Tuesday, April 14, 2015

“Peerless” Henry Kraver and His Once and Future Whiskey

When the descendants of past whiskey men decide in this day and age to rekindle the fires of family distilleries, literally or figuratively, it is an occasion for celebration.  The legacy of Henry Kraver, once one of the Nation’s leading distillers and the originator of the noted “Peerless” brand whiskey,”  is being kept alive in Henderson, Kentucky, by a great-grandson and a great-great grandson.  

Before dealing with the new Kentucky Peerless Distilling Co., however, let’s look at its origins and at Henry Kraver himself. Shown here in maturity, he was born in Poland about 1859 and emigrated to the United States, presumably with family members, in 1867.  They settled in New York City.  By 1885, the 26-year-old immigrant boy had moved to Henderson, Kentucky.   His first job there was working at the Mann Brothers department store.  His ability and ambition were quickly recognized by the brothers.  With their financial help, he opened a saloon and by 1888 was building the Kraver Tobacco House.

Kraver had selected a promising town in which to pursue his business interests.  About eight years before his arrival the Louisville & Nashville train line connected Henderson by rail with Louisville and St. Louis.  Town industries were stimulated, including tobacco marketing,  buggy manufacturing, and whiskey making.  Among the distilleries was one founded by Elijah W. Worsham and a partner in 1881.  As shown on a jug here, the company featured a brand of whiskey called “Peerless.”  At its peak in the 1880s Worsham was producing between 300 and 400 barrels a year. 

Troubled by financial difficulties and the eventual death of its founder, E.W. Worsham Distilling was sold in 1889 to the rising Henderson business star, Henry Kraver.  What he purchased, according to insurance underwriter records, was a frame distillery with a metal or shingle roof and a single frame warehouse with similar roofing.  According to a Wine and Spirits Bulletin story, Kraver also bought a considerable quantity of old whiskey then in storage in Hamburg, Germany. It likely had been shipped earlier from the U.S. to avoid taxes.  
Almost immediately Kraver began to install new machinery at the distillery and erect additional warehouses to store his Old Kentucky Peerless Whiskey.  The enhanced facility is shown here in an illustration.  With the enactment of the Bottle-in-Bond Act, he was able to use these warehouses as federally bonded storage.  Kraver also took early steps — well appreciated by his neighbors — for installing “slop drying” equipment.  For years the plant had been emitting foul odors in its vicinity from the spent mash (“slop”) that was used to feed cattle on the premises.  With the new machinery, those waste materials were being dried and shipped to Germany for feed.  Moreover, the cows and their attendant odors were eliminated from the site.

In December 1889 Kraver suffered a setback when one of the boilers exploded at the distillery, killing a worker named Walter Rout.  According to the suit filed by his family for $10,000 ($250,000 today) in damages, Rout “was so scalded and mangled by steam and debris from the explosion that he died from the injuries [four months later].”  Other workers injured in the blast also sued Kraver.  He apparently was able to settle those suits as he continued vigorously to grow his business.
Kraver was marketing heavily throughout the Midwest and even beyond, including in big cities like Chicago and St. Louis. The Henderson Gleaner newspaper, noting that the distillery was the largest consumer of corn and grain in Kentucky, declared:  “‘Peerless’ brand of whiskey is known and shipped to all parts of the country, and the reputation of it is such that the demand is constantly increasing and each year more is used than in the previous year.”   By 1900, production of Peerless Whiskey had risen from eight to two hundred barrels a day.  Kraver also established a large wholesale house from which he claimed to be supplying 42 of the 50 saloons in Henderson with liquor, using both ceramic jugs and labeled bottles.  The company also sold other barroom supplies.  

Meanwhile Henry had been having a personal life.  The 1900 census captured him, living on Water Street in Henderson, with his wife of 10 years, Ida, a woman who had been born in Tennessee.  Henry was 42; Ida was 29.  With them in their home were two children, Alfred, 9; and Helen, 3.  Kraver’s occupation was given as “distiller.”  For this census, with information apparently given by another family member, his birthplace was recorded as New York.   The 1930 census, for which Henry apparently was the respondent, recorded his birthplace as Poland, likely the western region adjacent to, and often occupied by, Germany.
Kraver rapidly made a reputation for himself in business and civic circles.  When an ordinance was passed in Henderson in 1894 forbidding sales of alcohol on Sunday,  Henry attracted widespread notice by renting a house and securing a liquor license on the Indiana side of the Ohio River.  Thereafter he ran a bar there full blast on Sundays and employed a steamer to make no-charge quick trips to and fro from Kentucky.   His work as community leader brought him local praise.  The Henderson Gleaner said of him:  “Henry Kraver is one of Henderson’s most progressive and earnest businessmen and no movement is ever inaugurated but what he supports it liberally.  This is not only true of business enterprise, but he is equally liberal in all charitable works….”

