The Swearingen family were early settlers in America. Their founding ancestor was Gerrit Van Swearingen, a Dutch sea captain. When his ship foundered off the Atlantic coast, Captain Van Swearingen abandoned the foaming main, marrying a Maryland woman and settling on the East Coast. Toward the close of the 17th Century the family abandoned the “Van” and became simply “Swearingen. In 1804 some of the family migrated west to Kentucky, settling in Bullitt County in the far western bluegrass region. There George’s father, William Swearingen, grew up and in time became a wealthy farmer and slaveholder. He married Julia F. Crist, the daughter of Henry Crist, a Kentucky pioneer, Indian fighter and member of the state legislature.
Their son, George, was born in Bullitt County in 1837. With a rich farmer for a father, he was able to get a good education for the times, attending the Washington Academy and at the age of sixteen entering Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, perhaps the most prestigious academic institution in the state. During his career there Swearingen, it has been reported, “commanded the respect and good will of faculty and students.” After graduation, he taught school for a year and then returned to the farm to assist his father.
Within a year, at the age of 20, he took no time in finding a bride. She was Mary Embry, 18 years old, and likewise from a distinguished family. She was the daughter of Samuel Embry, a veteran of the War of 1812, and the granddaughter of Henry Embry, a Virginian by birth who had settled in Green County, Kentucky, in 1790. As one observer has put it, “this was an instance in which an early marriage proved fortunate as well as happy.” The timing may have been particularly fortunate given the impending onset of the Civil War. By now running a farm and with a daughter born in 1858 and sons in 1863 and 1864, Swearingen was able to avoid military service during the conflict.
After the war, with his slaves freed and Kentucky’s agricultural economy in a shambles, he uprooted his young family and moved the twenty miles or so to Louisville. There he is said to have had a brief experience in the grocery business before he decided his future lay in building a distillery there. My speculation is that he previously had been running a small whiskey-making operation on his farm and understood how lucrative the liquor trade could be. Although exact dates vary, it was in the latter part of the 1860s when he constructed a facility on Reservoir Road, later known as Mellwood Road, on Bear Grass Creek in Louisville. He called it Mellwood Distillery.
Above is a map of Swearingen’s original plant. The distillery itself sits in the center, surrounded by warehouses, one rather detached. As a farmer, he also is feeding the spent mash to cattle in two sheds adjacent to the works. Given the distillery placement at the edge of the city, the odors from those sheds, as well as those from the distilling whiskey, obviously floated over the surrounding landscape.
In time, Swearingen would expand these facilities. As one observer said: “Beginning on a small scale it came one of the largest and most successful institutions in the state.” Shown here as expanded, insurance documents record a distillery that is built of brick and equipped with a fire-proof roof. The property contains seven warehouse, one a “free (no federal regulation) that stood 70 feet southwest of the still and six “bottled in bond” warehouses, all within 300 feet of the still. One cattle barn was left standing. This distillery could mash 1,200 bushels of grain daily and the capacity to hold 65,000 barrels of aging whiskey. Later the warehouses would be expanded slightly to 70,000 barrels. Swearingens’ had become a big, big operation.
With this kind of whiskey production, Swearingen could offer a wide variety of brands. They would include: "Dundee Club,” "G. W. S. Old Watermill,” "Marble Brook,” "Montpelier Rye,”"Normandy Club,” "Normandy Pure Rye", “Rubicon,” "Runnymede Club Bourbon,” "Runnymede Club Pure Rye,” and "Runnymede Club Whiskey.” The featured, flagship brand would always be Mellwood Whiskey. Sold at retail in quart bottles and pint flasks, the Mellwood label soon became a familiar sight on the liquor shelves all over America. Or as one publication stated: “…Being known far and wide as the equal of any in the market.”
This vigorous marketing was assisted by frequent advertising in a wide range of publications across the Nation. Swearingen also was aware of the merchandising power of giveaway items to the saloons, bars, restaurants and hotels carrying his brands of liquor. Among his gifts were an etched back of the bar bottle advertising Mellwood Whiskey and a shot glass. Another advertising item given to favor customers was a serving tray prominently advertising Mellwood Whiskey.
