Monday, October 24, 2016

The Dants “Permeated” Kentucky Distilling

Families in the development of American whiskey were nowhere more important than in Kentucky — and in Kentucky no family name was more renowned than Dant.  As one author accurately has said:   “The Dant family permeated the Kentucky bourbon industry.”  The Dant saga needs a book to do it justice.  As a result, I will be featuring only three of its members, the founding father and two of his sons.

Joseph Washington Dant The progenitor of the the Dant family was J. W. Dant, born in May 1920 in Loretto, Marion County, into a farm family with French roots.  His father and mother, Jean Baptiste and Mary Jane Smith Dant, were both native Kentuckians.  The little that is known of Joseph’s early life is that he received some elementary education and that his first occupation was as a blacksmith.
At the age of about sixteen in Joseph apparently decided that making whiskey held more promise than beating hot iron.  In 1836 he founded his first distillery in Marion County on Walnut Ridge Farm, a site located ten miles west of Loretto.  When the Louisville and Nashville (L & N) Railroad made it a stop, it became known as Dant Station. Joseph’s first still was hewn from a log, a primitive method used by pioneers in Kentucky when they did not have the money for a copper kettle.  The process used logs of of about ten feet in length.  The timber would be split, hollowed out, and a copper tube inserted;  then the two halves would be joined.  The hollowed areas would be filled with fermented mash and steam would be fed through the piping for the initial distillation.  A second distillation would follow.  The process was called “making it on a log” or “running it on a log.”   Although crude, this method could result in good whiskey in the right hands — and Joseph had them.

In February 1849 he married Ann Catherine Ballard, a woman of 19 who was ten years his junior.  The couple would have ten children, seven boys and three girls.  The eldest, of whom we will hear more later, was J. Bernard Dant, born in 1850.  The chart below shows the Dant family lineage involved with distilling in Kentucky.
The Dant family has related a story about Joseph early on producing more whiskey than local consumption could absorb so he determined to expand his territory.  He would cart barrels of whiskey by wagon to the Beech Fork River, build a raft, and float it down the Mississippi to New Orleans.  Dant himself is reputed to have accompanied three of those shipments, walking back to Kentucky from Louisiana, a distance of more than 600 miles  By the third trip, it is said, he was able to afford a mule and rode back.

As the years progressed, the reputation of Dant's whiskey grew.  Joseph produced much of his own grain for the distiller on his 196 acre farm and eventually established his own cooperage, building barrels onsite.  By 1870 he had sufficient resources to build a state of the art distillery.  A unique aspect of the operation was that it was built to take advantage of gravity.  The mash tub was much higher than the fermenters and with the aid of a very large pipe, Joseph was able to fill his tubs without the need for pumping.  The flow was said to be intense.  Gravity also was employed in the bottling process as whiskey was filtered by gravity to a tank and then to the bottling line.

According to insurance underwriters records, Dant’s facility was of frame construction with with a shingle roof.  It had a single warehouse, built of brick with a metal or slate roof, located 225 feet west of the still.  After passage of the Bottled-in-Bonding Act, the warehouse became bonded. By that time it held 3,300 barrels of aging whiskey and the distillery was mashing about 200 bushels a day, equivalent to a twenty barrel output.  Downwind about 100 feet were cattle pens where livestock was being fed the spent mash.  A photo shows Dant Station as it looked in the late 1800s.  With railroad tracks adjacent, a siding gave easy access to load barrels on freight cars for customers nationwide.  As shown here on an advertising flyer, the whiskey was sold under the J. W. Dant name and the slogan, “The Kind I Have Always Used.”

Sometime during the 1880s, Joseph retired from directing the distillery, turning the management over to a son, Wallace, joined later by a younger brother, George.  Under their leadership the company incorporated in 1897, with George as the largest shareholder.  The founding father died in February 1902 and was buried in St. Francis Cemetery, Marion County.  The Dant family monument is shown here.  J. W. Dant company would survive and prosper until the coming of National Prohibition.  Under the guidance of George Dant and other family members, the distillery was resurrected after Repeal, operating for seven years until being sold in 1941.  The facility shut down for good in 1951.

Joseph Bernard Dant —  The eldest child of Joseph and Anne Dant, Bernard Dant, as he was called throughout his life, began his career in distilling working for his father while still in his teen years.   Although he continued to be associated with the J. W. Dant Co. for a number of years, about 1882 he moved from Dant Station to Gethsemane Station about 10 miles down the L & N. line and built his own distillery.   Shown below, insurance records indicate that the facility was of frame construction.  The property included two warehouses, both ironclad and located adjacent to each other.  
Listed as Registered Distillery No. 240, District 5, Bernard called it “Cold Spring Distillery.”  Its claim to fame was for creating “Yellowstone Whiskey”.  Bernard is given credit for its popularity but the brand did not appear bear the Dant name, rather under the label of Taylor & William, Inc.  This was a Louisville wholesale liquor house established in 1865.  In 1871 a Taylor sales manager visited the newly opened Yellowstone National Park and noting the enthusiasm over its natural wonders, decided to name a brand of whiskey after it.  

