Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Christopher Sandheger: Germany’s Gift to Cincinnati

Experienced in the liquor trade from an early age in Germany, Christopher Sandheger,  shown here about 1868 in the midst of his family, has been credited as instrumental in Cincinnati’s rise as a center of the U.S. whiskey industry and lauded as a highly valuable citizen. After his death the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce published an extended tribute to him that said in part:  “Personally he was a man of genial and lovable character, and his friendships were many and enduring.

Born in 1833 in Herzebrock, Sandheger as a teenager went to work for the Hagedorn Distillery in Rheda, Germany.  It is likely that Hagedorn was making and selling as “schnapps,” (a German word that covers a multitude of spirits) a liquor called “korn,” a beverage that was distilled from fermented rye but also could be made from barley or wheat.  Clear and about 32 percent alcohol, it was a cheap and very popular drink among Germans. Working with Hagedorn, Sandheger likely learned the art of blending and compounding liquor.

At age 21 in 1854 Sandheger left Germany for America, accompanied by his younger brother, Joseph.  They settled comfortably in Cincinnati, a city with a large and growing German-American community.   According to a biography he worked in an accounting office for several years before taking a job with a Cincinnati liquor firm.  Frugal like many of his countrymen, Sandheger had accrued enough cash  by 1857 to begin his own liquor enterprise with a fellow German immigrant, Louis Hudepohl of the famous brewery family.

Almost immediately the partners ran into trouble. They were “rectifying” whiskey, that is, blending several kinds to achieve a particular taste, as Christopher had learned in Germany.  That practice incurred a special Federal tax, bitterly opposed by rectifiers. For a time Sandheger and Hudepohl blithely avoided paying it.  Apprehended by Federal authorities in 1858, by law they could have had their property confiscated.  Although the story of their arrest made the Cincinnati newspapers, the business survived, apparently because the partners promptly paid up.

That same year of the tax problem Christopher took a wife.  She was Bertha Heinzmann who had been his sweetheart in Germany and later followed him to Cincinnati.  They would have two daughters,  Christine born in 1860 and Ella born in 1862.  (As an indication of Sandheger’s closeness to the Hagedorn distilling family, both girls eventually returned to Germany and married sons of the distiller.)  The 1860 census found the young couple living in Cincinnati’s 5th Ward, a predominantly German neighborhood, near several recorded saloon owners and bartenders.  Sandheger, then 27, was listed as a “liquor merchant.”  Brother Joseph was living with the family.

In 1860,  Hudepohl left the firm and Sandheger continued on his own, located in a four story building at 21-27 West Court Street, between Main and Walnut Streets.  One contemporary article recounted those early years: "Sandheger conducted business on a small scale, but he enjoyed such popularity because of his honesty and customer service that in 1868 he found it necessary to enlarge his cramped quarters. He tore down and rebuilt portions of the building one at a time until by 1874 all parts of the original structure had disappeared."

The first floor of the building, shown here, housed the rectifying equipment with huge vats for blending the raw whiskey and the barrels in which it was aged.  The second floor held the warehouse and offices.  The upper floors held “thousands of barrels of rye and bourbon whiskey” as well as other offices and a private apartment for the owner.   The same article asserted: “According to public records, the Sandheger business is one of the largest of its kind in German hands.”

C. Sandheger Co. advertised itself as “distillers, rectifiers and importers.”  The company featured a number of its own brands, including “Stone Lick Bourbon,” “Old Sandheger Club Bourbon.” “Old Jumper Rye,”  “Federal Rye,” Sandheger Dry Gin,” “Sandheger Stomach Bitters, and “Sandheger Peach and Honey.”  The firm’s flagship brand was “Old Still Rye."  Of all his labels, Sandheger appears to have trademarked only Old Still Rye and Stone Lick Bourbon, both in 1905.

Although Sandheger advertised himself as a distiller, the claim apparently referred to his financial interests in outside whiskey-making operations.   It was a common practice of liquor wholesalers of the era to  invest in outside distilleries to assure supplies of raw whiskey from which to blend their rectified brands. He partnered for a time with a man named Caleb Dodsworth who first operated a distillery on Ludlow Avenue in the Cumminsville area of Cincinnati and later moved his operations to Carthage, Ohio.  Sandheger also held stock in the Federal Distilling Company of Baltimore. 

In addition to his “house” brands Sandheger also was buying name brand whiskey from distilleries, principally in Kentucky and selling it in his own fancy jugs. Shown here is his ceramic container with gold lettering for “Old Tub” Sour Mash Whiskey, the product of the D. M. Beam distillery of Bardstown, Nelson County.  Another Sandheger jug of a similar decor advertised Thos. Moore’s Pennsylvania Rye.  (See my vignette on Moore, May 2012.)

Like other Cincinnati whiskey men,  Sandheger was generous with giveaway items to favored customers.  For his Old Still brand, he gifted shot glasses and for Sandheger’s Peach and Honey, a label under glass, wicker covered back-of-the-bar bottle.   He also provided practical items.  Among them were several kinds of bartender knives that included not only cutting edges but a corkscrew.  The two shown here both are dated 1900 and came with a protective pouch.  He also gave away a cash box to be used in saloons.  It had a handle, a locking mechanism and brass plaque on the top that had a picture of his headquarters.  It likely was an illustration of the 123-129 East Court Street site to which Sandheger had moved his company in 1896.  This building was five stories high and the rectifying operation had been moved behind to a separate 20 foot by 80 foot structure.

