Thursday, May 18, 2017

Tracking Max Selliger in His Climb to Whiskey Glory


I am no handwriting expert but looking at Max Selliger’s signature above, particularly noting the curlicues on the capital letters, it seems to exude confidence.   He was 30 years old at the time, in the midst of his climb up the Kentucky distilling ladder, beginning as a poorly paid clerk and ending as the sole proprietor of two major Louisville distilleries, maintaining offices in the heart of the city’s “Whiskey Row,” and selling his bourbon coast to coast.

Selliger was born in Louisville in 1852, the son of Caroline and Samuel Selliger. His father ran a millinery store.  Max was provided an elementary and some secondary education in local schools but by the age of 18 was recorded working as a clerk, possibly in his father’s shop.  Given the importance that making and selling whiskey had assumed in Louisville during that era, selling women’s hats may have seemed like a dead end to an ambitious youth like Max.  By 1872 he had gone to work for Barkhouse Bros. & Co., wholesale liquor dealers located at 69 Main Street near Third Road.

The brothers, Julius and Louis Barkhouse, were relative newcomers to the Louisville whiskey scene, but ambitious.  Originally they were wholesalers and “rectifiers” — that is, blending whiskey to achieve smoothness, taste and color.  They must have seen promise in the 20-year-old Selliger and made him their bookkeeper.  It was a post of considerable trust because Max would have been responsible for making the entries on whiskey purchases and rectifications as required by Federal law.  Carelessness or mistakes could result in court action and potential confiscation of stocks and equipment.

By 1876 Barkhouse brothers had determined, as many rectifiers did, that in order to assure whiskey for blending, it was advantageous to own their own distillery.  Accordingly in 1876 they built a plant at 278-300 Story Avenue, near Ohio Street.  They released Selliger from his desk-bound job and green eyeshade to become a salesman for what they now called the Kentucky Distilling Company.  Max made the rounds of Louisville area saloons hawking such brands as “Beargrass,” “Gold Dust” and “Kentucky Pride.”

After three years on this job, Selliger left the Barkhouses to team with Nathan Hofheimer, who came from an established Louisville whiskey clan, including Ernest and Sigmund Hofheimer who ran a wholesale whiskey business on Main Street.  Nathan also was kin to the Cincinnati-based Hofheimer Bros., who owned the White Mills distillery in Louisville.  

The new company, Hofheimer & Selliger, was located at 8 Main Street below First St.  Likely helped by their important connections, from the beginning the partners were successful.  “This wholesale liquor company had exclusive control of many of Kentucky’s finest bourbons,” according to the Encyclopedia of Louisville (2001).  Those brands included “Crystal Springs,”  “G. W. S. Mellwood,” and “Glencoe.”  [For further information on Glencoe, see my post of July 10, 2012.]

Meanwhile another scion of a well-known local whiskey family was fulfilling his ambitions in the liquor trade.  He was George H. Moore, who in 1865 had returned to Louisville from a Union prison camp at Johnson’s Island, Ohio, where he had been interned after being captured in the battle of Allatoona, Georgia.  He went to work in the whiskey operation of his uncle, Jesse Moore.  Beginning in 1881, likely with Jesse’s financial help, George built the Astor Distillery, shown above, located in Louisville between Lexington (later Breckenridge) and Arbegust Streets.  Subsequently Moore built a second plant immediately adjacent, shown below, and called it the Belmont Distillery.

Insurance records show the Astor and Belmont Distilleries adjacent at the site.  Each of the two stills was of brick construction as were four shared warehouses with fireproof metal or slate roofs.  Warehouse A, located 40 feet east of the stills was used for Astor storage and Warehouse B, located 45 feet northeast, likely was assigned to Belmont.  Warehouses C and D sat south of the stills.  The Astor made a sweet mash whiskey called “Astor” and the Belmont was producing “Belmont” and “Nutwood,” both sour mash bourbons.

City directories for 1881-1883 indicate that while maintaining their wholesale liquor business, Selliger early on joined George Moore’s distillery company as treasurer and Hofheimer became corporate secretary.  This cozy arrangement proceeded until 1884, when Max left Hofheimer to join Moore full-time in a new firm, one they called Moore and Selliger.  Considered one of the wealthiest men in Louisville and seventeen years older than Selliger, George must have seen considerable talent in the younger man to take him as a partner.  With this move Max had made the jump from rectifier — always viewed as second class to actual distillers in Kentucky — to part ownership of two major facilities.

