Monday, September 14, 2015

Portland’s Varwig Family Sold VIM with Vigor

Taking their cue from the Herman F. Varwig, the family founder,  described as having “the courage, strength and resourcefulness of the true pioneer,  the Varwigs of Portland, Oregon, created a rye whiskey they called “VIM.”    They merchandized VIM vigorously and made it a highly successful product of the West Coast liquor trade.
Herman Varwig was a native of Germany, born in the province of Hanover in 1925.  Immigrating to the United States as a boy, he settled first in the East and then in New Orleans before being drawn to California by the discovery of gold.  His first stop was San Francisco where he apparently became discouraged about finding his fortune in mining.   He relocated to Sacramento where he opened a general store that drew its many of its customers from local farmers.   After much of Varwig’s stock was lost in a flood, he made a final move to Oregon, settling in Portland in the 1860s.

It was in the U.S. that Herman met his wife. Her name was Sophia Wiebisch and she also had been born in Hanover.  Orphaned at an early age and making the trip alone as a young girl she sailed from Germany to America, settling in New Orleans.   How the couple became acquainted is unknown but they were married in the Big Easy sometime about 1846.  Their first child, Louis, would be born there in 1848.  They eventually would become the parents of seven, three of whom died in childhood.

Herman Varwig opened a saloon in Portland in about 1869, operating it for about four years before changing occupations and opening a bakery shop.   Apparently coming to the realization that booze was a better seller than buns, he returned to the liquor business in 1878.  He located his business at 231 Front Street in Portland, an address adjacent to the harbor.  Varwig also was engaged in the wholesale and retail tobacco business for many years, manufacturing cigars for which, it was said, “…he found a ready market and established a large industry, managed in systematic and efficient manner.”

Varwig also was  finding a good market for his whiskey and in 1888 his son, Louis, joined the business.  The name became “H. Varwig & Son.”   During this period the Varwigs hit on the name VIM Rye for their flagship whiskey brand.   Likely blending the VIM in their own facilities from raw product provided from outside distilleries, they trademarked the name in 1905.  By that time it had become a familiar name to West Coast imbibers with substantial annual sales.

Their second brand was “R. Bond Whiskey,” a label that initially had been registered in 1876 to Mills, Johnson & Co. of Cincinnati.   Since this firm is recorded in business only a short time, the Varwigs may either have purchased the brand name or simply appropriated it.  They packaged their whiskey in amber bottles, most of them with embossing that contained the Varwig name and monogram.

Like many whiskey wholesalers Varwig & Son provided giveaway items to favored customers.  These included saloonkeepers who stocked VIM and R. Bond, and bartenders who kept those brands behind the bar and recommended them to the boys along the rail.  A really good customer could get a fancy sign.  The one shown here features a “lady of the night” sleeping on a hammock in the moonlight half nude while a male “admirer” approaches in stealth.  This illustration appears to have been specially made for the Varwigs.   
The Varwigs also provided the same customers with shot glasses containing company advertising, notable for the number and variety of the shots they issued.  VIM got the most attention.  In addition to the glass that opened this post, the company provided at least three other varieties, shown here.  Note that one at right is heavily enameled and the other, below, is elaborately etched.  R. Bond  whiskey also merited several varieties of shot glasses, one an unusual “label under glass,” with gold trim,  another with heavy enameling.   The glasses attest to the merchandising acumen of the Varwig clan. 

With Herman's success came  recognition for his “spirit of enterprise” and “public spirited” community service.  He was an active member of the Order of Red Men,  the Lutheran Church, and the Democratic Party — but never sought office.  When he died in 1895 at the age of 72, it was asserted,  “…His passing deprived Portland of a citizen of high principles and substantial worth.”

Subsequently, ownership of H. Varwig & Son fell to Herman’s widow, Sophia, and her son Louis.   For a time two other sons were identified with the firm, Herman F. as a bookkeeper and Thomas as a salesman.  Within several years Sophia retired from the business and directories listed the company management as Louis, Thomas, and their sister, Minnie.
The Varwigs remained at their store on Front Street, selling VIM Rye and R. Bond Whiskey until a statewide ban on sales of alcohol was enacted in Oregon in 1915.  Louis had only two more years to live, dying in 1917.  Sophia followed in 1923 and Thomas in 1927.   Thus none of them never saw the repeal of the prohibitionary laws.  Herman, Sophia and other family members are buried in Portland’s River View Cemetery.  A tall plinth, shown here, marks the Varwig family graves.
A measure of the importance of the Varwigs in Oregon was an extensive family biography in the 1928 book “History of the Columbia River Valley from the Dalles to the Sea.”  It is from that document that much of the information and all the direct quotations above were taken.  To that legacy must be added the distinctive shot glasses the family issued.  Finally, the Varwigs gave the world VIM — a whiskey vigorously to be reckoned with.


  1. The VIM Rye glass pictured is no more. A bird got into my apartment and knocked it off a window ledge trying to get out.

  2. Dear thhq: A loss, indeed. VIM shot glasses come up for sale on eBay from time to time. Keep watching and you may be able to find a replacement. Better luck next time. Jack