Friday, May 20, 2016

The Wisdom of Solomon Herbst and Naming “Old Fitzgerald”

           
“Old Fitzgerald” is one of the truly iconic names in the whiskey trade.  The legend has been that this liquor first was produced by a master whiskey-maker named John E. Fitzgerald at a distillery near Frankfort, Kentucky.  Solomon C. Herbst, a Prussian-born wholesale wine and liquor dealer in Milwaukee, knew the tale well.  In fact, with the canny wisdom his Biblical namesake, Herbst wrote the script for the story when he bought the distillery.  

Born in 1842 in Ostrono, Prussia, and educated in local schools, Herbst left his homeland in 1859 at the age of 16 for the United States.   Many German youth, including my own Grandfather, emigrated at that stage, many avoiding the Prussian military draft with its high death rate for recruits in basic training.  Herbst seems to have headed directly to Milwaukee, a city with a large German population where the language widely was spoken.  The 1860 U.S. census found him, age 18, living Milwaukee’s Third Ward with a family named Nathan.  He was working as a tinsmith.

Herbst soon understood that other employment opportunities offered greater reward.  In 1868 at the age of 22 he emerged in Milwaukee as a partner in wholesale liquor firm called Eggart & Herbst, located at 401-403 Chestnut Avenue, later to be changed to West Juneau Avenue.  By 1870 Eggart had departed the scene and left Solomon as the sole proprietor.  The  name of the enterprise became S.C. Herbst Importing Company.  According to Herbst’s newspaper obituary it was a “small beginning” for his liquor business.

During this same period Solomon had married.  Described as 5 feet, 9 1/2 inches tall, with gray eyes and an oval face, his hair already was beginning to gray.  His bride was Emma, a Wisconsin-born woman seven years his junior whose parents were immigrants from Bohemia, now a region in the Czech Republic.  The 1880 census found the couple living on Milwaukee’s 14th Street, an area of large homes, with their three daughters, Carsie, 12; Della, 6, and Helen, 4.  Indicating Herbst’s growing wealth, the household boasted two servants.

Herbst began his career as a “rectifer,” that is, someone blending and mixing raw whiskeys in order to achieve a certain taste, smoothness and color.  For his wholesale trade he packaged his products in multi-gallon stoneware jugs.  These were then stenciled in cobalt with his name and other information.  For his retail trade, he used glass.  Shown here is an amber quart bottle embossed with his name. He also issued flasks, like the two Herbst bottles, amber and clear, shown below.

As Herbst’s liquor trade grew, he likely was facing a problem in obtaining sufficient raw product for his rectifying activities.  Competition for supplies from Kentucky and other distillery sources, as well as attempts to create supplier “trusts,” were driving up prices and drying up available sources of whiskey.  Like many wholesalers, Herbst looked for a guaranteed flow of supplies.  About 1900 he found and bought a small distillery located outside Frankfort on Benson Creek.  The locals called it the “Old Judge Distillery” for its flagship brand.  In Federal parlance it was known as Registered Distillery #11 of the Seventh Revenue District.

Now owning his own plant, Herbst began to fashion a myth for it.  He recognized that giving his own name to the distillery might not resonate far in Kentucky and spun a story, still perpetuated by some authors, that the distillery had been built by an Irish master distiller named John E. Fitzgerald who then sold the facility to him.  Fitzgerald then had moved to Hammond, Indiana, to run another distillery, so the story went.  In reality, Fitzgerald was a U.S. Treasury agent assigned to bonded warehouses who had a reputation as a heavy drinker with a taste for the best in whiskey.  Using his post to good advantage, he held the keys to the warehouses of his assigned distilleries. While the owners discretely looked the other way, John E. frequently tapped the best barrels for his personal consumption.  As word spread in the trade about the revenue man’s practices, prime whiskeys began to be known as “Fitzgeralds.”
Even before buying the distillery Herbst had recognized the attraction of an Irish name and in 1884 registered the brand of his flagship blend under the name “Jno. E. Fitzgerald.”  With his purchase of the Frankfort distillery, in 1905 he re-registered that name, adding a second label as “Old Fitzgerald Bourbon.”  Vastly expanding the plant size and capacity to become one of the largest distilleries in the country, he renamed it the Old Fitzgerald Distillery Co.  An illustration below shows the name on all the buildings and even on freight cars being transported past the site.  To run this major facility as manager and master distiller Herbst hired Jerry Bixler, a member of a highly respected Kentucky whiskey-making family.

