Thursday, February 22, 2018

E. R. Lilienthal: Noble (Cyrus) of Western Whiskey


Shown right, Ernest Reuben Lilienthal was the scion of a family that had no businessmen in it.  His father Sam was a famous homeopathic doctor and his uncle Max a well known rabbi.  Nevertheless, Ernest forged a highly successful business career in the Western liquor trade selling a brand of whiskey called “Cyrus Noble.”

The Lilienthal family had originated in a valley in Schnaittach-Huttenbach, Germany, a Jewish enclave, and until 1814 had been named Seligmann until an ancestor changed it to Lilienthal, meaning “lily of the valley.”  Sometime during the 1840s, Dr. Sam and Rabbi Max and their wives had emigrated from Germany, settling in Lockport, New York, near Buffalo.  There Ernest was born in 1840.  He had a good education culminating in a law degree from the Cincinnati Law School.

Lillienthal never practiced.  Cincinnati also was the home of Rabbi Max’s good friend, Julius Freiberg of the firm of Freiberg & Workum, wholesale liquor dealers, rectifiers and distillers of whiskey.   Max convinced Freiberg to give his nephew a job.  The newly-minted attorney began in the blending department and, impressing the partners, subsequently was sent as a salesman to New York City.  

At the time Freiberg and Workum’s principal brand was Cyrus Noble Bourbon, named after an Ohio man whose talent for tasting and blending whiskey earlier had earned him the superintendent’s job in their distillery.  Noble, however, was a heavy drinker and, so the story goes, one day while inebriated and checking a premium vat of whiskey, fell in and drowned.  Nothing would do but to name the company’s flagship whiskey as a memorial to Cyrus. 

Lilienthal strongly embraced the brand and convinced Freiberg & Workum to give him the financial backing to establish a wholesale liquor agency in San Francisco.  Arriving in town in 1871, he lost no time in renting store space at 223 California Street and putting out his sign:  “Lilienthal & Company.” At the outset he bought his liquor only from Freiberg & Workum.  They made sure he was well stocked with Cyrus Noble and their other straight and blended brands.

The whiskey was shipped in barrels, most often on sailingships that took it around Cape Horn.  The rock and roll ride at sea widely was believed to speed aging and add flavor.  Once landed in San Francisco, Lilienthal sold the liquor by the barrel or bottled and sold it by the case to saloons and restaurants. 

Through the 1880s, Lilienthal’s traveling salesmen, marketing an expanding list of alcoholic products, fanned out through the West, not only in Pacific Coast states but throughout Arizona, Nevada, Idaho, Utah and Montana.  The sales force even made forays into Mexico and Central America in search of customers.

With the aid of these efforts and vigorous outdoor advertising, such as the huge painted sign on a San Bernardino building, Lilienthal & Company grew rapidly and by 1895, it had become the largest wholesale liquor company on the West Coast.   As Lilienthal diversified his business, the distilling and rectifying operations were hived off and became “Crown Distilleries,”  a name that occurred on the labels of his whiskey and embossed on bottles of Cyrus Noble. 

In the meantime, Ernest was having a personal life.  In May 1876 he married Hannah Isabelle (called “Bella”) Sloss in San Francisco.  He was 34, his bride was 20 and the daughter of Sarah and Louis Sloss, a prominent member of the Alaska Fur Company.  The Lilienthal’s first child was born a year later.  They would go on to have a family of seven, including four sons, all of whom later would be employed in their father’s liquor interests.

In their 1968 book on “Spirits Bottles of the Old West,” Bill and Betty Wilson provided some observations into Lilienthal’s personality:  “A good salesman, Ernest talked freely in a deep baritone voice.  His reputation for fair dealing, his judgment of markets, his ability to make quick sound decisions, and the assurance he had for his product won him a respect not always accorded to those in the industry…He could talk well…and could argue in legal terms on almost any subject.  He rarely showed anger and never grew personal — a quality his customers enjoyed.”

Within two decades of Lilienthal’s arrival in San Francisco, Cyrus Noble had become a favorite among Western whiskey drinkers.  The story is told that in May of 1899 when George Dewey, “the hero of Manila Bay,” was informed of his promotion to Admiral of the United States Navy he celebrated with a friend: “He reached for a bottle of Cyrus Noble, a sour mash bourbon, and filled two glasses.”  They drank a toast.  

In 1901, another story goes, a thirsty prospector named John Coleman stumbled into Searchlight, Nevada, willing to trade his claim for a bottle of the best bourbon in town.  It turned out to be a bottle of Cyrus Noble.  When the claim later yielded more than $250,000 in gold (more than $7 million today) it was christen the Cyrus Noble Mine.

Lilienthal was lavish with his giveaways to saloons, restaurants and other establishment carrying his liquor.  Shown throughout this post are bar signs he provided, all of them with a “Old West” motif.  He also handed out multiple varieties of back-of-the-bar bottles and shot glasses, many advertising Cyrus Noble whiskey.

Other Lilienthal family members were enlisted in the business.  Albert, a son of Rabbi Max, and Ernest’s first cousin joined the Lilienthals in San Francisco with the idea of developing the hops and grain business of the company.  He did not like California, according to the Wilsons, and returned to New York.  There, with his sibling Theodore, he founded Lilienthal Brothers, the East Coast representative of the family’s liquor interests.

Ernest Lilienthal as he aged turned over responsibilities for running his multifaceted liquor-based empire to family members, chief among them his eldest son, Benjamin.  Anticipating the coming of National Prohibition, they shut down Crown Distillers Company in 1917.  The 1920 census found father and son both claiming their occupation as “sugar” merchants, likely one of the subsidiary businesses they had spun off from Lilienthal & Co.   Ernest lived long enough to see America go dry, dying in December 1922 in San Francisco.  He was 76 years old.

Throughout National Prohibition Benjamin kept the trademark for Cyrus Noble whiskey but sold it in 1934 to his brother Samuel as Repeal approached.  Samuel in turn sold the rights to the name to the Haas Brothers, related to the Lilienthals by marriage.  Originally San Francisco grocers, the Haases switched to whiskey wholesaling and continued to market Cyrus Noble for a number of years.

A final appreciation of Ernest R. Lilienthal, a man who built the largest liquor wholesaling house on the West Coast and made a household name of Cyrus Noble whiskey, can be gleaned from the Wilsons’ biography.  His customers, they said, “got good liquor…and plenty of good conversation” from an urbane entrepreneur with an aristocratic bearing.  Lilienthal truly had become a recognized nobleman of American whiskey.

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