Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Polymath Who Set His Mind on Whiskey

According to the dictionary, a “polymath” is a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas, allowing the individual to solve specific problems.  Leonardo Di Vinci frequently is given as an example.  Donald D. Cattanach of  Pawtucket, Rhode Island, shown here, had a lot in common with Leonardo.  In addition, he was a whiskey man.

Like Leonardo, Cattanach was a skilled artist and an inventor in many fields.  He was born in 1835 in the Highlands of Scotland into an old and distinguished family.  According to a 1897 biography, through his father, Duncan, he was a lineal descendant of “The Cattanach,” a Scottish chieftain also known as the “Cat of the Mountain.”  His mother, Mary, was a descendant of Macdonald, a chief of Clan Glengarry who fought the British at Culloden and was executed for his trouble.

Because his Scottish family had some wealth they were able to send Donald to London for his education.  He attended a military school there where he excelled as a swordsman.  He also became skilled in several branches of chemistry.  Before leaving England he invented a continuous process for the manufacture of the ingredients for gunpowder.  After arriving in the United States in 1855, he sold the invention to a Georgia manufacturer.  Moving to Pawtucket  he then began the manufacture of hydrofluoric acid for the embossing and decorating of glass.  He linked that endeavor to his artistic interests. 

His 1897 biography states:    "For a number of years Mr. Cattanach carried on the largest decorative business in New England. He decorated several of the churches in Pawtucket and Providence and in other towns of the state. Many private dwellings also bear testimony to his artistic ability. The designs and colors were his own, and the latter possess a durability not achieved by any one else."  Shown here are two photos of a stained glass window Cattanach designed and executed for the mansion of Rhode Island Governor Lippitt about 1865.  In the 1870 U.S. Census, the Scotsman gave his occupation as “decorative painter.”

The same census found him married. In 1859, after four years in the United States, Cattanach wed Agnes Lick, a twin daughter of Hugh and Mary (Drown) Lick.  Agnes’ father was a prominent cotton manufacturer and later a Pawtucket businessman.  The family was Scottish and she was accounted a relative of Gilbert Stuart, the portraitist of George Washington.  The 1870 census found the Cattanachs with six children in their home, three boys and three girls, ages ranging from nine to one year.

Cattanach never stopped inventing.  Among his innovations was an improved furnace that reputedly would give the same amount of heat with one third of the coal required by ordinary furnaces.  It also consumed its own smoke, something environmentalists today would applaud.  He also was working on processes for refining and treating oils and in May, 1776, with other investors he spearheaded a new company in Rhode Island called the “Chattan Oil and Paint Works” for the manufacture of paints and varnishes. The 1800 Census listed his occupation as “oil merchant.”  As his sons matured, he took them into his operations.  By 1897 three of them, John L., Hugh L., and Donald C., were engaged with their father in the management of the Cattanach laboratories and works located at the Ingrahamville area of Pawtucket

Ever the restless inventor, in 1885 Cattanach took an initial step into the liquor trade when the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office awarded him two new patents.  One was for an “apparatus for the manufacture and distillation of alcohol, hydrocarbons, and acetic acid, and for aging and refining liquors.” The illustration he submitted with the application, shown here, is not as elegant as Leonardo’s drawings but presumably more practical. The second patent was for the process involved in using the distilling apparatus.   More than a decade would elapse, however, before Cattanach opened his own distillery.  Perhaps unable to sell his system to others successfully, he determined to employ it himself.

Recognizing that he would need sales expertise in his operation, Cattanach engaged as a partner a man named Edward R. Dawley. In 1895 together they created a corporation they called the Beverage Hill Road (B.H.R.) Distilling Company, capitalizing it at $100,000. Cattanach was president;  Dawley was secretary and treasurer. Dawley also was a principal in the Hunts Remedy Company of nearby Providence, Rhode Island. The office address of the whiskey enterprise was the same as the Hunt firm, one that hawked a patent medicine called “Hunt’s Remedy.”  That nostrum was merchandised as “The best kidney and liver medicine....Never known to fail.”  It was advertised as curing virtually every disease known to man, from dropsy and diabetes to dyspepsia and hemorrhoids.