As he was climbing the ladder to whiskey success, Max had remained a bachelor.   Now as a bonafide distiller, in 1882 at the age of 30, he married Nannie Rosenthal, Kentucky-born of German immigrant parents, a woman several years younger than he.  They may have taken a honeymoon abroad because Selliger applied for a passport that same year.  The document provides a description of Max as a young man:  Five feet, eight inches tall; blue eyes;  black hair; long face, and dark complexion.  Over time the couple would have a family of two girls, Leah and Jessie.

Moore & Selliger Co. packaged its whiskeys in clear glass bottles, sized from half-pint and pint flasks to “fifths” and full quarts.  They all carried paper labels.  The Belmont brand displayed a particularly well-designed label involving a large bell and the statement that: “This Whiskey Was Mashed in Little Tubs and Distilled in the Old Fashioned Hand Made Sour Mash Press.”   The partners early saw the benefits of registering their trademarks with the federal government, patenting Astor in 1888, Belmont in 1889 and Nutwood in 1894. .

During the twelve years from 1882 to 1896 the company flourished under the two men.  By the mid -1890s the Astor Distillery was consuming 725 bushels a day to produce sweet-mash whiskey and the Belmont Distillery 760 bushels for sour-mash.  Warehouse capacity had been expanded to 42,000 barrels.  The plants employed a large work staff.  A fire in the Belmont mash room in 1891 that caused $1,000 damage was quickly repaired and whisky-making resumed.

 As he aged, George Moore’s heath deteriorated markedly. After taking breakfast with his family in January 1896 he died quietly, sitting in an armchair. The verdict was a heart attack.  Now the former clerk was running both distilleries as the sole proprietor.  He promptly changed the name to the Max Selliger Company.  In a climb of 26 years at last he had reached the pinnacle of success, recognized as a true Kentucky “whiskey baron.”  For the next 24 years Selliger continued to manage both distilleries, establishing his three major whiskeys as national brands.  After trademark reforms by Congress in 1904, within two years he had registered his Astor, Belmont, and Nutwood brands a second time.

Once in full charge of the whiskey-making Selliger stepped up his merchandising, providing an attractive reverse glass sign and shot glasses to saloons and restaurants using his liquor.   As a result of this intense marketing he developed a wide market for his whiskey as attested by a letterhead from Denver that includes the Belmont logo and by a shot glass from a California saloon. 

Shut down by the advent of National Prohibition in 1920,  Max continued to be listed as a distiller in the federal census of that year.  By the 1930 census, however, he was recorded as “ex-distiller” and “financier.”  In 1933 as Repeal was imminent, Selliger, now 81 years old and with no son to take over the business,  sold his idled distilleries and brands to a group that also bought the Bernheim Distilleries.  Eventually, as shown below, Schenley picked up the Belmont name and motif.

In 1936 Max and Nannie Selliger were still listed in Louisville directories, living at 1022 South Third Street.  With them was their unmarried daughter, Jessie.  The Max Selliger company was still extant, now with a hired manager.  As he relaxed in virtual retirement, Max must have thought frequently about the timely careers moves he had made, decisions that had seen him rise from clerk to whiskey nobility — and smiled.  In April 1838 while on a visit to Philadelphia, at the age of 86, Selliger was stricken with a heart attack and died.  His body was returned to Louisville for interment, with Nannie, Jessie and a granddaughter among the mourners.

Note: In February of this year three unopened “fifth” bottles of Selliger’s Belmont whiskey were sold at auction.  The label identified all three as having been distilled in 1902 and aged for eight years at the Louisville facility.  Although a small part of the contents had evaporated from each bottle, as shown right, most of the whiskey still remained and would be considered potable.  The three bottles each were knocked down at prices ranging from $1,230 to $1,476 — each sip an expensive one.  Max Selliger would be proud.



























1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting such an interesting article. I recently found that I own a bottle from Belmont Distillery 1916/1925 produced by Max Selliger but it also says Brown and Forman Distillers on the front and that name isn't mentioned in your post. Do you know how that name fits in? Someone offered to buy the bottle from me for $250.00 but that may not be a fair price?

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