Later J. T. Williams joined the firm and it became Taylor & Williams.  Because the company had no distillery of its own it was dependent on getting adequate supplies for the increasingly popular Yellowstone brand.  As a result, Taylor & Williams in the 1880s contracted with Dant and his Cold Spring Distillery to produce and bottle it and other company proprietary labels.

Meanwhile, Bernard was having a personal life.  About 1875 he married Nancy Ellen Ferriell, a Kentucky native.  They would have a family of six sons, two of whom died in young adulthood,  and two daughters.  Meanwhile this Dant’s reputation as a master distiller was redounding through Kentucky and beyond.  In 1900 he moved to Louisville and became president of Taylor & Williams.  In 1903 the company incorporated with Bernard at the helm and his eldest son, Sam J. Dant, as the treasurer.  Eventually each of his surviving sons would be involved in the distilling industry.

With National Prohibition, the Cold Spring Distillery shut down and Taylor & Williams closed.  Bernard, known as “The Grand Old Man”  of Kentucky whiskey, lived long enough to see Repeal, when the family dismantled the distillery at Gethsemane, created Yellowstone, Inc., as a distilling company,  and built  a new facility in Jefferson County.  Bernard was listed as vice president of that firm.  

Bernard Dant died several years later at 89 years, accounted by the Louisville Courier Journal as “the oldest active distiller in the country.”   His wife Nancy Ellen had proceeded him in death two years earlier.  With his brothers and sisters, children, thirteen grandchildren and four great-grandchildren gathered at the graveside, he was interred next to Nancy in Louisville’s Calvary Catholic Cemetery.  

John Procter Dant —  John P. was the third of J. W. Gant’s sons, born in 1856.  Like his brother, Bernard, John early on went to work for his father at the Dant Station distillery.  As indicated by his letterhead below, in 1890 John struck out on his own, buying a distillery that may have been established as early as 1855.  It was known as RD #174, District 5, and located in a town then called Chicago, now St. Francis, Kentucky.  Dant called it the “Old Danton Distillery” after his flagship brand.  
Insurance records compiled in 1892 indicate that the distillery was of frame construction and included two bonded warehouses.  Both warehouses were frame and located adjacent to one another about 90 feet from the distillery.  The illustration on the letterhead confirms those records.  Note that a rail line is shown serving the plant.  John employed a nephew, Thad Dant, as his distiller.  After operating the facility for several years, he sold out and moved to Louisville where he started a wholesale liquor house.

Meanwhile John also was having a personal life.  About 1884 he married Ann Josephine Smith, born in Marion County, the daughter of William Henry and Rosella Lancaster Smith, both native Kentuckians.  The Dants would have a family of four, according to records.  Their first son named after Joseph William Dant sadly died in infancy.  Then came two daughters and in 1890 a second son, John Jr.

John Dant was very successful as a liquor wholesaler, operating from his address at 909 Broadway as the “Pioneer Bottling House” and featuring “Old Dant Sour Mash Whiskey.”  His store featured a large jug bearing his name.  As shown here, John also favored ceramic jugs for his products.  Those came in a variety of formats including an Albany glaze with an underglaze transfer and a “scratch” jug.  

He also featured a number of giveaways to special customers, including his “Old Ballard” brand on a shot glass and a decorative calendar advertising Old Danton Whiskey.  From 1909 to 1913 he also maintained a liquor outlet in New Albany, Indiana.

John Dant’s Louisville operation came to a halt in 1919 with the imposition of National Prohibition.  Perhaps sensing that the “dry” era would be relatively short, he bided his time.   Soon after Repeal at the age of 68 he built a new distillery at Meadowlawn in South Jefferson County.  He called it the John P. Dant Distillery (RD #39) and leased the Grosscurth Distillery (RD #26) located in Anchorage, Jefferson County.  Both operations were incorporated as the Meadowlawn Distillery Company, with John P. Senior as president and John P. Junior as vice-president, treasurer and distiller.  The total mashing capacity was a hefty 471 bushels a day and six warehouses had the capacity to hold 7,500 barrels of aging whiskey.  Among his post-Prohibition brands were “Old Boone,” “Distiller’s Choice,” and “Old 1889.”   

Described in his obituary as a “veteran Kentucky distiller and a member of a family long identified with the industry,”  John P. Dant died at his Louisville home at the age of 89 in April 1944.  His wife, Ann, had preceded him by 16 years.  After a funeral service at Christ the King Catholic Church, John was interred next to Ann in Louisville’s Calvary Cemetery.  Management of his distilleries was taken over by his son, who sold off the remaining family interest in 1950.

This post has profiled just three of the many Dants involved in Kentucky whiskey.  As noted earlier, it would take a book to do full justice to all involved family members in the years since J. W. in 1836 began distilling, thus insuring that the Dant name became an integral part of American whiskey history.





















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