Thursday, January 22, 2015

E. J. Curley Turned Boone’s Knoll into a Distilling Marvel

Above is a photo postcard of a Kentucky landmark that is clearly delineated as Boone’s Knoll.  It appears to be a rather unremarkable rocky outcropping covered with trees and foliage above the Kentucky River.  But look closely.  Behind the hill is a tall structure emitting smoke.  Those billows have emerged from Edward J. Curley’s distillery, the enterprise that brought Boone’s Knoll to national whiskey prominence.

Curley had been born in Massachusetts in 1837 of Irish immigrant parents.  Although little is known of his early years, my research indicates that he likely was a Union soldier during the Civil War.  The national register of those serving in that conflict records an Edward Curley as a private in Company E of the First Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Cavalry, a unit raised early in the war.  He would have been 23 years old, a prime age for recruits.

His military service may hold the answer to how Curley got to Kentucky.  Union Forces held Lexington and the areas around it.  In Jessamine County on the Kentucky River not far from Lexington, the Union had constructed an installation called Camp Nelson.  Its purpose was to recruit emancipated blacks and train them to become soldiers.  With the Massachusetts Regiment stationed in nearby Virginia, it would not have been unusual for Curley to have been seconded to this operation.  

In any case, almost immediately after the Confederate surrender, Curley with two partners founded a distillery in the immediate vicinity of Camp Nelson.  The military connection is strengthened by the fact that one of the partners was Dwight A. Aiken, a Michigan resident and captain in the Commissary Department of the Union Army.  Beginning in 1863 Aiken was stationed at Camp Nelson.  It is my speculation that Curley and Aiken met there and decided to go into whiskey distilling after the war with a third partner named Campbell.

The spot they chose for their operations was not far from the camp and an excellent site.  The area had been important in pioneer days because a break in the palisades gave access to a ford across the Kentucky River below the mouth of Hickman Creek.  According to historians the ford was a favorite crossing for Daniel Boone.  Thus the name "Boone’s Knoll."  In the late 1860s the trio built a distillery on one side of the river at the Knoll, as shown below.  It would be called the Blue Grass Distillery and be recorded in Federal revenue annals as Distillery #3 of the Eighth Kentucky District.  They marketed their product as “Blue Grass Whiskey,”  a name identified in government documents as having first been used in commerce in 1867.

This plant was built of iron with oak racks.  All the timbers were oak, sawed in a mill on the premises. The warehouses were reported to incorporate the latest technologies for light, ventilation and fire prevention.  The original wooden still later was torn down and a copper kettle substituted to insure better quality control.  The company also provided its own cooperage on premises using the abundant oaks in the area to supply staves.  

By 1874 the trio had dissolved.  Aiken had moved to Lexington and leased an existing distillery which he operated as D.A. Aiken & Company, Distillers, until 1882 when a fire and financial problems shut him down.  Campbell just disappeared from the scene.  Curley was now sole proprietor of the Blue Grass Distillery.  Already he was finding a national audience for his whiskey.  In June 1872 a Sacramento, California, newspaper carried an ad placed by Curley’s local sales agent.  It extolled the limited capacity of the distillery, declaring that:  “…More attention is given to the quality than the quantity of liquor produced….”  Curley’s whiskey was made the old fashioned way, the ad continued, in recipe known only to the proprietor:  “The water used in its manufacture is of a peculiar nature, from a spring in the cliff of the Kentucky River.
About 1880 Curley decided to build a second distillery on the other side of the river, connected by a steel girder bridge.  It became Distillery #15 in Kentucky District Eight.   Shown here, Curley named it the “The Boone’s Knoll Distillery.”   He built the new plant on solid rock, which required blasting to set the structure.  The building, as seen above, was constructed of solid stone.  According to a contemporary account  “The mashing floor and fermenting room are admirably situated and the temperature of the latter does not vary 5 degrees from 72 degrees all year round. The piping and machinery are all new, and of the simplest and most efficient pattern”

