Friday, October 4, 2013

This Whiskey Man Had the “Old Nick” in Him

“Old Nick.”  It is a common term for the Satan, the Devil, Beelzebub, or what ever you call the evil spirit.  Nicholas Glenn Williams, a North Carolina whiskey man, not only ran a distillery business called the “Old Nick Williams Company,” but demonstrated repeatedly during  his life, that he truly had the “Old Nick” in him and indeed was capable of “raising Hell.”

A rebel spirit ran in the family.  Nicholas was a direct descendant of Col. Joseph Williams, an officer in George Washington’s Revolutionary Army, who was said to have been “exceedingly obnoxious” to the Tory opposition.  So hated was he that three of his neighbors hatched a plot to murder him.   When the scheme was uncovered, two of the plotters were taken from their homes by the Colonel and his friends and summarily shot.  The home and plantation
"Panther Creek" Plantation House
Col. Williams, shown above, established  on 8,000 acres in the Yadkin River Valley he called “Panther Creek.” It became the site of a distillery founded by his son, Nicholas Lanier Williams, that came to be known as “The Old Nick Williams Company.”

A trade card from the distillery, shown here, claimed existence over three centuries:  “Established in the 18th, covered every day of the 19th and growing in popularity in this, the 20th.  That’s the record of The Old Nick Williams Whiskies -- 133 years under the proprietorship of son, grandson and great-grandson of Col. Joseph Williams....”   For many of those years the distillery apparently had a relatively small output of whiskey. It was the great-grandson, our Nick Williams ( sometimes known as N. Glenn Williams) who stepped up production and sales to regional,  national, and even international markets.

After taking charge of the distillery in 1887, Nick expanded the plant and also diversified the farm’s crops and cattle operations by growing corn for his whiskey production and feeding the spent mash to a herd of cattle.  In the 1900 census Williams noted his occupation as “farmer.”  At that time he was 34 years old and living with his wife,  Margaret, a woman 11 years his junior.  Living with them were their children, ages one to three.   During the following decade the couple would produce another three children.  The Williams household also included four hired hands and a housekeeper.

Williams featured one brand name, his own, and labeled it on whiskeys he designated as rye, bourbon, corn, wheat,  and sour mash.  He also featured brandies, apparently made from fruit grown on his farm, as well as beverages labeled “Rock and Rye” and “Peach and Honey.”  He packaged his products in both ceramic jugs and in glass bottles, the latter both in quarts and in pint flasks.  Those frequently had elaborate paper labels,  like the one shown below left of a colonial gent with a cocktail glass in hand and two bottles at his side. Williams’ bottles also contained the embossed name and address of his company.  Like many enterprising distillers and merchandisers, the North Carolinian provided giveaway advertising items to favored customers like saloons.  As shown below, they included an attractive label-under-glass back-of-the-bar bottle advertising “Old Nick Rye.”

Along with his reputation for “hell raising,”  Williams’ wealth and business acumen also translated into local political clout.   In North Carolina during the late 1880s and early 1900s the Prohibitionist squeeze was being felt by distillers and liquor dealers.   William’s Panther Creek was located in Forsythe County.  When that jurisdiction went “dry” and harassed Williams about his whiskey production,  he used his political skills to have the county line moved so that his business would reside in Yadkin County where liquor was still legal.  Local option in North Carolina and elsewhere in the South presented him with an opportunity to send his whiskey into dry localities via the mails or express office. He advertised his “Lock Box No. 11” address vigorously for mail order sales.

In 1903 North Carolina began a statewide march against alcohol.  An early law forbid distilleries outside of chartered towns. As a result Panther Creek and the Old Nick Distillery became the town of Williams, North Carolina, founded by its namesake specifically for the purpose of keeping his distillery in operation.  The town of Williams is recorded as having had a population of 52, virtually all of them members of Nick’s family, his farm workers and his distillery employees. The town name appears on both embossed bottles shown here. This legal fiction persisted for five years while Nicholas expanded the market for his liquor by emphasizing long distance transport.  He bragged that his goods were so securely packed that “they will ship hundreds of miles without breaking.”

“Old Nick” Williams not only was fighting forces in North Carolina.  Early in the 1900s he got crosswise with the Federal Government by failing to pay his liquor taxes.  The story is that during a visit to nearby Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Williams was confronted by a  revenue officer who accused him of tax evasion.  A powerfully built man, Williams is said to have pulled the official out of the Federal Building and onto the street where he beat him with a buggy whip.  So potent was Nick’s political clout that he was never charged or arrested for the assault.

As everyone knows, however, the Feds are not easily discouraged.  Williams was hauled into Federal Court for failure to pay his rectifier tax. In addition to distilling spirits he also was rectifying (blending) them for sale.  Already paying a stiff federal tax on each gallon of whiskey he was distilling, the law directed him to pay the government to blend them, a levy he and other rectifiers bitterly resented.   Found guilty. Williams was ordered to pay a fine of $5,000, more than ten times that amount in today’s dollar, and assessed court  costs.

Ever the stubborn rebel,  Williams fought the decision, claiming that the original Federal Circuit Court had erred in setting the payment date and thus nulled the verdict.  He claimed to owe nothing. First heard in Federal Appeals Court, the case eventually made its way to the United States Supreme Court. That body in 1905, rendered a decision that, in effect, told Old Nick to pay up.  Soon after, Williams was out of the whiskey trade.  In 1908 North Carolina by a substantial vote of the populace banned all alcohol production and sales.  The Williams distillery was forced to close.  Some of his work force moved on to Kentucky, reportedly taking the stills with them.  The town of Williams disappeared. Panther Creek reverted purely to farming.  In the 1910 census, Williams would list his occupation as running a horse farm.  He was 45 years old.

At that point both Nicholas Glenn Williams and the liquor brand he had so vigorously merchandised fade into the mists of history. Other whiskey men like I. C. Shore, Henry Clarke, and John Casper migrated north to Virginia  after North Carolina voted dry.  They continued distilling and sent whiskey back into their home state.  Tied by history and tradition to Panther Creek,   Williams stayed at home in Yadkin County to farm and raise horses. Unaccountably, he fails to show up in later  census data nor can I find his burial site identified.  Williams Road in Lewisville, North Carolina, remains as a lone memorial to “Old Nick” a man who lived up to his devilish nickname.


  1. Great Article. Currently I am editing a short film about the rebirth of Old Nick Williams. Re-openend in 2017 the 7th generation of Williams is now operating the newly rebuilt distillery. I would love to dialog with you about this. I am actually heading back to North Carolina to finish filming at the farm & distillery tomorrow.

  2. Hal: Thanks for your kind remarks on my article on Nick Williams. I am thinking of doing another, longer one on him for a magazine I write for regularly. Would be happy to talk to you. My email is If you email me and want to talk directly I will provide you with a phone number. Otherwise we can simply email.