Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Winsteads — Kentucky Royalty in “Silk Velvet”

Col. A. S. Winstead named his flagship sour mash whiskey “Silk Velvet” because he asserted it was the smoothest whiskey on the market.  While that claim might be open to debate, there is no disputing that the brand, although in limited production, found a considerable customer base, allowing two generations of the Winstead family of Henderson, Kentucky, to live their lives as "whiskey barons."

Aaron Shelby Winstead was born in December, 1829, in Kentucky.  His father was Stephen Hall Winstead, 47, and his mother, Sarah Barnett, 31, both immigrants from North Carolina.  Aaron was one of eight children, with three brothers and four sisters.  During his early years, he apparently was involved in farming as had been his fore-bearers.  From the 1850 census it would appear that his father had died and Winstead was working the land. 

In 1856 at the age of 26, he married a woman with the unusual name of America T. Worsham of Daviess County, Kentucky, and his life took a new turn.  America was the twenty-one year old daughter of Elijah W. Worsham, a noted Kentucky whiskey-maker who had a distillery in Henderson, Kentucky, on the Ohio River across from Indiana.  

Winstead went to work for Worsham and from his father-in-law learned to make good whiskey.  When the Civil War broke out he registered in Kentucky under the Union’s draft process.  Although he was 35 and eligible for service he was married with two young children and in 1863 was given a Class 2 rating.  I can find no evidence he was ever called to serve, although for much of his life he was referred to as Colonel Winstead.  My assumption is that he was a “Kentucky Colonel,” a honor bestowed by the state’s governor on privileged citizens like whiskey barons.
In the summer or fall of 1880 Winstead exited Worsham’s employ and struck out on his own.  His motivation may have been his growing financial responsibilities, namely the births of three additional children.  Joining with a local named Bona Hill, he purchased the grounds and buildings of the Henderson Car Works, a manufacturer of railroad cars that had moved to a new and larger factory.  Under the name “Hill and Winstead.” the buildings were remodeled and repaired to create a distillery, shown above. The initial capacity of the plant was 20 barrels a day, although initially the operation seldom ran beyond half capacity. 

The first run of whiskey was made in the winter of 1880.  The partners reveled in their success in making a quality product right from the start.  After tasting an initial batch Winstead was moved to say that they had created the smoothest whiskey on the market.  He promptly named it “Silk Velvet.”  It soon found a ready regional market.  Silk Velvet appears to have been the Colonel’s only brand.  He packaged it primarily in ceramic jugs, both quarts and smaller sizes.  Winstead seemingly had difficulties obtaining adequate containers;  the local press reported in 1904 that he was contemplating opening a pottery factory in Henderson.

By the mid-1880s the distillery was mashing 125 bushels a day and had two warehouses.  According to insurance records, the distillery was of brick and frame construction, with two frame warehouses.  One was 100 feet south of the still with a metal or slate roof and another was 275 feet southeast with a shingle roof. The mash residue from the distillery was being fed to cattle that apparently were housed on the grounds. With the success of their Silk Velvet brand, Winstead by the early 1890s was able to increase the mashing capacity to 250 bushels and a bonded warehouse was added.  The expanded distillery is shown above.

Inexplicably, by 1900 the mashing capacity had dropped back to about 130 bushels of grain daily.  The warehouses held some 4,000 barrels of aging whiskey. In 1906 the mashing numbers dropped further to just over 100 bushels daily.  At that point the warehouses held 5,000 barrels of whiskey.  Such reductions in production might be laid to any of several causes — a surfeit of whiskey in Kentucky with subsequent low prices, difficulty in obtaining adequate grain supplies, or perhaps a decision by the Colonel to emphasize the quality of Silk Velvet over quantity.

At some point Bona Hill departed the company and it became simply A.S. Winstead, recorded on the letterhead that opens this post.  Although Winstead does not appear to have gone national with his advertising, like some distillers he provided advertising shot glasses to saloonkeepers, bartenders and others using his whiskey.  Shown here, one touted Silk Velvet as The Finest Hand Made Sour Mash Whiskey in the World.”   Despite Col. Winstead’s emphasis on regional sales, word on the quality of his liquor made its way to other parts of the country.  Shown above is a jug of Silk Velvet that was sold by a B. F. Watson, a Texas liquor dealer. 

As A.S. Winstead aged, he brought his son, Elijah Worsham (E.W.) Winstead into the business, gradually turning the distillery over to him.  The Colonel died at the advanced age of 82 in June 1912, the cause given as “paralysis.”  His occupation was given as “retired distiller.”  He was buried in Henderson’s Fernwood Cemetery, with his gravestone shown here.

Although some reports have Elijah operating the distillery only briefly after his father’s death, the better evidence is that, having changed the name of the firm to “E.W. Winstead,” he continued to turn out Silk Velvet.  Additional proof of this continued production is a shot glass advertising that brand and bearing E.W.’s name.  Other evidence is a 1915 advertisement in which Silk Velvet is extolled as “Kentucky’s finest product, pure and undefiled.”  The ad also indicates that Winstead’s company had expanded its marketing range to points east of the Rocky Mountains and would pre-pay express orders received from such locations.
With the enactment of the Webb-Kenyon Act by Congress opportunities for mail order sales dried up quickly for the company and Elijah likely shut its doors sometime later in the decade.  E.W. Winstead died at the relatively young age of 52 in 1920 and was buried with his father and other family members at Fernwood Cemetery near the Winstead monument shown here.

Although the Colonel calling his whiskey “Silk Velvet” apparently was a spur of the moment decision, his and his son’s successful merchandising of the brand bespeaks the hard work of decades.  Although they never bothered to trademark the name, Silk Velvet provided the Winsteads with the royal accouterments  appropriate to Kentucky whiskey barons.  

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