row.” It remained at that address until a final move to 111 Main occurred in 1909.
Meanwhile, Meschendorf was pursuing other whiskey opportunities. In 1891 he purchased an interest in the Pleasure Park Ridge Distillery on the Dixie Highway in Louisville, becoming a vice president of that organization. He also found time for a personal life. About the same time, at age 41, he married a woman 11 years younger. Her name was Clara. She was a native born Kentuckian of Irish heritage. They are not recorded as having children.
In addition to his business acumen, Meschendorf appears to have had exceptional marketing abilities. Through his Mayflower Distillery he featured a number of brands, “Kentucky Dew,” “Cherokee Spring” and “Old Kentucky”; later “Old Watermill,” “Normandy Rye,” and “Old Jefferson County.” His blends were “Woodbury,” “Old Stoney Fort,” “Royal Velvet,” and “Dew Drops Malt.” Old Kentucky trade cards and labels demonstrate a definite talent for merchandising his products. The distillery’s flagship brand was Kentucky Dew, a straight whiskey that bore a distinctive label. For it and other brands, Dietrich issued a series of giveaways for favored clients, usually saloons, in the form of colorful signs, shot glasses and back of the bar bottles.
As he continued to build his Old Kentucky Distillery, Meschendorf also was investing in other enterprises. In 1904 he joined a member of the famous Medley family to buy the Daviess County Distilling Company and take over joint ownership. George Medley ran the operation. Dietrich also has been reported having a financial interest in the Eminence Distillery in Jefferson County,m Kentucky. Moreover, like other Kentucky whiskey men, Meschendorf was interested in thoroughbred horses and owned the Waldeck Stud Farm near Louisville. His prize horse was consistent winner, Garry Herman.
Meanwhile the reputation of this German immigrant for knowing how to produce good, unadulterated whiskey had grown to a national reputation. Years after his death a liquor-related publication would recall his strong emphasis on allowing only quality materials into his distillery right down to the number of hoops on the barrels in which his product aged. A Louisville source called him, “one of the best in the whiskey trade in this city.” Thus it was probably no surprise when Meschendorf was called before a special Executive Branch panel and a meeting with President Theodore Roosevelt to in connection with the Pure Food and Drug legislation of 1906.
Like other Kentucky distillers who abhorred the widespread adulteration of whiskey then rampant in the country, Meschendorf backed the Act, but he may well have broken with his colleagues on the vexing question of whether blended whiskey was deserving of the name of “whiskey” or only the straight kind. Industry stalwarts like Col. E. B. Taylor argued strongly for the latter. My hunch is that Meschendorf, who had a profitable line of blended spirits, may have had a different idea. Because the issue was not solved in the Roosevelt Administration, a new commission was empowered to look into the issue by President Taft. Once again Meschendorf was summoned to Washington. In the end, Taft found that “whiskey was whiskey” and the blended products of the Old Kentucky Distillery were as legitimate as its straight bourbon.
Meschendorf’s success also brought prosperity. During the early 1900s he bought a home
in nearby Oldham County, still the wealthiest county in Kentucky and among the wealthiest in America. One of its bucolic roadways is shown here. For decades Oldham had been popular as a residence for Louisville’s well-off businessmen and professionals. The 1910 census found Dietrich living there with Clara and two African-American servants. His occupation was given simply as: “Distiller.”
But Dietrich’s time was growing short. Not long after he returned from advising President Taft in Washington, in the spring of 1911 his health took a turn for the worse. Doctors provided little help and he decided that the climate of South Texas suited him better than Kentucky or other climes. He died in San Antonio in November 1911. His body was returned to Louisville where his funeral was held in the home of a brother-in-law, attended only by family and close friends. He was 53 years old.
By dying when he did, Meschendorf was spared seeing the destruction of many things he had helped build. Just a year later one of the biggest fire loses in the whiskey trade in many years occurred when one of the bonded warehouses of the Daviess County Distilling Company took fire and burned to the ground. Twelve thousand barrels of whiskey were destroyed at an estimated value (in 1911 dollars) of $300,000. The press account noted that although insurance would recompense some of the loss, the remainder would fall on the estate of Dietrich Meschendorf and his partner. As for the Old Kentucky Distillery, following the founder’s demise, his subordinates took over management and ran the business until it was closed by Prohibition.
In 1923 existing stocks were removed from the Louisville distillery and the warehouses razed. The fine brick bottling house that Meschendorf had built was kept unused during Prohibition, according to sources, and refitted for bottling after Repeal. Two years later the distillery itself was heavily damaged by fire but the remaining portion was used for several years as a riding school. In 1960 all the remaining structures were leveled to construct an interstate highway.
Perhaps some will conclude that all the accomplishments of this German immigrant in time were wiped away. I do not agree. I prefer to speculate that Dietrich Meschendorf’s testimony about the meaning of “whiskey” was the one statement that particularly caught the attention of President Taft and led to his decision on the use of the word, a definition that has held to this very day.