The 1882 Bonfort’s Directory of wine and liquor producers in a lengthy article waxed poetic about the two facilities:  “The Blue Grass Distillery stands at the foot of a valley overlooked by a beautiful hill known to the countryside as Boone’s Knoll…In the spring the slopes on the other side of the river, which stretch away in terraces, vividly recalling the Roman amphitheater at Arles, are covered with fragrant wild flowers, which fill the air with perfume and make the little valley a perfect fairy-land.” 
Curley’s Boone’s Knoll Distillery also came in for praise: “This house is entitled to take its place among the  best distilleries in the world.  At the same time, Bonfort’s writer seemed to anguish at a decision the proprietor had made.   Curley was operating the two distilleries as a single entity.  The Blue Grass Distillery had a mashing capacity of 600 bushels of grain daily but never was run up to its capacity, according to Bonfort’s.  The Boone’s Knoll facility added more capacity. bringing the total mashing capacity to 1,100 bushels a day and 100 barrels daily.  The publication reported that Curley, seeing a glut of whiskey coming to market, would make only enough whiskey the next year to fill his orders and nothing more.  While seemingly regretting the decision, Bonfort’s said:  “We should dislike to do anything to increase production, but probably no better investment could be made than 1883 sour mash.” 
For East Coast sales, Curley had turned over much of his limited production to the Froeb Company of New York City. (See my post on Charles Froeb in November 2012).  Responsible for the saloon sign of Daniel Boone above, Froeb advertised the Blue Grass Rye brand vigorously and may have taken a large portion of Curley’s production. He sold the whiskey in bottles and flask, as one shown here.  Froeb’s ads characterized the whiskey as “excellent in convalescence, as it is stimulating and not nauseating.  Its dryness is a prerequisite in diabetical maladies.

Despite these marketing efforts and endorsements in the trade press, something was going wrong for E.J. Curley & Co.  As with other distillers of that time a combination of repressive federal tax laws and a downturn in the U.S. economy resulted in financial difficulties.  In 1889 Curley’s horses and wagons reportedly were impound for non-payment of taxes, in what must have been a crushing blow to the proprietor.  The same year Curley sold out to the so-called “Whiskey Trust,”  a investor group that sought to spike upward profits from Kentucky whiskey by scooping up distilleries and creating a quasi-monopoly. 
In Curley’s place, the Trust installed a new manager, August C. Gutzeit, a Lexington wholesale liquor broker. Shown left is one of Gutzeit’s jugs.  Unlike many of the properties obtained by the Trust and closed down, the Boone Knoll sites were kept in operation producing Curley’s brands — and labels with his signature — for almost 20 years until shuttered completely by the advent of National Prohibition.  The Boone’s Knoll distillery subsequently was turned into a hotel.  Successor organizations to the Trust were allowed to sell Curley’s product as “medicinal” whiskey throughout the dry era, obtained by a prescription from doctors who in many cases were glad to oblige a thirst.  

After Repeal in 1934 the distillery buildings were converted back to their original purpose, operating as the Kentucky River Distillery, becoming RD #45.  The plant was sold again sometime in the 1960s to Norton Simon who operated it to produce Canada Dry soft drinks until  the 1970s.  At some point the Boone’s Knoll distillery burned and the warehouses were leased to Seagrams to house production from other Kentucky plants.  Still standing, the stone structures more recently are said to have been leased to the producers of “Wild Turkey” bourbon. 

Apparently never having married and putting all his energy into his whiskey enterprises, Edward Curley was only 52 when he was forced to sell out.  Somewhere along the line Curley gained the title “Colonel,” given to many as an honorary distinction in Kentucky.  Subsequent to 1900 he does not appear in Kentucky census records.  What his future life may have held is shrouded in the mists of time.  Curley clearly had constructed his distilleries for the long run;  even today the ruins remain visible from U.S. Route 27 at Boone’s Knoll.  They create a lonely memorial to the vision and enterprise of this transplanted Boston Irish whiskey man. 


  1. Kentucky River Distllery actually produced Canada Dry Bourbon in the 60's, not soft drinks. O.M.Hawkins was the Master Distiller. Originally from Lawrenceburg,and a 6th generation Distiller. Old Joe....

  2. Thanks, Hillary. This is good additional information.