This kind of hyperbole was transferred to B.H.R’s whiskey which they named “Heather Blossom,” obviously a reference to Cattanach’s Scottish roots.  Under the same name B.H.R. also sold brandy and wine. The partners advertised widely, with only slightly veiled medical claims.  An ad, headed “Queen Victoria,” posited that other spirits were “...injurious, especially to ladies, elderly people, dyspeptics and invalids” because of acids and alkalines.  Only Heather Blossom was pure.  Clearly citing Cattanach’s inventions, the ad claimed that their liquor was made by an entirely original process and contained no fusel oil or other poison.  In an 1895 Boston Evening Transcript ad the ingredient “amyl” was singled out “to cause evil effects and create an appetite for strong drink.”  No amyl, it was claimed, would be found in Heather Blossom products..

Another ad was more explicit about Cattanach’s innovations.  It read: “The B.H.R. Distilling Co. calls attention to their Heather Blossom pure malt Whiskeys, Brandies, Wines, etc., which through its new system of distillation by phyisco-chemical means, are rendered chemically pure, and are of reliable and uniform quality and adapted to the requirements of the Medical Faculty in its demand for a pure and nutritive stimulant.”  The ad contain a testimonial letter purportedly from a professor of chemistry at Boston University attesting to the purity of the product.   The Atlantic Medical Weekly, reporting on the 1896 meeting of the Rhode Island Medical Assn., commented on the large display for Heather Blossom Whiskey.  It noted that representatives of B. H. R. Distilling had called on more than 5,000 physicians promoting the whiskey.

Cattanach and Dawley also went all-out to design a distinctive bottle for Heather Blossom and early patented the design.  Each size had a slightly different look.  The quart bottle carried the name and the B.H.R. logo.  The back was a guarantee of a full quart and a admonition against refilling, a common gambit of crooked bartenders.  The front  and back of the pint bottle was similar.  The company also gave out free samples from time to time. The lettering on those smaller containers was modified.  The back contained the warning that it was not to be sold.  Heather Blossom bottles ranged in colors ranging from yellow to reddish amber and in both light and dark shades.

Things did not go well for the Beverage Hill Road enterprise.  Perhaps the Cattanach distilling process gave an off taste to Heather Blossom and other B.H.R. products.  Whatever the reason,  the evidence is that only three years after it opened the company summarily shut down.  Dawley quit the distillery but remained with Hunt’s Remedy Co. Cattanach may have had some hope of to keeping on.  Rhode Island tax records shown that, as lessee in 1890 he paid taxes of on the Beverage Hill Road property of $147.51.  Heather Blossom Whiskey, however, disappeared forever.

The 1900 census found Donald Cattanach, age 62, living in Pawtucket with his wife, Agnes.  Living with them were two sons John, 36, and Donald, 29, and a daughter, Mary, 38, as well as Agnes’ sister.  Where Cattanach’s occupation was written on the census form, it subsequently was scratched out, possibly indicating that he had retired.  Shown here is a photo of the Cattanachs, Donald and Agnes, taken in 1909 on their 50th wedding anniversary.  This aging polymath -- Rhode Island’s Leonardo Di Vinci -- could look back on a life of artistry and inventiveness yet contemplate just why his foray into the whiskey trade, an effort that once looked so promising, ended so quickly and completely. 
The Cattanach at 50 Years Wed

Note:  The bottle illustrations and some of the information for this article came from the website of the Little Rhody Bottle Club.   Their members are some of the more avid collectors of Heather Blossom bottles.  The color photograph of Cattanach’s window and of the 50th anniversary couple are from the website of Maude Dexter, a descendant.


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