Despite the impressive size of his distillery, Herbst in his advertising featured workers using an “old fashioned process,” preparing the mash in a wooden tub.  His proof of the claim, he advertised, was a letter from Sam J. Roberts, the collector of whiskey revenue for the Seventh District.  Herbst had asked the official to attest that in his Frankfort distillery “small tubs are exclusively used.”  Without responding directly to the owner,  Roberts replied that the paperwork in his office indicated that the process “called for the use of seventy-one mash tubs, of which seventy are small and one large used as a cooler; the mode of mashing ‘by hand;’ the mode of fermenting ‘yeasting back, sour mash.”  Period. Roberts signed off without really confirming Herbst, who still found his reply good enough to run in an advertisement that contained the illustration here.

With his distillery running full out, the Milwaukee entrepreneur featured at least five brands, among them “Benson Creek,”  “Old John,” “Clifton Springs,” and “Old Judge,” the last a brand purchased with the distillery.  Herbst’s flagship, needless to say, was Old Fitzgerald, bottled as both bourbon and rye.  It was sold over the counter in quart and flask sizes bearing a highly recognized label.  Old Fitzgerald found a ready audience on steamships, trains, and high class “gentleman’s” clubs. To help distribute these whiskeys from a central location Herbst opened an office in Chicago in 1901 and maintained it for a dozen years. 

As his reputation for success in business grew in Milwaukee, Herbst expanded into other fields. In 1904 as S. Charles Herbst, he became an investor, incorporator and vice president of the Milwaukee Investment Company, a local financial institution.  Later, He help found the Citizens Trust Company with assets of more than $3 million.   With his family he moved from the downtown fringe of Milwaukee to a house on at 3015 Shepard Street in the more fashionable Upper East Side, adjacent to Lake Michigan.  It is shown below.
With no sons to succeed him, even as he aged Solomon continued to manage his major whiskey distilling and distribution businesses.  He was well into his seventies when National Prohibition caused the shut-down of both his Kentucky distillery and Milwaukee liquor dealership.  Herbst sold the rights to Old Fitzgerald to W.L. Weller for “medicinal  whiskey” during the “dry” 14 years, thus keeping the brand name alive and recognized by the drinking public.  After Repeal it became the lead label of the Stitzel-Weller distillery when “Pappy” Van Winkle and others in 1934 reorganized the Frankfort area plant.  [See my post on Van Winkle, November 2014.]

As he aged Herbst must have had many a quiet chuckle as he saw the fictitious origin story he had concocted being repeated again and again.  Late in his life he is said to have revealed that naming a brand for the tippling Fitzgerald was a wickedly funny insider joke.  This Solomon lived to be 98, dying in February 1941.  As his three daughters and their families looked on, Herbst was given a funeral of the Masonic orders at his Shepard Street home and buried in Milwaukee’s Greenwood Cemetery beside his wife, Emma, who had preceded him in death by 31 years.

Note:  The story Solomon Herbst had concocted about John E. Fitzgerald, as a famous distiller, rolled on for decades.  I have a 2001 book on bourbon that repeats the myth.  Well-known bottle authority,  Chuck Cowdery, using evidence he says surfaced a decade earlier, in 2011 wrote an expose’ of Herbst’s story that now is generally accepted as the truth behind the naming of Old Fitzgerald.  The last image here is of a post-Pro Old Fitzgerald milk glass decanter featuring a famous Irish castle.  The legend says, :”Shure’n it’s the Blarney.”  “Blarney” aptly describes Herbst’s story about the origins of the Old Fitzgerald name.



























19 comments:

  1. Hi Jack! I'd like to talk with you regarding your great write-up of Schiek's. Can you please give me a call at 612-673-7350? Thank you Gail Rosenblum, Star Tribune

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  2. Gail: Will call this afternoon.

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  3. I just found out that in 1867-68 the Herbst brothers - Fabian, William and Solomon - were wholesale and retail lumber dealers in Muskegon, Michigan. William was a clothier in Muskegon until soon after his building burned in the fire of 1874. He then became a clothier in Milwaukee. Fabian was also a tailor and clothier in Milwaukee. In July 1884 Fabian was found dead in Lafayette Park in St. Louis. Due to reduced circumstances he took to drinking hard since arriving in St. Louis two weeks earlier. The Coroner's inquest ruled "death from alcoholism."

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  4. Dear Pentland Club Walker: Thanks for the additional information on the Herbst family. In 1960 the census had Solomon's occupation as a tinsmith. By 1868, he was in the whiskey trade. Ample time for him for have been in the lumber business with his brothers in Michigan for a period.

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  5. To Martin Hayes: Your inquiry got to my email page but not here on the post itself. I am answering here in the hope you will see it. My assumption is that Stephen Fitzgerald is a person and not a brand name. American whiskey made its way into Mexico, Central and South America in the late 1800s as the result of international expositions, world fairs, etc., where Latinos visited and saw the displays of whiskey and perhaps a tasting. Other inroads were made by individuals. See my post on Jack Danciger of Kansas City into Mexico posted on January 26, 2012.

