Wednesday, June 8, 2016

John McKenzie and His Patented Whiskey Jug

It may be a stretch to call John McCloskie a “whiskey man” in the parlance of this blog.  But as the father of one of America’s most unusual and imaginative liquor containers,  McCloskie deserves at least brief mention in pre-Prohibition whiskey history.

The end of the 19th Century ushered in whole new lines of everyday products.  The trend was away from displaying generic goods in barrels, large jars, bins and sacks in country store fashion and headlong into preparing individual consumer units in tins, cartons, and jugs and bottles made of ceramic and glass.   Nowhere was this truer than in the whiskey trade.

In prior days the customer often brought a container to the tavern, got his booze and went home.  Increasingly whiskey now was being sold in smaller packages, many of them made of stoneware or porcelain.  This trend posed a problem for potters.    Accustomed to making jugs in two to five gallon size, they now had to cater to a market for smaller containers.  Required in greater numbers and because each item was of less value, more efficient production was required.  The traditional way of firing a kiln, shown above, sharply limited the number of jugs that could be produced at any one time.
This problem bothered John McCloskie, a man with an inventive mind, born in Massillon, Ohio, in 1833.  His career pat led him to become a potter (“turner’) at the Champion Stoneware Company in Massillon.  Working with two colleagues McCloskie devised a way in which a kiln could be filled only with jugs and successfully fired.  Essentially he invented a new kind of kiln “furniture” in the form of fire-resistant clay tiles.  They could be built like Legos to form individual cells into which four or more jugs would fit.   The key to the tiles was their interlocking capabilities and a hole in the center to allow the fire and heat to enter and circulate.

Enthusiastic about his invention, and desiring to profit by its use by other potters, McCloskie on March 27,1891, filed for a patent from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.  In his application he stated:  “The convenience and economy of this plan of constructing kilns for burning jugs will be fully appreciated by those familiar with the difficulties heretofore encountered in the production of jugs.”   McCloskie’s patent, No. 457,465, was issued by the federal government on August 11, 1891. 

The Patent Office illustration of jugs in McCloskie’s kiln was somewhat off the mark.  The jugs shown in his kiln with his furniture look nothing like the containers that ultimately were manufactured under his patent.  It is unclear whether the artist made a mistake or the inventor later decided that his kiln could best be used if the jugs made in it were not the traditional round or ovoid shapes, but had flattened sides.   

A product of the early machine age, McCloskie’s stoneware containers were not thrown on a potter’s wheel as was traditional.  Rather, each half was formed in a mold and then the two halves joined, capped by a handle, neck and spout.  The process permitted an embossed design on one or both sides of the vessel and, as desired, a label space for the whiskey.   McCloskie took credit for the shape as part of his invention and required that each jug include the date of his August 11, 1891 patent, as shown below. 
Unlike other inventors, McCloskie was able to put his idea into actual production.  Although Massillon had a pottery or two, it appears that he moved to nearby Akron, a major center of ceramics manufacturing.   Although the jugs produced do not have any pottery mark indicating the source, my supposition is that he was able to get an Akron company to make and market his containers.

McCloskie’s jugs found a ready market down the Ohio River in Butler, Kentucky, a cross-roads village about 25 miles from Cincinnati.  It was there that the “Old Dexter” brand of bourbon was produced.  Marketed by Edmund Dexter as early as 1860, the brand was purchased by Owen J. Carpenter about 1890.   Carpenter ordered a number of the unusual jugs.  One side had a flower motif in the center, surrounded by a legend that reads, “Old Dexter Distilling Company…Butler Kentucky”  The other said “The Old Dexter Jug Whiskey” and the trademark date

The four grooves in each side have suggested to some that when drained of its contents, the jug was meant to be turned on its side and used as an ashtray.  On the other hand, the indentations may be an accommodation to McCloskie’s kiln furniture since they would have helped allow the salt-glazing during firing.  Sometimes a special design was put into the jug as in the "harvest" design shown here.  My surmise is that on the reverse side that a paper label identified the liquor house that issued it. 

A few other distillers and whiskey wholesalers also found the jugs were an eye-attracting marketing package because McCloskie’s stoneware allowed them to print their message in several ways, either in indelible raised letters or in a printed formats.  Among distillers making use of them, shown here, were John McCulloch from Owensboro, Kentucky,  Hilmar Ehrmann of Lousville, and Patrick J. Harris of St. Louis.
McCloskie died in 1922 at the age of 89 and was buried in Akron’s Lakewood Cemetery; his gravestone is shown below.  In 1920 Prohibition closed all the Nation’s distilleries and completely ended the market for his jugs.   

Although McCloskie must have been proud of the use that had been made of his invention, he also must have recognized that his kiln idea and flat-sided jugs had not been generally adopted.  Moreover, salt-glazed stoneware had its own problems.  The haphazard distribution of salt in the kiln too frequently resulted in unevenness in glazing.  Ultimately John McCloskie’s format for jugs faded into antiquity, leaving behind only a modest but interesting set of whiskey containers for future generations to contemplate.   

Note:  Prior posts on this blog have featured three whiskey men who used McCloskie’s jug:  John McCulloch, April 2014; Edmund Dexter and Owen Carpenter, November 2015;  and Hilmar  Ehrmann, April 2016.


  1. Dear Ms. Bloom: Thanks for your kind remarks.

  2. I have 5 of these flat sided jugs of different sizes with the flower on the side a the pat date on the other. Only 1 has the dexter whisky on it very nice to know the history of these jugs

  3. Thanks, Jakozee. I found these jugs interesting and had a small collection at one time. It is still unclear how McCloskie's invention led to their unusual shape.