Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Henry, the Half-Century Wolff of Kentucky Whiskey

When Henry Wolff died in April 1906, Louisville newspaper obituaries speculated that he was the city’s oldest active whiskey dealer, having created his Wolff Distilling Company almost 50 years earlier and having continuously engaged in the trade until the time of his death at age 76.  Throughout his long career Wolff was famous for promoting and selling the best whiskeys Kentucky offered.

Wolff was born in July 1830 in Saverne, a town in the French province of Alsace.  his family may have had some wealth because his education reputedly was studying under tutors provided by his parents.  Of an independent character, as soon as he was able he left home for the bright lights of Paris where he lived until the age of 24.

At that time he came to the United States, landing at New Orleans in the fall of 1854.  He remained in that French city only through the winter, going north to Louisville the following spring.  His younger brother, Joseph, was already there and, indicating some family money, owned a hotel at 620-622 West Market St.  According to an 1891 history of Louisville, the hotel at 35 rooms was one of the city’s finest.  Henry went to work there.

The Wolff Hotel boasted multiple dining areas as well as a billiards room and what was known as a “sample room.”  The latter operated operated like a “bistro” or saloon within the hotel walls, where liquor sales were primary, whether imbibed over the bar or carried home.  The profit-making potential of liquor became clear to the brothers.  They sold the hotel and in 1858 set up a wholesale liquor house they called the Wolff Distilling Company, located in a four story building at 66 West Market Street, shown here.  

From the beginning the brothers concentrated on selling Kentucky whiskeys, as indicated on a trade card below.  They also took as their trademarked symbol the image of an animal that one supposes is a wolf.   With a distinctly un-canine look to its face, however, it looks like a cross between a dog and a sheep.

As a possible indication of friction between the brothers, in 1867 after nine years in business — successful ones from all accounts — Henry left Wolff Distilling Co. and brother Joseph, and partnered with Francis Xavier Schimpeler, another whiskey merchant with ties to West Market St. [See my post on the Schimpelers February 2017].  

That relationship seems to have terminated in during the early 1870s.  At that point the Frenchman struck out on his own as Henry Wolff “Importer and Dealer in Foreign & Domestic Wines & Liquors,” as shown below on a billhead.  By 1880 he had moved his establishment to 244 West Market Street between Sixth and Seventh Streets.

Meanwhile Henry about 1865 had married.  His wife was Louisa E. Flinchback, a native born Kentuckian whose parents, Karl Louis and Elizabeth Flinchback, were immigrants from Germany.  She was twelve years younger than her husband.  Their first child, a boy, died in infancy.  Subsequently the couple had a boy, William Edward, and two girls, Lillie Belle and Amelia.  Wolff provided his family with a spacious home at 1417 South Third Street in Louisville, shown here.  Now in a historical district, the house is unique for the angling of windows on the north and south sides to bring additional light into the house and for terra-cotta decorations above the windows on the first and second floors.

Although he had been managing the Wolff Distilling Company successfully after his brother’s departure, Joseph by in 1880 found his health deteriorating and Henry was persuaded to return to the firm they had co-founded. With Joseph’s death in November of that year, Henry Wolff became the sole proprietor.
In 1882 he moved the organization to 638-640 West Market Street.A Louisville business history described those quarters:  “The building, utilized for storage and general business purposes, is a commodious, substantial brick structure, 20 by 125 feet in area, and was built in 1875.  It is three stories in height and admirably arranged for all purposes of the business.”  The article emphasized  that Wolff specialized in quality Kentucky whiskeys, including his own proprietary brand, “Non-Pareil Whiskey,” a product of the Spring Hill Distillery Company. 

That distillery was located on the west side of the Kentucky River on the Cincinnati and Lexington railroad line, not far from the Franklin County Court House.  Wolff did not claim to own the distillery which was the property of John Cochran & Co., but gave that facility credit for the liquor. According to reports, he also was promoting aged bourbon, sour mash and rye whiskeys of “all the most noted” distilleries in Nelson County.  He also was drawing whiskey from the Pleasure Hill Park Distillery located in Jefferson County.

Wolff packaged his wholesale whiskey in stoneware jugs of varying sizes and shapes, varying from “ginger jar” to cylinders, and with a variety of labels.  Under his management through the 1880s and into the 1890s, the Wolff Distilling Co. did a thriving and expanding business.  Not primarily a mail order house, the company customer base was concentrated in serving the saloons and restaurants of the Louisville area, with Wolff’s advertising concentrated on that market.

Even as he aged, Wolff continued at the helm of his company, as one publication put it, “well and favorably known in business and social circles.”    While still managing the Wolff Distilling Company in his seventies, Henry developed kidney problems but continued to work. The Louisville Courier Journal, citing his nearly half-century in business, hailed Wolff as “probably the oldest wholesale whiskey dealer in Louisville.” 

In April 1906 at the age of 75 Wolff succumbed to kidney failure, known as in that time as “Bright’s Disease.”  He was buried in Louisville’s Cave Hill Cemetery where many of the best known names in Kentucky distilling are interred.  Among the mourners were his widow, Louisa, and their three children.  With Henry’s death the Wolff Distilling Company disappeared from Louisville directories.

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