Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Triumphs and Tragedies of the Maysville Pogues

When I find a story of a family that has carried on a tradition of whiskey-making from 1876 down to the present day, it is inspirational.  The Pogues of Maysville, Kentucky, are such a family.  The Pogues’ many triumphs as distillers down through the years, however, are leavened by the knowledge of the cruel events that also have marked their history.
The founding father of the distilling dynasty was Henry Edgar Pogue I, shown right in maturity.  He was born in 1825 in Ashland, Boyd County, Kentucky, to William L. and Ann McCormick Pogue,  both of Scotch-Irish Presbyterian heritage.   Born in Kentucky,  William was a large landowner and successful lawyer in the eastern part of the state.   He was able to give Henry a good education and the boy showed early showed a talent for mathematics and mechanics. 

But according to a biographer who claimed to know him personally and signed his piece only as “T.M.G.,” Henry l “…abhorred labor and drudgery and his youth and early manhood were passed in the pursuit of pleasure.”  It was, the author contended, a period of lavish self-indulgence:  “Then his hair was as glossy and black as the raven’s wing;  his black eyes sparkled with intelligence and exuberant animal spirits; his swarthy complexion had the clearness which belong to vigorous health; his well-formed person presented the indications of endurance and strength; and his conversation was unusually vivacious.” 

At the age of 28 in 1853, Henry I married Frances Ann Wood, the twenty-year-old daughter of Dr. William Wood of Maysville.  In fairly rapid succession, the couple would have seven children.  Henry’s carefree days were over and as he approached the age of forty, according to T.M.G.: “…He found himself utterly impoverished, without a profession, or systematic business training or habits of industry;  and yet was made to realize that his individual exertions were the sole dependence of the woman who had trusted him and the children whom he loved.”
That apparently is about the time Henry I discovered a talent for making whiskey.  He went to work for O.H.P. Thomas who was operating a distillery he called the Old Time Distillery.  Thomas’ brands were “Old Time Sour Mash” and “Old Marysville Rye Club Whiskey.”  In time Pogue became chief distiller and in 1876 purchased the facility from Thomas.   Shown above, it subsequently it became Registered Distillery No. 3, located in the 7th District of Kentucky within the Maysville city limits.  At the time, the distillery had a mashing capacity of 300 bushels per day, and there were three bonded warehouses with capacity for storing more than 10,000 barrels.  

Pogue retained Thomas’ Old Time and Old Marysville Club brands and added a plethora of new ones, including “Royal Club Rye,” "Old Pogue" Straight Bourbon, "Niagara Whisky," "Belle of Marysville,” "Old 56,” "Ace" Bourbon, “Oak Cabin” Bourbon, “John Alden Bourbon” “Good News” and "Lincoln Club.”   These were furnished with attractive labels, several shown below, and sold in both quart and flask sizes.

During the years that followed, the distillery prospered under Henry’s leadership.  His biographer lauded his untiring industry, dauntless energy, indomitable perseverance and sturdy manliness, adding:  “…He had become as careful and frugal as he had been negligent and prodigal….”   By 1900 the H.E. Pogue Distillery was producing fifty barrels of whiskey daily and as one newspaper account put it:  “It is said by those who know that there is no better distillery in Kentucky.”  Maryville was strategically located by water on the Ohio River and by rail on the Chesapeake and Ohio line.  Orders were being sent to Oklahoma, Arizona, and as far away as Japan.
Then tragedy struck.  On a Friday morning in November 1900, Henry Pogue I was making his rounds in the distillery when he became immeshed in machinery.  Biographer T.M.G. told the rest of the story:  “…In the twinkling of eye, death struck him, the immortal soul had fled, and what had been a stalwart, hopeful and successful man, had become a quivering mass of crushed bones and mangled, bleeding flesh.”   Pogues’ death at 75 years old sent shockwaves through the community and devastated his family.

He already had turned over much of the management responsibility to his son, Henry II, shown right,  a scion who was well equipped to carry on the work his father had begun.  In time the distiller was producing up to 2,000 gallons of whiskey and carried a normal inventory of 15,000 barrels of aging whiskey.  Employment during peak periods reached 100 workers.  

