Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Cincinnati’s Rosenthals Decorated Along the Bar

The Rosenthals, father and sons, were among dozens of whiskey wholesalers and retailers who called Cincinnati home during the pre-Prohibition era.   Every outfit in the town’s liquor trade was scrambling to find a business formula that would make the company successful in spite of the fierce competition.  The Rosenthals succeeded by providing a variety of brands and advertising giveaways to decorate the bars of their customers.
Beginning in 1871, the Rosenthals gave America a rich mixture of whiskey labels, including "1881 Rock Castle Rye,” "Fern Hill Rye,” "Forest Grove,” ”Lion Head Rye,” "Meadow Brook,” "Mephisto Rye,” "Montreal Club,” "O' Hare Malt,” "Red Letter Rye,”  “Rosedale, and "Wm. Berkele.”   Shown here are a number of Rosenthal brands with colorful labels lined up as they might have looked on a bar during the heyday of that organization.
The founding father of this liquor trade was known throughout his life — even to the census taker — as “H. Rosenthal.”  Only one source indicates that his full name was Hyer (possibly Hyman) S. Rosenthal.  He had been born in the German state of Baden-Wurtemburg about 1820.  I have found no record of when and where he initially immigrated to to United States, but as a young man he settled in Cincinnati, a city with strong German roots.   He entered business directories initially in 1871 as a partner in the liquor firm of Rosenthal & Levison, located at 17 West Front Street.  Within two years Levison had departed the scene and the company now was H. Rosenthal & Son,  Rosenthal’s son, Meyer (or Myer), having joined his father.
The 1880 census found the family residing at 302 Bass Street in Cincinnati.  The senior Rosenthal, now 60 years old, was with his wife, Theresa, who was 53, and three of their children, including Charles.  The father’s occupation was given as “wholesale whiskey.”  When Charles, grew to adulthood, he too was taken into the business and the name was changed once again to H. Rosenthal & Sons.  By this time their store had moved to several addresses on East Second Street and soon would move to 341 Main Street and then on to East Third Street, the headquarters shown here.

The Rosenthals were not content to provide saloons, restaurants and bars with just their whiskeys.  Like many of their competitors in Cincinnati, they lavished advertising gifts upon their customers.  One staple of the trade was the shot glass.  They would be provided to bartenders for pouring drinks along the brass rail in the belief that customers would order the liquor thereon advertised.   The Rosenthal’s shot glasses were elegantly etched offerings, advertising, among other whiskeys,  Wm. Berkele, Fern Hill, and Forest Grove.

At the same time the Rosenthals were helping decorating the bars of their clients with an array of glass decanters known popularly as “back-the-bar bottles.”   Displayed in this post are four examples of their generosity.   One William Berkele bottle has etched lettering with inlaid gold, as does a Fern Hill decanter. Both were sure eye-catchers behind the bar.  A second Berkele decanter has a white glass label embossed on it and a third bottle a simple etched message.  All four have interesting stoppers.  While these items were relatively expensive to produce, the Rosenthals knew their value to their “bar-centric” marketing strategy.

Meanwhile,  Charles and Meyer were having personal lives. Meyer had married a woman known as Mamie who was seven years his junior.  They would have a family of at least three daughters and one son, Henry, who later would join H. Rosenthal & Sons.  Charles married a Cincinnati girl in 1886.  His wife, Rose, was the daughter of German immigrants.   The 1900 Census found them living with their three children,  Charles Jr., 7;  Terese, 5, and Margaret, 3, in the 3lst Ward of Cincinnati. 

Under the management of the Rosenthals, the liquor business flourished. As “rectifiers” and blenders of whiskey, however, the family likely was hampered frequently by a lack of supplies.  Forced to rely on suppliers in Kentucky and elsewhere, made even more problematic by the manipulations of the several “Whiskey Trusts,” the Rosenthals required a more steady supply of product.  One solution was to buy their own distillery.  In 1907 an opportunity was presented.   A man named W. H. Head during the 1870s had built a whiskey plant about two miles south of Raywick, a small village on the Rolling Fork River in central Kentucky.

The Head Distillery initially was a small operation.  Designated by the federal government as Distillery #9 of the Fifth Kentucky District, it was operating at a mashing capacity of 80 bushels a day, resulting in eight barrels of whiskey.   The property included two bonded warehouses with a total aging capacity of 2,500 barrels.  After purchasing it, the Rosenthals lost no time in expanding the infrastructure.  By 1908 warehouse capacity had been enlarged to 7,000 barrels and the name was changed to the “Wm. Berkele Distillery.”  In 1910 the family tore down the distillery building and rebuilt it, generating a capacity of 200 bushels a day and supplying three warehouses.

The Rosenthals were not without their problems.  One of their products was a alcohol-based “medicinal” tonic they called “Rock Candy Drips and Whiskey.”  In 1909, three years after the passage of the Food and Drugs Act, the Bureau of Chemistry in the Department of Agriculture, the agency enforcing the law, filed a “criminal information” against the Rosenthals is the U.S. District Court for Southern Ohio.  After testing the “drips” product, officials alleged misbranding because the labels and packaging failed to state of the proportion of alcohol.  Turned out it was 27.2 percent.  The Rosenthals pled guilty and paid a $10 fine and court costs.

By 1912, the father and founder seems to have exited the scene.  The annual report of the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce that year reported only Charles and Meyer Rosenthal associated with the company.   They made a final move to 212-214 East Third Street in 1913 and were forced to shut down their activities in 1918 when Ohio voted statewide prohibition.  I have only scanty information about the subsequent lives of any of the Rosenthals, a “hole” in the narrative that perhaps a descendant, seeing this post, will help me fill.  In the meantime, a concluding word of appreciation for H. Rosenthal & Sons:   They did their best to decorate the bars of America.


  1. Any information on how much a pint bottle of Montreal Club with the original cork would be worth?

  2. Dear Scott Samuel: If there is still whiskey in the bottle and it seems good, you might use it. Usually a bottle with contents is not worth to bottle collectors more than an empty one. Original corks also do not add value if they are plain; if labeled, a bit more. Then the issue is if the bottle has a complete and relatively undamaged label. If the label is missing and only embossing gives the origin of the bottle, something less. While I see labeled whiskeys advertised on eBay for $125 or more dollars, I doubt the sellers often get those prices. Most such bottles will be in the $25 to $50 dollar range.

  3. Trying to find out some information on a bottle. You can read H.rosenthal Cincinnati. It has a picture of the devil holding a pitch fork. Just curious about how old it is and any other information. Its neat to learn the history about old things that we find.

  4. Unknown: Your bottle likely held "Mephisto Rye." Mephisto is a devil and best known from the opera "Faust" that H. Rosenthal would have been well aware of. The bottle is pre-Prohibition so over 100 years old or approaching that mark. A good find.