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  6. Martin: Once again your comment did not make it to my post, only to my email. My thanks to you for some good research. I will be on the lookout for Stephen Fitzgerald in my own hunt for material and post it here if I find something.

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    1. Not sure why this is not publishing correctly (I am in the UK). Can you put my post on here so that others can see it ? You never know.

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  7. Martin: This time your comment made it. No telling why. In any case I am adding here your research on Fitzgerald:

    "Thanks Jack. Stephen Fitzgerald born 1850 or before, married in Colombia in 1880, having started exporting whiskey sometime after 1876. Family story is that he remained a whiskey dealer until 1910. Many trips to bring more whiskey to Colombia and possibility he was the main dealer or pioneer. In Colombia he travelled up river and to Bogotá to sell there. I notice the Frankfort Distillery had a monopoly on steamship contracts and that raises possibilities via New Orleans. I feel I am close but as yet cannot find anything US side of things. Thanks again."

    If anyone reading this exchange has information that would help Martin, please post it here.

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  8. I don't think it is a coincidence that one of the most interesting persons convicted during the Whiskey Ring trials in the mid 1870's was John E. Fitzgerald. He worked for the Revenue Department as a gauger traveling between distilleries to certify the amounts of whiskey being made. He was the guy that stamped each barrel and it was likely he was wont to sample at each distillery. He was also the guy that got caught when the fraud and bribes became uncovered. He became a legend in Milwaukee's Distillery community by pleading guilty and losing his job without naming names. He began a distillery out on Lisbon Road in 1877 and it probably wouldn't be a stretch of the imagination to believe that Herbst bought and distributed his whiskey under the "John E. Fitzgerald" name and later as "Old Fitzgerald". The distilling community in Milwaukee was relatively small and as evidenced by the Whiskey Ring, they were very tightly knit.

    If ever there was a character to be immortalized with the name of a whiskey, it was John E. Fitzgerald.

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    1. YM20008: Thanks for the fill in information about John E. Fitzgerald. It adds a lot to the story.

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    2. Do we have an approximate age for John E. Fitzgerald, or where he was from before Milwaukee ?

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    3. Born 1838, died 1914. Most likely born in the old country. All I know for sure is that he started working as a Gauger in 1869 and stayed in Milwaukee until his death. I haven't been able to find much more though I even looked through Ancestry.com. His full name apparently was John Edmond Fitzgerald as listed on his headstone.

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    4. Thankyou, how would whiskey be exported in those days, bottle or barrel ? Specifically for a long journey such as to Colombia. Milwaukee via lakes and canals to NY or Kentucky by rivers to New Orleans then to Colombia, taken up river, then by mule for possibly days to final destination. Surely bottles are out of the question ? What kind of quantity would make that worthwhile ? And then that is a lot of trust in the salesman, dealer.

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  9. Martin: Thanks for the question. YM2008: Thanks for the answer.
    Glad to have alert readers like you.

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  10. Martin: As for your question about transport of whiskey to Latin America, it almost certainly would have gone by barrel and by sea as much as possible. Sea transport was 1) less expensive than railroad and 2) rocking on the seas was considered a way of improving quality. From Milwaukee it might have gone via the Wisconsin River or other tributary to the Mississippi to NOLA and by ship from there.

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  11. Could somebody make an experienced guess at which was the first whiskey or whiskeys to be exported to South America. Cerca 1876. Or perhaps Mexico as the shipping route would be similar.

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  12. According to "Foreign Commerce & Navigation of the US", between 1891 and 1900 whisky exports to Colombia were over 90 % declared as rye whisky at a time when bourbon was dominating the market overwhelmingly to all other countries.
    After giving myself a crash course in history of US Whisky, I appreciate the geographic aspects and possibilities this presents in finding who was supplying this rye whisky to Colombia.
    Old Fitzgerald / Herbst for example seems to be clearly marked bourbon. Who were the major rye whisky exporters ?
    Where can I find a list of principal rye distillieries of that time with the necessary capacity ? Colombia was second largest importer of US rye whisky behind Germany.

    Can anybody enlighten me some more regarding this please ?

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  13. Martin: I hope someone will be able to fill in the blanks here. My own guess -- just a guess -- is that Old Overholt with its connections in Washington might have loomed large in that trade.

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  14. I have four leaders in Rye Whisky at that time, Sam Thompson of West Brownsville, Sam Dillinger of Ruffsdale, Abraham Overholt, West Overton and Broad Farm and John Gibson of Gibsonton. Only one question now, which one exported to Colombia ?

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