Recently I took a tour of Gen. George C. Marshall’s house in Leesburg, Virginia, on the anniversary of the end of World War Two in Europe. The docent asked me to analyze the whiskey bottles on Marshall’s liquor shelf. Prominent were two vintage bottles of “Old Charter,” and my thoughts were cast back to an even earlier day when Abraham and Benjamin Chapeze created and named that famous Kentucky bourbon.
Turning back the clock allows us to flesh out the Chapeze story. When the Marquis de LaFayette left France in 1777, among his companions he brought a young physician named Henri Chapiers, whose name was anglicized to Henry Chapeze. After serving as a surgeon in the Revolutionary War, this Frenchman married an Irish woman and eventually brought his family to Bardstown, Kentucky, where he built large home, shown below.
His eldest son, Benjamin began his career driving a team of horses and a wagon, but his natural talent soon took him into the study of law. In 1812 he married Elizabeth Shepherd, the daughter of an early pioneer for whom Shepherdsville, seat of Bullitt County, Kentucky, is named. In 1815 this Chapeze was admitted to the bar at Shepherdsville and was said to be known as “remarkable for great integrity.” After a successful career he died in 1839 while conducting the defense in a murder case. Benjamin and Elizabeth produced a family of ten children, of whom two were Adam Shepherd and Benjamin Jr., our whiskey men.
When their father died, Adam was 19 and Ben Jr. was 17. Newly minted as “men in the family,” the brothers took over farming their father’s lands along Long Lick Creek. As they toiled successfully there for a decade as bachelors, they likely were hatching ideas for maximizing returns on the grains they harvested. The incentive may have come in 1849 when Adam, now 29, met and married a Vermont native named Mariah Louise Smith who had come to the area to be with her sister, a local school teacher. They would have a family of five girls and one boy. Ben remained a bachelor all his life.
Two events help to bring the brothers’ dreams to reality. In 1854 they obtained full title to the land with the death of their mother. Subsequently, the Louisville & Nashville Railroad built a spur line to what became known as Chapeze Station, crossing not far from their land. The map of Bullitt Country above shows the locations. The railroad made transport to many parts of the United States possible. Moreover, the Long Lick Creek Valley not only was good for growing corn, it also featured limestone springs and wells to provide pure, sparkling water for whiskey. With the Civil War and attendant unrest in Kentucky likely impeding their plans, after the war the Chapeze brothers in 1867 joined the ranks of American farmer-distillers, a group of entrepreneurs who dominated the liquor trade of the times.
Unlike other farmer-distillers who were content with mostly local sales, however, the Chapezes had a larger vision. While Adam stayed at home and managed the day-to-day operations of the distillery, brother Ben, unencumbered by family, roved neighboring regions promoting whiskey sales. Their plant was capable of mashing 260 bushels a day and featured two frame warehouses holding 3,100 barrels. Their flagship brand, reputedly issued in 1874, was “Old Charter.” It is generally believed that the whiskey was named for the Charter Oak of Connecticut honoring the centennial of the American Revolution. The charter, hidden in the Hartford tree from the British king’s henchman, is believed to be the world’s first written constitution.
Then Adam Chapeze died in September 1881, a relatively young 60 years old. He and Ben both had been baptized into the Catholic Church by the reigning bishop as young boys after their father, Benjamin Senior, had become reconciled with his religion. As a result Adam was buried from St. Joseph Catholic Church in Bardstown and interred in the church cemetery. Ben Jr. carried on without him, continuing to expand the distillery and the customer base for Old Charter bourbon.
As shown above, eventually the Chapeze distillery, largely of frame construction, had expanded to four warehouses, three of which were still in use. Insurance underwriter records from 1892 indicate that one warehouse with a shingle roof was located 100 feet west of the still. A second, also frame and south of the still, was being used for to store spent mash for animal feed. The third and newest was the distillery’s only bonded storage. It was of iron-clad construction and located east of the still.
Sometime during Ben Jr.’s decade-long direction of the Chapeze distillery, he had assigned the responsibility for merchandising his whiskey to Wright & Taylor Co.. This was a Louisville wholesale house established in 1886 and operated by John J. Wright and Marion E. Taylor. They were well-known successful Kentucky whiskey men, with brands that included “Pride of Louisville,” “Cane Spring,” “Ky Taylor,” and “Old Logan.”
As Ben Jr.’s health began to fail, he eventually sold the Chapeze distillery to Wright & Taylor, still doing business under that name although in the early 1890s, Marion Taylor had purchased John Wright’s interest in the company. The sale seemingly occurred after 1892 when the distillery was still registered to A & B Chapeze but before 1895. Under the auspices of Marion Taylor the Chapeze distillery continued to expand capacity. By 1910 mashing capacity had increased to 400 bushels daily and storage for 36,000 barrels of aging bourbon. Mashing capacity was increased to 600 bushels and by 1913 to 1,000 bushels daily. Trademarked by Wright & Taylor in 1907, Old Charter now commanded a national audience. Although National Prohibition in 1919 curtailed production and sales, Taylor for a time during the “dry” era was able to sell Old Charter as “medicinal whiskey,” available with a prescription.
With Repeal, Schenley Distillers bought the “Old Charter” brand name. The distillery itself had been purchased in 1823 by James Chapeze Hagan, a grandson of Adam Chapeze. Although the flagship brand was gone, a family member was back in charge. Hagan formed the Kentucky Valley Distilling Company, RD #18, and operated under that name. After rebuilding the physical plant founded by his Chapeze ancestors, he featured the brands “Old Stave” and “Kentucky Valley.” Later in the 1930s the Old Tyme Distillery bought the distillery to produce its newly acquired “Green River” label. During World War II Schenley bought the plant and largely used the warehouse for storage. Since that time the buildings, still standing as shown here, have been used as warehouses and the Chapeze offices have been restored.
As for post-Repeal Old Charter — including the bottles I found in Gen. Marshall’s cupboard — the brand name and recipe was bought by the Bernheims (the ad at top) who eventually sold it to Schenley, and then became the property of United Distillers when it bought Schenley. From there the Old Charter gravitated to Diago as part of a merger and thence to Sazerac, which currently makes the whiskey at its Buffalo Trace Distillery. As a result, the bourbon originated by the Chapeze brothers can be bought even today, even though the formula has undergone several changes.
Nor have the Chapezes themselves been forgotten. Grandfather Henry’s house in Bardstown is on the historical register and available for weddings and receptions. In Sheperdsville a street has been christened “Chapeze Lane.” And finally, at what once was Chapeze Station (now Limestone Springs) a Bill Murray movie, “Stripes,” was filmed at the site of the restored Chapeze distillery. The scenes shot there were supposed to be in Czechoslovakia.