Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Liquid Revenge of the George Torreys

In 1889, the Hannis Distilling Company of Baltimore put up to auction the rights to the brand name of their best selling “Mount Vernon Rye.”  In the spirited bidding and financial maneuvers that followed,  George W. Torrey & Company of Boston came out second best.  Said to have “felt jilted,” the Torreys, father and son, got revenge by marketing their own version of the Maryland whiskey.  A battle of the bottles followed.

The elder George Torrey was born in 1806, the scion of a well-established Massachusetts family.  He claimed the origin of his liquor business to be 1826, when he was barely 20 years old.  The legitimacy of the claim can be questioned since the firm in the early 1900s also claimed to be the oldest wine merchant in America, in business for an astounding 150 years,  about a quarter century in advance of the Revolutionary War and before Torrey had been born.

This George Torrey was a grocer, located at 24 Market Street, who put a strong emphasis on liquor sales.  He may also have been a rectifier, blending and compounding whiskeys for sale.  His brands included ”Torrey’s Old Bourbon,” “Torrey’ Old Rye,”  “Torrey’s Very Old Extra Quality Scotch,”  “Torrey’s Very Old Irish, and “Torrey’s White Wheat Brand,” as well as a blizzard of other brands of liquor his company sold, domestic and imported.  In much of the 19th Century most whiskey was being merchandised in ceramic jugs.  Torrey favored those from the Norton Pottery and fancied those that came with cobalt design, as shown here.  Torrey’s name and address was stamped into the wet clay on those and on smaller quart jugs.

After a few years in business,  Torrey married Sarah, born in Maine, who was nine years his junior.  They would have six children,  three boys and three girls over the period of the next 17 years.  Their eldest child was named after his father.  Known as George W. Torrey Junior,  this son began working for his father’s company at an early age and eventually took over its management as his father aged.

Meanwhile Torrey Senior was carving out a business and political career that was gaining considerable positive attention.   He was elected to the Boston Board of Aldermen, an 11 person panel whose province it was to govern the large East Coast city.  In 1857, as a member of the board, he was appoint to the committee involved in purchasing and inaugurating a commanding statue of Benjamin Franklin, considered a native son of Boston although the American sage early had moved to Philadelphia.

Over the decades the Torreys, father and son, built up a highly respectable regional trade in their whiskey.  That reputation may have impelled them into the high stakes game to gain the rights to the Mount Vernon Rye brand, named after the Northern Virginia home of George Washington. The opportunity opened with the death of millionaire distiller Henry Hannis in an insane asylum in 1886.   Hannis had originated the brand.  The group of businessmen who earlier had taken over his company’s management decided to keep Hannis Baltimore distillery but to sell the name of the nationally known rye whiskey to the highest bidder.

The Torreys’ principal competition was Cook & Bernheimer, a New York-based liquor wholesaler who operated a coast-to-coast distribution network.  That organization maintained branch offices in Chicago and Cincinnati and had  “deep pockets” financially.  The decision by Hannis executives to sell to Cook & Bernheimer, as one observer put it,  “...Left a Boston liquor kingpin, George W. Torrey, apparently feeling jilted.  He vowed reprisal.”

The Torreys’ response was to take over a facility in Baltimore that had begun life as a distillery in 1873 but briefly had been converted into a brewery and then abandoned.  The Torreys bought it and once again established a distillery.  It produced  only a single brand,  a whiskey that the Torreys called “The Only Original and Genuine Mt. Vernon Rye.”  They merchandised it all over America, gambling that the distinction between the “Mount” and “Mt.” would be lost on the buying public.  As a result, East Baltimore had its Mt. Vernon distillery on Sixteenth Street (now Haven) between Fleet and Foster,  and West Baltimore  had its Mount Vernon Distillery at Ostend and Russell, currently the site of the Baltimore football and baseball stadiums.
The two bottles compared

A major difference between the two whiskeys was in the shape of the bottle.  In an advertising war, New York facing off against Boston, Cook & Bernheimer emphasized their Mount Vernon’s square bottle, the traditional shape of the Hannis product.  The Torreys countered with a round container for Mt. Vernon Rye, announcing “always in this style bottle.”  The container featured a highly visible amber rippled glass and fancy embossing.

In their merchandising the Torreys boasted that their rye was “bottled in bond.”   The New Yorkers, whose whiskey was not bonded, trumpeted that their brand had won prizes at four world’s fairs,  Philadelphia in 1876; New Orleans, 1885;  Australia, 1887,  and Chicago, 1893.  The Torreys also issued splashy giveaway items to saloons and other establishments stocking their Mt. Vernon brand. Those artifacts included etched shot glasses of several varieties and color lithographed tip trays.

In the short run the Torreys’ gambit paid off.  Cook & Bernheimer did not strike back by taking the Bostonians to court for trademark infringement.   Their lawyers may have advised the New Yorkers that although only a slight difference existed in names, the clear distinction between the two whiskeys both in bottle shapes and labeling gave them a weak case against the Torreys. The competition between the two liquor companies raged on for more than a decade.

At some point during this conflict,  the senior Torrey, already in his 80s, died.  That left George Junior to man the helm of the company.  About 1910, he changed the name to “Torreys.”  But the name change did not halt a downward slide in the Mt. Vernon Rye whiskey sales. The historian of Baltimore whiskey, James H. Bready, scorned the Torreys’ efforts:  “Such shenanigans could not last, and did not.  The public’s favor remained with the square bottle.”   Perhaps as a result, after claiming 88 years in the Boston liquor trade, the Torrey firm closed its doors in 1914.  Cook & Bernheimer, with Prohibition closing in, terminated three years later.  In the end, it would seems, neither side had won.

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