Even before taking full control of the plant, Henry II had purchased a home for his family that became known as “The Pogue House.”  Shown here, it originally was built in 1845 by a local industrialist and one of the largest residences in Kentucky at the time.  The mansion sat on fifteen acres that included a sweeping ten mile vista of the Ohio River.  Pogue bought in it 1890 and immediately remodeled it to contemporary standards, including installing one of the first bathrooms in the county. 
Then, improbably, tragedy struck again.  Henry II was working at the distillery in 1918 when he too was killed in an industrial accident.  He was only 60 years of age.  His son, Henry Pogue III, shown right, who had worked in the distillery for several years, was then in military uniform. When World War One broke out, he had enlisted and was in Europe when news came of his father’s unfortunate death.  Released from service, Henry III returned home at the age of 24 to take the reins of distillery management.  By this time the distillery mashing capacity had increased to 600 bushels a day and storage capacity to at least 27,000 barrels.

Less than one year later in 1919, National Prohibition arrived, prohibiting the sale of distilled spirits, including whiskey, except for medicinal purposes.  As might be expected, doctor-order prescriptions soared and Henry III, shown right,  was able to sell limited quantities of Pogue whiskey for medicinal use under the “Old Jordan” brand, aged to 18 years and 91 proof.  He also was able to purchase at “fire sale” prices two other distilleries.  The first in 1921 was the Greendale Distillery of Lawrenceburg, Indiana, a plant that had produced “Spring Water” whiskey; the second in 1925 was the New England Distilling Co. of Covington, Kentucky, manufacturer of “Red Star” Rum, used as flavoring for tobacco products.

The H. E. Pogue Distillery ended its operations as a bonded storage warehouse for the government in 1926 when pilferage of whiskey from such facilities prompted the government to require that all remaining barrels be sent a Louisville warehouse under consolidated government supervision.  The plant then shut down for the next eight years.   With Repeal in 1934, Henry III became a consultant for those attempting to restart distilleries.  For his family business, he took a different approach in 1935.  As the Pogue Distillery website tells it:  “Still troubled by the early deaths of his father and grandfather, Pogue III did not want to reopen the Pogue distillery and instead negotiated the sale of the distillery to Rose of Chicago….”
While keeping the H.E. Pogue Distillery name intact, the Rose Company renovated the plant, including constructing three new warehouses holding 10,000 barrels each.  In 1945, Rose sold the distillery to the Schenley Corp. where it  produced alcohol for defense purposes.  After operating it for a few years, Schenley closed the facility for good in 1952.   

But distilling is in the blood of the family.  In 2004 the fifth and sixth generations of Pogues, direct descendants of Henry Pogue I, II, and III, including Henry IV and Henry V, returned to the whiskey business.  At first out-sourcing production,  the family has opened a new Old Pogue Distillery in Maysville and is producing a premium nine-year-old Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey, said to be fashioned from an original Pogue recipe.  

The company website proclaims:  “As one of Kentucky’s oldest whiskey families, the Pogue family is pleased to offer products never changed or cheapened in character and has never compromised quality for quantity.”  While some hyperbole may be involved here, the nation’s bourbon drinkers are clearly benefited by the re-entry of the Pogues into distilling.  One of the new brands is called “Five Fathers,”  a rye whiskey.  The label, shown below, pictures all five Henry Pogues, a silent but entirely fitting tribute to the triumphs — and tragedies — of this extraordinary Kentucky family.

Note:  The Pogue photographs and liquor labels are taken from the Old Pogue Distillery website,  The site contains additional information about the history of these Kentucky distillers and their company.


  1. The name of our town is Maysville. Not Marysville.

    1. Dear Lilyweeds. Sorry about the typo. I know better. Correction made. Thanks for the heads up. Hope you liked the story. Jack

  2. you need to check your dates and facts. I am a direct descendant of the Thomas family. Old Time, Old Maysville Club Rye, Belle of Maysville. I grew up in a victorian built in 1896 Maysville Ky. I recently sold the property because it had been broken into and many irreplaceable things stolen. B.F. Thomas was the same family next gen. He and partners Whitehead and Lupton founded Coca Cola Bottling in Chattanooga Tn. We are written out of the history. It is there in the Newspapers and filings.

  3. The Pogue family did not acquire the distillery until some 20 yrs later 1896-97 the dissolution notices are published.

  4. Mr. Thomas: Thank you for your comments.