In profiling the careers of pre-Prohibition “whiskey men,” I frequently have featured individuals who have immigrated to the U.S. from countries like Germany, Ireland, France, Switzerland and Italy. In every instance those men spent years in the employ of others while learning the liquor business before striking out on their own. Hilmar Ehrmann, shown left in maturity, utterly broke that mold. Within several months of arriving on American shores Ehrmann began a liquor business in Louisville, plunging unafraid into the center of the Kentucky "Blue Grass" whiskey trade.
Ehrmann was born in Austria in April 1862, the son of K. and Eva (Baron) Ehrmann. He is recorded as arriving in this country in 1887 at the age of about 25. Although little is known about his early life in Europe, it can be deduced that he had some experience in the craft of distilling, possibly “kornschnapps,” Germanic spirits that are distilled in processes somewhat similar to American whiskey. Ehrmann also had more than the usual amount of wealth than the average immigrant. No apprenticeship for him. He quickly started a “rectifying” operation in Louisville, that is taking whiskeys distilled elsewhere, mixing them to achieve taste and smoothness, and merchandising them under his own labels. Ehrmann initially called his operation “Deutsche Destillation,” in translation, “German Distillery.”
Hilmar appears to have been a handsome youth, although at five feet, five inches, not tall. A passport application described him with blonde hair, brown eyes, a high forehead, round chin, and medium mouth. His only disfiguration was a scar on his right thumb. In 1891, at the age of 29, he married Blanche Kahn, also an immigrant from Austria, who at 18 was eleven years younger than he. Although the couple may have known each other in their homeland, their wedding was in Louisville. The couple would go on to have three children: Eva, born in 1892, Herbert, 1893; and Hannah, 1895.
Whatever the products of his “German distillery” might have been, Ehrmann early on declared himself a whiskey wholesaler, setting up his operation initially at 156 East Jefferson Street. He seems quickly to have outgrown that location, moving to East Market Street, the avenue that would be home for the life his enterprise. Operating as “Hilmar Ehrmann & Co.,” he continued to declare his company “distillers” on the ceramic jugs he provided to his customers, but soon added “importers and wholesalers.” These containers come in several sizes and label styles. He also provided whiskey in gallon glass jugs to saloons and restaurants.
Like many of his Louisville competitors, Ehrmann also saw the advantage of featuring his own proprietary brands. Among them were “Barony,” “Beechmont,”
“Cream of Nelson,” and “Germania.” Apparently unable at his “Deutsche Destillation” facility to produce quality Kentucky bourbon, Ehrmann turned to the Old Tom Moore Distillery in Daviess County to produce and bottle his private brands. Of them, he chose to seek trademark protection for only Barony and Cream of Nelson.
As his business grew, Ehrmann became painfully aware of the difficulty of finding a reliable source both for bottling his name brands and providing raw product for his rectifying operations. As various monopoly schemes were being played out by so-called “Whiskey Trusts,” wholesaler/rectifiers like Ehrmann could find themselves either “high and dry” or paying exorbitant prices for raw whiskey. Whatever the cause, the German immigrant turned his eyes toward a distillery located about a mile west of Bardstown, Kentucky, on the Bardstown and Boston Pike. The plant had been constructed about 1876 by Felix G. Walker who had run it as a fairly small operation for almost two decades.
With Walker’s retirement new ownership greatly expanded the plant. The distillery, of frame construction with a metal roof, subsequently had a mashing capacity of approximately 250 bushels daily. Bonded warehouse capacity was increased from two ironclad structures to six. The Nelson County facility was designated RD#410 in Kentucky’s Fifth Revenue District. According to authority Chester Zoeller, about 1900 Ehrmann began to invest in Walker’s plant and by 1905 became the sole owner.
He also adopted Walker’s flagship brand, “Queen of Nelson” as his own but changed the name of the facility to the Hilmar Ehrmann Distillery, as shown on the letterhead above.
Now reaching out to retail as well as wholesale markets, Ehrmann began to package his whiskey in smaller quantities and use attention-getting shapes, like those shown here to attract customers.
He was also providing giveaway items, such as the shot glasses shown above to saloons, restaurants and bartenders featuring his retail brands. Although his customer base was American, Ehrmann had strong European ties indicating robust earlier experience on the Continent. As an importer of liquors he dealt frequently with producers in his native Austria, as well as Germany, France and other countries.
With the rise of prohibitionary forces in America, Ehrmann began to move away from the liquor trade. About 1915, he sold an partial interest in the distillery to other investors and began to engage in other occupations. A 1919 letter exists to him, addressed at the Photo Repro Company in New York City from the managers of the distillery, enclosing a clipping from the Louisville Courier Journal about impending National Prohibition. Their letter implores Hilmar to set out for Europe immediately in order to sell the company’s holdings of whiskey and fruit brandy in England, Italy and Holland. “The exportation of our stock seems to be our only hope…,” the letter concluded. Shortly thereafter, Ehrmann embarked for Europe. Asked on his passport application for the reason behind his trip, Hilmar stated cryptically: “Disposal of wine and whiskey.”
No account exists of what success his trip achieved, but that same year Hilmar Ehrmann & Co. shut down after two decades in business. Ehrmann made two more trips to Europe with his wife, one in 1922 on the Steamship Berengeria to visit relatives and a second in 1924 aboard the Carmonia. Ehrmann would live another 12 years, dying in 1936 at the age of 74. The cause given was cancer of the liver. With his wife and children grieving by his gravesite, he was buried in The Temple Cemetery in Louisville. As shown here, his monument read: “He did justice, loved mercy, and walked humbly with God.”
Those noble sentiments about his personality and spiritual life should not obscure, however, that Hilmar Ehrmann did not begin his career in Kentucky whiskey walking humbly, but rather burst onto the Louisville liquor scene with a speed that few, if any, others have equaled. Moreover, he left a legacy. When the Queen of Nelson brand was revived after Prohibition, the new owners in their ads pledged to uphold adherence to his standards: “For nearly fifty years, the name of Hilmar Ehrmann has meant fine liqueurs, whiskies and gins of high quality…a combination of Old World experience plus many years association with the distilling industry of Kentucky.”