Shown here embossed with “Green Mountain Anti-Trust Distillery,” is, to my knowledge, the only time that a liquor bottle overtly challenged the powerful and feared “Whiskey Trust” of the late 19th and early 20th Century. It was the work of Max C. Reefer of Kansas City, Missouri, whose reputation as an advertising genius tended to overshadow his aggressive success as a liquor dealer.
Described by his hometown newspaper as “irrepressible” and “indispensable,” to the Kansas City business community, Reefer devoted considerable attention to opposing one of the largest monopolies in American history, the Whiskey Trust. The Trust was an attempt to consolidate distilleries, control liquor production, and hike whiskey prices. Known to resort to dynamite to intimidate resisters, it was organized in 1887, three years after Max set up his liquor house.
A circuitous road led to this point for Max. He was born in 1848 in Czanow, a small city in Austria now part of Poland. Early in life he moved to London where he learned the printer’s trade. About 1861 Reefer came to the U.S. and found employment as a typesetter for the New York Tribune. He subsequently moved on to newspapers in Chicago and St. Louis. Shown here in his early 20s, Max cut a confident figure in bowler hat and floral cravat.
Reefer’s intelligence and creativity soon propelled him from the printshop to the advertising department and in turn to a sojourn in New York City where he solicited ads for several Midwestern newspapers. He became increasingly recognized for his merchandising genius, a reputation that then sent him to Cleveland as business manager and publisher of the Daily Record newspaper.
Meanwhile, Max had found a bride in Marie Cohen, an immigrant from Germany who was 18 when they wed. They would have eight children in quick succession, six girls and two boys. His growing family may have occasioned
Reefer to move to St. Louis where he ran a weekly newspaper and continued to gain a reputation for advertising prowess. A trade journal would later claim that as an ad writer Reefer “stands without a peer in this profession” and jokingly advised firms to lock their safes and lose the combinations “when he calls.”
After the birth in 1863 of his first son, Eugene Juliius (“E.J”) however, Reefer with his family in tow moved from St. Louis 250 miles west across Missouri to Kansas City. There, at the age of 33, he set up his liquor house, calling it “Green Mountain Distillery.” His business plan was to advertise his whiskey repeatedly in national magazines like Munsey’s, emphasizing mail order sales. Not only did Kansas City have good rail access to points west and east, it looked out on a number of western states where, in whole or part, prohibition had prevailed. Mail order liquor was still legal, however, protected by the Interstate Commerce clause of the Constitution, and the only way many thirsty residents could get alcohol.
Reefer featured a relatively small number of brands, including “Reefer’s Green Mountain Whiskey,” ”Gold Medal,” "Green Mountain Rye,” "Real Kentucky Royal,” "Smoky Hollow Rye,” and “Tastewell." Despite not trademarking any of these names, he featured them in splashy display ads with a clear message that “We pay the charges” for railroad express delivery. Max’s advertising genius appears to have paid off rapidly and his business prospered. By 1900, in addition to Kansas City, he claimed warehouse outlets in St. Louis, Louisville and Chicago.
Reefer soon came in conflict with the Whiskey Trust. He was not a true distiller, making whiskey from raw grains, but a “rectifier,” that is, receiving whiskeys received in barrels from distilleries in Missouri, Kentucky, and other states, blending them on his premises, and bottling them under his own label for shipping. Rectifiers often found themselves at the mercy of the Whiskey Trust. By shutting down distilleries the Trust controlled a large percentage of existing whiskey stocks and hiked prices to the blenders. If they refused to pay, they ultimately ran out of raw product, adding to whiskey shortages — the delight of the Trust. As Reefer knew, the Trust would have been very happy to put Green Mountain and its owner out of business.
Reefer struck back. Apparently able to obtain enough liquor for his blends, he advertised vigorously that he could undersell the Trust. “The whiskey we send is distilled from the purest grain (no seconds), is matured and ripened in wood and will cost you but a few cents over $2.00 per gallon. We guarantee that no Trust house ever sold the same quality goods for less than $3.00 to $4.00.” Buy a five gallon keg for $10.37 and Reefer would throw in a gallon of blackberry brandy. As shown on the bottle that opens this post, he made his anti-Trust stance also clear on the embossing under his labels.
Like many liquor dealers, Reefer also advertised by providing
giveaway items to his customers, providing a “gold rimmed, fine etched whiskey glass” and a corkscrew with purchases. Shown above, his shot glasses came in several styles. On one glass Max seemed to claim that Registered U.S. Distillery No. 9 of the 7th District of Kentucky was his own. While it may have been a principal source of his whiskey supplies, this was the Glename Distillery of Woodford County, Kentucky. Established in 1882 by Thomas Edwards, by 1892 the plant had become a component of the Woodford Distilling Co., headed by S.J. Greenbaum. Not part of the Trust, federal records show this facility was supplying several rectifying outfits.
Reefer also was involved in outside commercial enterprises. For a period in the 1890s he divided his time between Kansas City and New York where he ran an advertising agency from an office in the Tribune building. He subsequently returned permanently to Kansas City where in addition to his liquor trade he managed the Reefer Publishing Co. In 1897 he joined with other local businessmen in starting a new trade journal devoted to the manufacturing and wholesale trade interests of Kansas City. In 1906 he organized and incorporated the Mutual Ice, Fuel & Storage Company.
With the passage of time Max was able to bring his elder son, Eugene Julius (“E.J”) Reefer into the management of Green Mountain Distilling. He incorporated the company in 1904 with himself as president and E. J. and an unmarried daughter, Zerllna, as directors. As Max’s interests turned to his other enterprises, his son increasingly was operating the liquor house, with continued success.
In failing health as he aged, Max Reefer died at the age of 68 in December 1916. Not only was his obituary noted in Kansas City media but in national trade publications like The Advocate: America’s Jewish Journal; American Printer and Lithographer, and Fourth Estate, a newspaper trade publication. Reefer also gained recognition for a prize he created and funded through his will. Called the Menorah Prize, it was awarded annually, regardless of creed, to an undergraduate at the University of Missouri for the best essay on Jewish history, literature, or religion. Max was buried in a family plot in Kansas City’s Elmwood Cemetery. Four months later his widow, Marie, would join him there.
In the meantime E. J. Reefer was continuing the vigorous mail order advertising campaign begun by his father. Without specifying a source he was claiming to sell “genuine straight Kentucky Whiskey” while citing the Bottled-in-Bond Act. Within just three years, however, National Prohibition made him shut the doors on the liquor house his father had founded 35 years earlier. Although the Whiskey Trust had been greatly weakened by mismanagement and the pushback from whiskey men like Max Reefer, it survived until 1920 when it suffered the same fate as the Reefers’ enterprise.
Addendum: This is to alert both followers of this blog and others that I have a new website involving whiskey. It is a complication of more than thirty vignettes about Old West saloons and saloonkeepers. Outlaws, gunslingers, and shootings abound. This new blog can be accessed at wet enterprise: select saloons of the old firstname.lastname@example.org. If this new website proves popular, other compilations under the “wet enterprise” heading may be forthcoming.