Tuesday, August 6, 2013

August Thiel Was a “Rectifier” and Proud of It

During the latter part of the 19th Century and extending into the 20th, a struggle  occurred between the distillers of “straight” bourbon and rye whiskeys and those liquor dealers who were buying raw whiskeys, blending them to taste, and selling them under hundreds of brand names.   Known as “rectifiers,”  many of those whiskey men tried to hide their activities claiming to be distillers or using other subterfuges.  Not Boston’s August Thiel. He was a rectifier and proud to be one.

In September, 1903, Thiel wrote an open letter that appeared in a national liquor industry trade magazine.  It was written to the Columbus Laboratories of Chicago.  In it he said:   “Having successfully completed a correspondence course at your academy,  will say that previous to becoming one of your students, I was engaged in compounding and rectifying for a number of years and therefore know the value of the instruction I received from you.”  He went on to say that he would recommend the course to anyone who wanted to know the compounding and rectifying business and  “the producing of fine blends, bitters, cordials, etc.”

By making such a bold statement he was putting both feet  into the controversy.  Three years later with the passage of the Pure Food and Drug laws,  a number of Kentucky bourbon distillers attempted to declare all rectified products “imitation whiskey”  and told stories of adulterated and dangerous products.   They had powerful allies.  Dr. Wiley, the head of the agency charged with carrying out the new pure food laws agreed.  So did the U.S. Attorney General.  A special Presidential Commission was established to investigate the matter and  came down firmly against the rectifiers.

Of course, August Thiel, born in Russia,  knew nothing of this struggle when he emigrated to the United States at the age of about 19.  He appears to have settled almost immediately in Boston.  Within three years of arriving he married his wife, Augusta, and established their residence on Charles Street.  They soon had their first child, Frank.  Thiel’s occupation at the time of the 1900 census was recorded “salesman-dry goods.”  Early in the ensuing decade, he entered into the liquor business and was so listed in the 1910 census.

Thiel opened his own liquor establishment,  calling it August Thiel & Co.  Eventually it was located at 543-545 Atlantic Avenue, as shown here.  The firm, his logo proclaimed, was “importers, distillers agents and wholesalers.”  He also ran a wine cellar from Atlantic Avenue.  Visitors were invited to “come right down into the basement “ to see the array of 126 casks of whiskey and wine stored there and to place their orders.  Located one block from the railroad station and three from the city wharf, Thiel’s firm presumably with ease could ship to other parts of the Northeast.

At the same time Thiel was pursuing his strong financial interest in, and may have owned,  an organization known as Glenbrook Distilling.  Located at 45 Hanover Street in Boston, Glenbrook, despite its name, did not make it a secret that it was not a true distiller but a compounder and rectifier.  It provided Thiel with the whiskey to issue a blizzard of brands.  They included:  "Adam Good,” "Anamoose Malt,” "Ataco,” "Blue Label,”"Bond Valley,” "Crown Malt.”, "Deer Creek," "Elkin,” "Emerson,” "Empire,” "Franklin,” "Glendisco,” "Kingston Bourbon,” "Medfield,” "O. L. Taylor,” "Park Club,” "Pullman,” "Thiel's Canadian Type,” "Thiel's Choice,” "Thiel's Home Whiskey,” "Thiel's Old Champion,” "Thiel's Pride,” "Thiel's Private Stock," “Thiel's Reserve,” and "Thiel's Straight.”

Thiel’s flagship brands, however, were “Glenbrook Maryland Rye” and “Glenbrook Whiskey.”  He made no secret of the fact that Glenbrook was a blend.  It was described  that way in his advertising and on giveaways such as the shot glass shown here.   The glass proclaims “blended and bottled by the Glenbrook Distilling.”  No claim was made for distilling.   Rather, Glenbrook’s supplies of raw whiskey were being drawn from actual distilleries in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Kentucky. 

Thiel was generous with his giveaways to favored customers, usually saloons and other drinking establishments serving his liquor.  Among the most fancy shot glasses was one that advertised Thiel’s Home Whiskey,  showing a structure that very much looks like a church.  Thiel seems to have made it a practice, and uncommon honesty, to list “blend” on his compounded and rectified products, as displayed on this shot glass and a back of the bar bottle for his Glendisco Rum.

As Thiel was building his Boston liquor trade, down in the Nation’s Capital, the fight over  whiskey was coming to a head.  With most of his officials favoring branding anything other than straight whiskey as an “imitation,” and requiring it to be so labeled,  the President of the United States, William Howard Taft, was called on in 1910 to make the final decision.  Taft, who weighed more than 300 pounds,  knew the taste of whiskey and hailed from Cincinnati, one of the centers of whiskey rectifying in America.  He proclaimed that it was a century old tradition that all liquor distilled from grain was known as whiskey, despite the details of its manufacture.  Based on that notion, both straight and blended products passed the legitimacy test posed by the Pure Food and Drug Laws.   With that one decision, which still stands today, the idea of “imitation whiskey” became obsolete.

Thiel and his colleagues in the compounding and rectifying business had won an astounding victory.  Before August had much time to celebrate, however, a fire broke out in his Atlantic Avenue facility.    The result of an alcohol explosion on July 12, 1911,  losses estimated at  more than $63,000 were sustained.  Thiel was able to repair that damage and move on but waiting down the road was National Prohibition.   It forced him to shut down both his facilities, a business that the local press cited had gross earnings of $500,000 annually, 10 times that in today’s dollar.

But Thiel, still only 49 years old, and his oldest son, Frank, who had been working with him in the liquor business, did not let this setback deter them.   By this time the family had moved to a community south of Boston called Canton.  There they began to manufacture paper boxes in a factory near the Canton railroad station at a start-up cost of approximately $50,000.

A contemporary newspaper chronicled their efforts:

In the beginning it was difficult to find competent help and it was a struggle to meet the orders. As time went by an efficient superintendent was found and a training program made his employees some of the best in the industry. He paid his help a fair wage and provided good working conditions. Before long they were making eighteen to twenty thousand boxes a day. The business needed more space so they purchased one of the larger buildings of the old Morse factory complex from Canton Heel Company. Shortly after, the entire operation was moved into the building on Pequit Street.

This period of prosperity was not to last.  During the early morning hours of March 17, 1925, the Thiels’ box factory caught fire and was destroyed.  Despite the efforts of many area firefighters,  nothing was saved and only four walls remained to mark the ruin.  A month later the Thiels, who already had surmounted one fire,  announced to the public that they would not rebuild.

With that, August Thiel slipped out of the public record and into history.   Here he can be remembered as a champion of the whiskey rectifying industry who, by his honesty in advertising, may well have helped tip the scales against the stigma of “imitation whiskey,” and thereby set the standard for the future and our own time.

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