Meanwhile, in their personal life,  the Sandhegers continued to live in Cincinnati and were recorded there in the 1880 census.  Brother Joseph had left to marry and was working as a grocer.  Their daughters now living in Germany, the couple had living with them Henry Sandheger, age 15.   According to family members he was a nephew of Christopher’s from Germany and his full name was Gerhard Henry, also known as “Big Henry.” In time the young man would become a salesman for C. Sandheger & Co.

With his business success and gracious personality, Christopher gained recognition as a vigorous and welcome participant in Cincinnati business circles.  For 30 years he was an active member of the Chamber of Commerce and served for many years as the treasurer of the Ohio Wine and Spirits Association.  He also was an officer of the Sun Mutual Insurance Company.  Another contribution was his planning and financing the construction of  an architecturally significant apartment building. Located on Cincinnati’s Court Street it was known as Courtland Flats, acclaimed as the second Renaissance Revival building in downtown Cincinnati.  Shown here as it looks today, Courtland Flats is on the National Register of Historical Places.

In 1902 tragedy struck the Sandheger family when the younger daughter, Ella, died in Germany at the age of 40, leaving a husband and daughter named Bertha. In his will, written subsequently,  Christopher provided for his wife and the six children of his elder daughter, Christine, and lesser amounts to other relatives.  The residual part of his estate, a significant amount, was willed to Christine, and, Bertha, the motherless granddaughter.

When Christopher Sandheger died in 1906, his worth was estimated by the Cincinnati press as more than $1 million, at least twenty times that in current dollars.  The cause of death was listed as “cerebral thrombosis.”  Although he was 73 years old, the death certificate mistakenly recorded his age as 43. The address given was his Court Street office although the couple some years before had moved to Bellevue, Kentucky. Chris Sandheger was buried on Garden Lane, Section 73, Lot 189, Space 1, of Cincinnati’s Spring Grove Cemetery.  Always frugal although a millionaire, he left only $100 for a monument for his grave.

For the next decade the liquor empire Sandheger had built was operated by family members,  initially under the name “Estate of Chris Sandheger.”  Later it would revert back to the C. Sandheger Co.  Piecing together records,  it appears that the managers were Christopher’s nephew, Henry (Gerhard Henry) Sandheger who served at least for a time as president of the firm, and John (Johannes) Quack.
Quack was a German who had married one of Sandheger’s granddaughters and likely had experience with the Hagedorn liquor interests.  The pair were recorded in 1908 trademarking a Sandheger whiskey brand.

Christopher’s successors continued his tradition of attractive giveaway items to favored customers.  Shown here is a colorful 1910 calendar of a comely Indian maiden.  During this period the firm is recorded as regularly drawing liquor for rectifying purposes from the warehouses of the Rolling Fork Distillery in Marion County, Kentucky.  With the coming of statewide Prohibition in Ohio in 1916, the C. Sandheger Co. was forced to shut down and was not revived with Repeal fourteen years later. The Court Street headquarters was demolished in 1934. The Cincinnati Post newspaper offices subsequently located at the Sandheger site.

A fitting final tribute to this German-born whiskey man, so instrumental in Cincinnati’s emergence as a center of the U.S. liquor industry, can be found in the 1906 memorial written by his former colleagues in the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce.  It reads: “Christopher Sandheger, the successful merchant, has gone from the scene of his usefulness,  but his many acts of liberality and charity and of commercial generosity, of the kind which so often helped others to help themselves along the highway of endeavor, will live in the hearts of his legions of friends.”

Note:  Credit for significant information included here goes to Ms. Bobbi Lambert, a great, great grandniece of Christopher Sandheger.  She was very helpful in searching through family records to fill in blank places in this story.  She also provided the interesting family photo of the Sandhegers that opens the vignette. 


  1. Great article ,Jack. Your jug still has the cork.

  2. Dear Bas: Thank you for your kind words about Chris Sandheger. I did own the fancy jug shown but am not sure it had the original cork. Through years of looking at jugs -- and their corks -- I only infrequently come across one that I believe is original. Folks just think sticking a cork in a jug makes it look better. Maybe it does. All the best. Jack

  3. I have the square metal tin in the picture, mine is dated 1903

    I can't insert image.

  4. Dear Unknown: Your square metal tin is a very unusual liquor house "giveaway." Sandheger's is the only one I have ever found. As noted in the article it would have been used for a saloonkeeper or barman to stash the cash during the day. It could be locked to keep other "sticky fingers" out of it. If you want to send me a photo of yours, do it through my email,

  5. I would like to say thank you to all that where involved with this article. I am the granddaughter of Bertha, the motherless granddaughter. I was born to Bertha's son Ralph Kohlhoff late in his life and was never told of the family history. This was so great to come across in my search for history of my family. Thanks again.

  6. Dear Nakmo: I most appreciate your kind remarks. The piece on Sandheger has been one of my favorites to do. I once owned a jug from his company. Chris Sandheger was a fine man and you should be proud to be his kin.

  7. What a history! I came to learn about this man because of a silver plated water carafe I have with his name above the word "Cincinnati". I got it at one of the last Carnegie library buildings in Texas built in 1910.

  8. Daniel: Your silver-plated water carafe would have been gifted to a saloon or hotel or restaurant that featured his liquor. It would have been seated on the bar with either water or cold tea in it. Both were used by people on bar stools to cut the strength of their whiskey, a common practice in that day when liquor could be a little rough on the throat. By the way, it is a great find.

  9. Thank you so much for the information! I was a bit confused to see a spirit mogul's name on a water carafe. Any help on a way to date it would be appreciated. Thank you for your time!

  10. Daniel: Hard to date the water carafe with any precision. About a thirty year span when it might have been issued. Almost certainly, however, it is over 100 years old and considered an antique.