Memorialized recently as among the “100 Who Helped Shape St. Louis,” David Grace Nicholson has been hailed as a grocer who broadened the palate of the local citizenry, the developer of a notable downtown building, an outspoken Union patriot in a divided Missouri, and even the author of “a high order of verse.” Yet the single accomplishment that has kept Nicholson’s name alive before the American public was that inspired day in a back room of his store when he created the recipe for an historic whiskey, known ever after as “David Nicholson’s 1843.”
Nicholson was born December, 1814, in the Scottish village of Foster Wester, County Perth, into a family of modest means. After rudimentary schooling and largely self-educated, he became a grocer’s apprentice in Glasgow, and later in Oban, the West Highlands. About 1832 Nicholson emigrated to Canada, landing at Montreal, proceeding to Ottawa. Unsuccessful in finding employment, he learned the carpenter’s trade and as an itinerant traveled to a number of Canadian towns and eventually found his way to the United States.
Beginning in Erie, Pennsylvania, moving to Chicago and ultimately on to St. Louis, Nicholson plied the carpenter’s trade. An 1883 biography commented: “Physically strong and mentally quick, he was…noted for rapid and superior workmanship. Some of the finest ornamental woodwork in St. Xavier’s Church, St. Louis, was his work….” Although a devout Presbyterian, in later years Nicholson often referred with pride to his labor for the Jesuits.
In St. Louis, David met Jane McHendrie, an immigrant from Scotland who was 10 years his junior. They wed about 1840. Their marriage would produce six children, three boys and three girls. Nicholson settled his family in a large home, shown here. An imposing structure it had 84 feet of frontage on Garrison Street near the corner of Franklin. Later the home would be presented by grateful St. Louis citizens to Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman for his service to the Nation during the Civil War. As a passionate pro-Union partisan, the grocer must have been delighted.
In 1843 at the age of 29, Nicholson gave up carpentry to join with a fellow Scotsman and wine merchant to form a specialty grocery and liquor dealership. With a genius for business, David flourished, moving several times as the volume of customers increased. Shown here is an illustration of one of his early stores. As a wholesaler, Nicholson did a brisk trade helping to supply wagon trains with food and drink as they headed west from St. Louis. As the ad below demonstrates, he also was doing business in the East from a sales office in New York City.
After several moves Nicholson in 1870 settled into a large building at Nos. 13 and 15 North Six Street between Market and Chestnut, one constructed on his own specifications. Shown here, the structure featured five floors, each 50 by 135 feet. He employed 50 clerks to deal with the constant customer traffic.
Nicholson was the first St. Louis grocer to import foreign comestibles, sometimes chartering ships and loading them with cargoes from abroad. Said a biographer: “He did more than any other man in the St. Louis trade to educate the community in the importance of purchasing superior goods, and to induce the consumption of commodities hitherto unknown in this market.”
One previously unknown commodity of Nicholson’s doing was his recipe for whiskey. Whether in 1843, as he started in business, or later, he developed recipes for bourbon and rye that found ready acceptance from the drinking public in Missouri and across the Mississippi River in Illinois. For more distant sales in places like New York, he also seems to have emphasize nationally known brands, like “Old Crow.”
In naming Nicholson as one of the 100 people who shaped the city, the St. Louis Magazine commented: “Where would we be without David Nicholson, the only distiller who didn’t leave town after the Whiskey Ring scandal.” Nicholson, however, was not a distiller but rectifier, that is, someone blending whiskeys purchased from distillers, of which Missouri had many. Shown here is a separate warehouse Nicholson kept to store for liquor. My assumption is that his company “master blenders” also operated there, producing “David Henderson’s 1843.” Many St. Louis rectifiers had been caught up in the crimes of the Whiskey Ring, however, and Nicholson’s honesty became his hallmark: According one biographer: “He had great contempt for the ‘sharp practices’ common in the trade and despised those who were guilty of them,”
Characterized as sometime gruff and outspoken, Nicholson also was portrayed as “tender as a woman” with a gift for poetry. According to the biographer: “In his early days he wrote numerous compositions in verse that were of a high order of merit, and during the Civil War wrote several patriotic odes that were characterized by unusual poetic inspiration and fervor.”
As he aged, Nicholson involved other relatives in his busines. He brought his wife, Jane, into the firm as an officer. His nephew Peter Nicholson, who had trained as a grocer in England, came to the U.S. in 1852 and was hired immediately by his uncle. Starting as a clerk, Peter proved to have exceptional energy and mercantile acumen. The customer base was said to reach “gigantic” proportions as Peter increasingly was given management responsibilities. Among the company’s prime profit centers was David Nicholson 1843 whiskey.
Nicholson died in November 1880 at the age of 65. He was buried in Block 167/168 of Lot 2344 in the Bellefontaine Cemetery of St. Louis. Jane would join him there 31 years later. Their graves are marked by a tall obelisk and a joint gravestone. Peter Nicholson subsequently took over directing the grocery and liquor house. The building burned in 1891 and after finding other quarters temporarily on Sixth St., the nephew moved to North Broadway, operating the liquor house and marketing David's whiskey until 1920.
As for the fate of David Nicholson’s 1843 whiskey, the following years are murky and somewhat conflicted. The assumption is that with the coming of National Prohibition, Peter sold the rights to the name. Shown right, the Peter Hauptmann Company of St. Louis appears to have owned the label in 1934, immediately after the end of the “dry era.” The brand eventually became the property of Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle and the Stitzel-Weller Company who continued to issue a Nicholson whiskey. Those whiskey men then sold the rights to an outfit known as Luxco.
Exactly who is making the whiskey today is not well understood. The bottles shown above are the current manifestation. One critic has opined: “This bottle is highly recommended as a hype-free, lower-cost alternative to some of the classic rye-kissed Kentucky Bourbons available today….This brand has survived over 170 years and continues to impress.” David Nicholson would be proud.
Notes: The major quotes regarding David Nicholson are from a biography called “Saint Louis City and County, From the Earliest to the Present Day, including Biographical Sketches of Representative Men” Vol. II. by J. Thomas Scharf, published by Everts & Co, Philadelphia, 1883. My vignette on “Pappy” Van Winkle was posted on this blog on November 22, 2014.