For the first 19 years of his operation, Kraver continued to operate under the name of the Worsham Distilling Co.  That changed in 1907.  With capitalization of $100,000 (equivalent today of $2.5 million), he incorporated as “The Kentucky Peerless Distilling Company.”  By 1913 Kentucky Peerless was employing almost 50 workers and was producing 10,000 barrels of whiskey a year.  The market for Kraver’s Peerless clearly was being stoked both by the quality of his whiskey and his vigorous merchandising techniques.  
His company was notable for giveaway items presented to saloons and other establishments carrying his whiskey.  Among the most notable were a glass back-of-the bar-bottle with attractive white lettering applied — a stand out behind any bartender.  Kraver also supplied corkscrews with his advertising on the sheath and, possibly for retail customers, mini-jugs with a slug or two of Peerless whiskey inside.

One of Kraver’s highly unusual gifted items to saloons was a cast iron face of an African-American youth wearing a floppy hat.  The legend below reads:  “Bred in Old Ky…Peerless and Me.”  I believe it is a bottle opener, meant to be affixed on a flat wooden surface with screws through ear holes in the metal.  Then beverage caps could be opened on the mouth and teeth of the figure.  Devising this giveaway may have been related to Kraver’s buying the Henderson Brewing Company, a brewery that enjoyed shipping access to the Ohio River.  As he had with Peerless whiskey, Kraver moved quickly to increase production of Henderson beer.
By 1917, despite prohibitionary forces drying up liquor markets, the Kentucky Peerless Distilling Co. was running full out.  It produced 23,000 barrels of whiskey daily and had an additional 63,000 barrels in storage. Then came World War One.  The U.S. Government restricted use of grain for whisky as part of the war effort.  Kraver patriotically complied and halted his production.  After wartime restrictions eased it was only a short time until National Prohibition was enforced.  Kraver was forced to shut down his distillery and close up the brewery. 

Through the early 1920s Peerless whiskey was kept in storage in Henry’s bonded warehouses under the watchful eye and armed guards of the federal government.  Because of rampant thefts from disbursed storage, in 1923 U.S. Army troops transported 6,000 barrels of Kraver’s whiskey from Henderson to a more secure “concentration” warehouse in Owensboro.  There Peerless could be accessed as medicine with a doctor’s prescription.
A relatively young 53 years when Prohibition was imposed, Henry, shown above with his wife, had considerable other resources to fall back on.  In 1910 the family had moved to 639 Main Street.  Now in an historical district of Henderson it is a two story T-shaped frame dwelling, notable for its ornamented gables and windows.  That is where the 1930 census found the family, with son Alfred, now 38, still in residence.  Kraver gave his occupation as “retired” but was far from it.  Early in the Great Depression he had invested in and was served as first president of the First National Bank of Henderson, an institution that survived under that name until 1993.  He also had the foresight to buy a vacated department store and renovate it as a theater for vaudeville and the movies.  The Kraver Theater survived until 1976.

Kraver’s wife Ida died in 1935.  Two years later in October Henry was on a visit to Chicago when he fell from a second story balcony at the Palmer House Hotel.  One leg was badly injured and ultimately required amputation.  Complications set in and Henry died in January 1938 at the age of 78.  He was buried beside Ida with a single gravestone,  shown here.

Fast forward 76 years.  In 2014 a Henderson native named Corky Taylor and his son Carson announced that they were relaunching the Kentucky Peerless distillery in Henderson.  Kraver was Taylor’s “father’s mother’s father.”  These descendants announced that the new facility initially would sell an un-aged “white lightening,” to be follow by a Peerless label whiskey aged four years,  and eventually a premium six-to-eight-year-old bourbon named for Kraver himself.  As shown here, when “Barrel No. 1” rolled out in March of this year, the Taylors were there to give it a ceremonial “bang to the bung.”
This revival of one of Kentucky’s most revered brands is truly a reason to cheer and raise a glass.  Noting what was said of Henry Kraver in the Henderson Gleaner almost a century ago, those same sentiments should be be extended to his great-grandson, Corky Taylor:  “He is a large tax payer and entitled to all the success he can get.”

Note:  Much of the information included in this vignette was obtained from the Taylors' Kentucky Peerless Whiskey website.  It contains a timeline of Kraver’s accomplishments as well as other interesting information and illustrations, some of the latter used for this post.  Newspaper stories, journal articles and census returns provided additional material.  




















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