Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Louis Ullman and "The Great Whiskey Mart"

“The great whiskey mart of the Continent.”  That is how Cincinnati was described in 1890.  There were sixty-seven firms engaged in whiskey distilling, rectifying and wholesaling in the “Queen City.”   Total product for that year was worth $18,852,000, roughly equivalent to $470 million today.  Add to that the total from Kentucky distilleries that flowed through Cincinnati and the city enjoyed dominant status in the U.S. whiskey market.   Competition was fierce as liquor houses vied for business but Louis Ullman, president of Beech Hill Distilling Company, was up to the challenge.

Ullman was a wholesaler and rectifier, competing in 1890 with fifty-seven other firms with a total gross income of $9,427,000.  His success was determined by the merchandising steps he took, some of them common in the industry, but nonetheless crucial to the quarter century his business endured.  They included:

Selling a menu of brands:  While some whiskey wholesalers concentrated on just two or three brands and others offered as many as fifty, the norm was about a dozen.   Ullman featured eleven, including "Beech Hill,” "Blue Grass Queen,” "J. C. Bond,” "J. C. Tucker Old Rye,” "Kentucky Thoroughbred,” "Midget Jr.,” "Old 99,” "Old Judge,” “Pembroke,” “Remington," and “Wadsworth.”  He trademarked only Beech Hill and Wadsworth, registering them in 1906.  He likely bought the names “Kentucky Thoroughbred” and “Pembroke” from Freiberg & Myer, a Cincinnati house that had trademarked the brands in 1905 and apparently went out of business shortly after.

Bottling in glass:  In 1903 Mike Owens, a self-taught American inventor, propelled the glass industry into the mechanical age. In 1903, he unveiled the world's first completely automatic glass-forming machine—a machine for making bottles.  The result was drastically to cut the cost of glass bottles which up to that time had depended on humans blowing molten glass into molds.  Savvy operators like Ullman were quick to adopt the machined bottles in sizes from quart and pint to smaller sizes.   Ullman pioneered with a “midget” bottle, likely four ounces, of whiskey that sold for 15 cents, a flask that could be tucked away neatly in a pants pocket.

Keeping some ceramic:  Although cheaper bottles caused many whiskey houses to move from glass from ceramic,  Ullman and Beech Hill continued selectively to package products in pottery containers.   An example is an “Old Judge Rye” jug, a two-toned bottle with a paper label.  Such an item was meant to stand out on a liquor store or saloon shelf as being different from the glass quarts of whiskey around it issued by other suppliers.  Small ceramic jugs were also commonly used for “giveaway” items to special customers, often at holidays.  Ullman issued one for Old Judge, one of his featured brands.  Another was  “Pembroke Whiskey” but for this label he issued a highly unusual ceramic figural bottle.  Looking very much like a cigar it contained about one swallow of liquor.

Issuing shot glasses:  Still another common ploy among Cincinnati liquor houses was issuing shot glasses advertising their proprietary brands.  Ullman used this marketing tool by issuing such glasses, some elaborately etched, and given to bartenders in saloons and restaurants carrying his brands, “Beech Hill,” “Old 99” and “Wadsworth,” the last dubbed “The Real Stuff.”

Providing back-of-the-bar bottles:  Compared to shot glasses, glass bottles meant for display back of the bar were pricey items for a liquor house.  They were meant to contain the brand of whiskey advertised on the bottle.  Too often they did not and at the Repeal of National Prohibition, were made illegal. Pre-Prohibition Ullman issued them for both Beech Hill and Wadsworth whiskeys.

By using these several methods of marketing his whiskeys, including newspaper ads, Lewis Ullman was able to operate Beech Hill Distilling successfully for a quarter century.   Born in 1868 in Malden, West Virginia, not far from Charleston, he was the son of Joseph and Amelia Wolf Ullman.  While he was still a baby the family moved to Cincinnati, where Lewis grew up and was educated.  In 1896 he married Cora Ganz, a woman six years his junior.  Two years later their first child, a girl, Alisie, was born.  She was followed by two sons, Joseph in 1900 and Edward in 1902.  

Ullman’s early business career has gone unrecorded.  As early as the 1900 federal census, however, he was recorded as a liquor dealer.  According to Cincinnati directories by 1893 he had established the Beech Hill Distilling Company.  That wholesale liquor establishment operated for most of its existence at several locations on both East and West Pearl Streets.  About 1904 Ullman took as  a partner Edgar J. Mack.

The 1890 report on Cincinnati’s liquor industry quoted above was singularly optimistic about the future.  “It is apparent that the conditions are permanent and peculiar and that Cincinnati [will] continue to hold her dominant status as a whiskey market and therefore remain the great whiskey mart of the continent.”
The authors had not reckoned on the anti-alcohol prohibitionary tide growing in the country.   In 1917 Ohio voted to go completely “dry.”  The Cincinnati whiskey trade came to a screeching halt.  That multitude of wholesale liquor houses and rectifiers were forced to close, including Ullman’s Beech Hill distilling.  Cincinnati would never recover from the blow, ceding to Louisville, Kentucky, the title of  whiskey “capital.”

With Repeal in sight in 1933, Ullman and Mack got back into action.  Using the closed-up Hauck Brewery on Central Avenue in Cincinnati, they began to brew Red Top Beer, a brew that proved very popular.  Selling 50,000 barrels of beer in the beginning, the partners expanded to 259,000 barrels by 1939.  They then bought the Cliffside Brewery and increased production to 650,000 barrels, making Red Top the 14th largest brewery in America.  After a run of 24 years, the brewery closed in 1957.

A year later, Lewis Ullman died at the age of 90.  His wife Cora had preceded him  sixteen years earlier.  They lie side by side in a large pillared mausoleum in Section 4, Lot 92 of the Walnut Hills United Jewish Cemetery.  Active during the heyday of the Cincinnati whiskey industry, Ullman prospered magnificently as he pursued the trade and left behind a plethora of artifacts to remind us of his success.


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