Thursday, July 25, 2013

The “Man in the Middle” of Phoenix Bourbon

One of the most famous whiskeys to come out of the Far West was a brand called “Phoenix Bourbon,”  the product of a San Francisco firm called Naber, Alfs & Brune (NA&B).   William Alfs, the man represented by the middle of that company name proved to be its mainstay through earthquake, fire, and the “drying up” of markets as Western towns, counties and states increasingly voted bans on alcohol.

Alfs was born in Germany in 1852.  Census data records his emigration date as 1872, when he was 20.   He appears to have headed directly to California, the objective of many  immigrants dreaming of riches. He settled in San Francisco.  Four years later he married Josephine Weiss, the daughter of Henry J. Weiss, a San Francisco resident.  Josephine also had been born in Germany.  The 1880 census found Alfs living with his wife in his father in law’s home. His occupation was listed as “wholesale liquor merchant,”  My surmise is that he earlier had been working in for other San Francisco liquor dealers and knew the trade.

The company in which he became a partner in 1880 had been founded nearly a decade earlier by owners named Ehlers & Brand.  They were wholesale liquor dealers at 322 Clay Street.  Ehlers left the company in 1875, selling his interests to Henry D. Naber, who, like Alfs, had immigrated from Germany. Those partners subsequently moved the business in 1877 to 413 Front Street.  In 1880 Brand sold out to  William Alfs and Henry Brune.  Thus was created the liquor dealership known as Nabors, Alfs & Brune, as shown here on a trade card.  It was destined to be come one of the West’s most prominent liquor enterprises.

Over the years the company featured several whiskey brands, including “Union Club Bourbon,”   “Gold Medal Bourbon,” and  “Rock and Rye.”  Their premier brand, one one most heavily advertised and widely sold, was “Phoenix Bourbon,”  sometimes merchandised as “Old Phoenix Bourbon.”  The name of the firm was always emphasized whether on the paper label or the embossing on the bottles employed.

NA&B were particularly noted for elaborate designs on glass flasks.   As shown here, the bottles came in two sizes and two colors, both amber and clear.   Some of the flasks emphasized that the partners were “sole agents” for Phoenix Bourbon.  The company also sold the whiskey in tall quart bottles.  All bear the embossed emblem of the phoenix, a creature of mythology, a long-lived bird that is characterized by being cyclically regenerated or reborn. Associated with the sun, a phoenix obtains new life by arising from the ashes of its predecessor.  Originally trademarked in 1891 by a Chicago firm, the name somehow devolved on NA&B.

The partners advertised Phoenix and other brands widely.   Perhaps the most unusual of their ads was on a color lithographed trade card showing two dogs, wearing hats and smoking,  while above them a bevy of low-bodiced ladies seem to be sprouting from a tree.  The only wording on the card is “Did you say Phoenix Old Bourbon?”  Other ads included a push for “Damiana Bitters,” touted as “The Great Mexican Remedy.”  Damiana was a Latin American herb that was said to have powers of male sexual invigoration.  It also proved to be a big seller for NA&B.

Unlike many of its competitors, collectors complain, NA&B was short on giveaway items. Two that I have found are a shot glass with the phoenix insignia and, most unusual, a cast iron “match retriever.”  It features a bird, I assume a phoenix, that tipped over and speared a wooden match stick with its beak.  It obviously was meant for the bar of a saloon and carried the name of the three partners.  This gizmo would appear to be an artifact unique to the San Francisco firm.

In 1891,  Henry Naber retired from the firm, possibly because of ill health and moved to his rural estate. He died the same year, only 49, leaving behind a widow and five children.    Alfs and Brune formed a new co-partnership, retaining the old firm name of Naber, Alfs & Brune. In 1889, according to San Francisco directories, the company moved to 323-325 Market Street .  At the time of the 1900 census Alfs was living in Alameda City,  a suburb of San Francisco, with Josephine and two children, Frank, 16, and Lilly, 9.  They also had two live-in servants.  Alf’s occupation was given as “wholesale liquor merchant.”

Alfs was considered as something of a business “guru” by the Pacific Wine & Spirits Journal which frequently solicited his comments on the whiskey trade.  In one 1891 statement he was quoted to  say:  “I feel that the fall business is opening up rather slowly.  The summer months have been very dull and for some reason the fall movement is late.  We have done as well as could be expected for the season.  The winter business ought to be first class and there is everything to favor it -- good crops, good prices and general prosperity.”  The following year Alfs was more positive, calling business “quite satisfactory” despite a generally sluggish economy.

Life changed for Alf and his partner in 1906 as the result of the San Francisco earthquake and fire.  Their business went up in the conflagration but “Phoenix-like,”  appropriately enough, rose from the ashes to relocate, at least temporarily to  825 Mission Street.  In 1910,  the company moved to permanent quarters at 631-635 Howard Street.   By 1913, Brune had removed himself from the business. In retirement he went to live in an Italianate Victorian mansion he built in Alamo Square that, as one writer has characterized it, “let Brune flaunt his wealth.” More than a century later, with its exotic Turkish parlor and extravagant interiors, Brune’s house, according to observers, is still considered “the crown jewel” of San Francisco mansions.

Brune’s exit left Alfs as the sole owner. From being the “man in the middle,” he had emerged, much like the “Phoenix,”  atop Naber, Alfs & Brune. He operated the liquor dealership with the help of his son, Frank, when the boy gained maturity.  In 1913 Alfs saw much of his mail order business dry up with the passage of the Webb-Kenyon Act that forbid shipments of liquor into areas where sales of alcohol were banned. He continued in business, however, until the advent of National Prohibition when he finally was forced to shut down his business.  This time Phoenix Bourbon did not rise from the ashes.  The brand disappeared, leaving only its distinctive bottles as collectors’ items.  William Alfs died in Alameda in 1928, at the age of 76:  another instance of an immigrant boy finding success and prosperity in the U.S.A.


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