Swearingen also was branching out in his distilling interests. One author says he also was owner of the Deatsville Distillery from the late 1870s until the early 1880s. From 1884 until 1887 he also was listed in Louisville directories as president of the Springwater Distillery. This was a small operation with a mashing capacity of only 120 bushels a day, yielding 15 barrels of whiskey. The primary brand was “Spring Water Whiskey” and merchandised by a New York State distributor. In 1880 Swearingen was one the distillers who met to form the Kentucky Distillers Association, an organization devoted initially to obtaining fairer tax treatment from the Federal Government and later to offset prohibitionary forces.
Mellwood and Swearingen’s other brands had made him very rich. With his wealth, George turned to other pursuits. A 1889 Louisville directory listed him as president of the Kentucky Public Elevator Company. Given the quantities of corn, rye and wheat his whiskey-making was using annually, the move to own an elevator may have been a natural step. Swearingen’s elevator had the capacity to hold a million bushels of grain. He also led other Louisville businessmen in the organization of the Kentucky Title Company, a financial organization, and became its president. About the same time, with local investors, he created the Union National Bank, shown below.
According to Swearingen’s obituary in the Louisville Courier-Journal: “Under his administration…Union National Bank promptly became one of the strongest and most popular banks in the city of Louisville,” In fact, the impress of Mr. Swearingen’s character and methods remain today a marked factor in the character and management of that institution.” He remained president of the bank until the time of his death.
Some accounts indicate that Swearingen sold out his liquor interests when he moved to banking. Louisville business directories tell a different story. In 1890, a year after founding Union National Bank, he still was listed as president of Mellwood Distillery. The 1891-1892 directories indicate a shift. R. F. Balke was now the president of Mellwood Distillery and Swearingen listed as the vice president. His continued relationship with the company indicates that while he may have sold some of his stock, he remained invested in Mellwood. As late as 1895 directories continued to show Swearingen participating in Mellwood management as a vice president.
For the distillery this was a period of continued expansion. The company opened a branch office in Chicago in 1892, likely a sales office. It was located at Suite 1119 of the Monadock Building, subsequently to move to a suite at 135 Dearborn Avenue. This office disappeared from Chicago directories after 1896. Moreover, in 1895, the original Mellwood Distillery building was replaced by a six story building constructed of brick, stone and steel, according to insurance records.
Sometime after 1896, dates differ, Mellwood Distillery was sold to the Whiskey Trust. Both Swearingen and Balke’s names disappeared from Mellwood listings replaced by a management team inserted by the Trust. Those executives lost no time in trademarking some of the company brands, a step that Swearingen had neglected. Among them were Mellwood Whiskey, Runnymede Club, Runny Rye, Normandy Pure Rye and Old Water Mill Whiskey.
Now able to concentrate full-time on his other enterprises or, as his obituary noted, “in the expectation and hope of a grand development of his plans,” Swearingen at the age of 62 in 1898 was stricken by illness, likely a stroke. A second stroke followed, and then a third in August 1901. He never recovered from this paralysis and declined throughout the fall of that year and into the winter, dying in December.
George Swearingen’s funeral was held at his home at 218 West Broadway in Louisville. He was interred in Section A, Plot 201, of Cave Hill Cemetery,, a burying ground where many influential Kentucky whiskey men lie. Note above the verse on his gravestone. Sadly, he had only his widow, Mary, and eldest son, Embry, at his graveside. His other three children had preceded him in death. Margaret died in childbirth at 29 in 1889, leaving a daughter of eight and an infant of two days. Mary followed in 1898 and William died six months before his father. Embry would go on to assume the presidency of the financial institutions his father had founded.
Swearingen's demise did not signal the end of Mellwood Distillery. In 1909 it opened a sales office in Cincinnati in the First National Bank Building. The Trust continued to operate the facility and market Mellwood Whiskey until the advent of National Prohibition. Even then the offices continued in use until 1924. After Repeal in 1934 the distillery was renovated and put back into production under the auspices of the General Distillers of Kentucky Corp. The bottling house was used through the 1960s but the distillery was closed for good in 1974, according to accounts.
George Swearingen, a pioneer Kentucky whiskey man who left off tilling the land to found a major distillery and other prosperous enterprises in his adopted city, deserves a final word. My choice is a quote from a newspaper obituary that offered an observation about what the “Mellwood Man” had meant to Louisville: “Here his sound judgment, broad intellect and high character shone conspicuously.”