Friday, January 21, 2022

The Changing Face of a “Whiskey Baron”


Arguably, the most important figure in the history of American distilling was Col Edmund H. Taylor Jr. of Kentucky.  During his 92 years (1830-1923) Col. Taylor came to epitomize the whiskey industry and became its chief spokesman to American presidents, the U.S. Congress and other high government officials.  Because he insisted that his portrait and signature be prominent on all his products, it is possible to track Taylor’s career through his changing public face.

The earliest picture I can find of Col. Taylor is from a trade card early in his career, a time of trial.  It is the face of a early middle aged man considered a rising star in Kentucky distilling.   Taylor, however, was squeezed financially in the Panic of 1873 and resorted to fraud, reported selling rights to 7,014 barrels of whiskey when only 4,722 barrels were aging in his warehouse.  Exposed and owing the equivalent of $11 million in current dollars, Taylor was bailed out by rival George Stagg who took over his distilleries and relegated him to being a hired hand.

Eventually paying off his debts, Taylor broke from Stagg and with his sons, built a new distillery he called “The Old Taylor Distillery Co.” in Frankfort, Kentucky.  By  this period,  the Colonel had donned spectacles and assumed the chastened look of someone who has “learned his lesson” and was seeking to regain legitimacy among his peers.  This likeness eventually would find its way onto an advertising watch fob and to the sides of cases of his straight Kentucky whiskey.

Taylor’s return to “whiskey baron” status inevitably brought him into conflict with  Stagg who had kept Taylor’s name because of its stellar reputation for bourbon.  When the Taylors opened their new facility, Stagg sued to stop them using their family name on their whiskey.   Over the next months, a legal battle was waged that ended in the Kentucky Supreme Court with a partial victory for the Taylors.  They could continue to use “Old Taylor,” but Stagg’s “Taylor” products were still allowed on the market.  Thus the emphasis emerged on using the Colonel’s face and signature to proclaim the “genuine” bourbon.  Shown here is a 1903 ad in the Wine and Spirit Bulletin declaring that only the real “Old Taylor” would carry the Colonel’s picture and script.

This introduced the era of Taylor’s aggressive look.  Characterized as “hard to get along with” and often “downright cantankerous and hard-nosed,” the distiller in this photo clearly is making a statement, squinting his eyes at the photographer and turning his mouth downward.  He was now at the top tier of Kentucky distillers and not to be trifled with.  This photo later would be translated into a digital image only slightly less intimidating.

Taylor also was having an impact in Washington, D.C.  A friend of the Secretary of Agriculture, Kentuckian John Carlyle, he played a major role in the shaping and passage of the “Bottled in Bond Act of 1897” and later in gaining support for passage of the first Food and Drugs Act.  He was lobbying Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and later William Howard Taft to declare blended whiskeys as “artificial,” a battle he ultimately lost. The Colonel Taylor shown here may reflect the demeanor of “respectful persuasion” he likely adopted when visiting the Nation’s Capitol.

As he approached an advanced age, a clear effort was made to sweeten Taylor’s image.  In the photo here, his mouth is turned down but the squint is gone.  In formal dress, the white bowtie softens his physiognomy.  Here Taylor seems to be telling us he is “The Elder Statesman” of the liquor industry.  His company used a similar photo on a paperweight.

Another late photo also emphasizes a more benign temperament for Taylor. He has been though a lifetime of struggles and surmounted them them all to emerged in his “golden years” respected by his peers and listened to by people in high places.  The flower in his button hole, likely lily-of-the-valley, bespeaks banking of a fiery temperament in favor of a gentle glide into old age.

Even in death, however, Colonel Taylor could not escape reproductions.  Shown here is a plaque at the present day Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort.  it commemorates the O.F.C. (Old Fashioned Copper) Distillery founded by Taylor in 1870.  The face on the metal sign clearly is taken from the “aggressive” Taylor of late middle age. It even reproduces Taylor’s necktie.  If possible, it is even more baleful a look than the original.

A final look at Edmund H. Taylor, Jr., was provided in a post-Prohibition Christmas advertisement for Old Taylor Bourbon.  The theme is that while the distiller was usually hard to get along with, at the holidays a genial Taylor “gathered his loyal employees around him, and as the bottle of Old Taylor passed among them, he.d tell them, one by one how much he had appreciated all they had done.  And he’d allow himself a small smile of satisfaction.”  Presumably the portrait of Taylor shows that “small smile.”  My thought is that the distiller’s satisfaction instead may stem from being able to satisfy his staff with a swallow of  liquor and skip Christmas bonuses. 


Monday, January 17, 2022

The Hilbert Brothers Sold “Municipal Whiskey”

 San Francisco newspapers dubbed it “municipal whiskey,” a blatant aspect of the rampant corruption instigated by top city officials and marketed by Christian Hilbert, shown here, and his brother Fred, local saloonkeepers and liquor dealers.  Then came the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. The Hilberts’ world turned upside down.

The Hilberts misadventures would have been far from in their minds when they emigrated from their native Hamburg, Germany, to the United States.  Although the time frames are a bit confusing, my surmise is that the brothers arrived together aboard the SS Suevia in 1882 when Fred was 19 and Christopher was 15.  They headed for San Francisco where Fred was listed in 1888 as working for Hildebrandt, Posner & Company, wholesale liquor dealers.

Two years later the Crocker Langley directory records the brothers running their own saloon and liquor store, located at the northwest corner of Seventh and Bryant.  After two years at that address, indicating some success, they moved to 101-103 Powell Street.   It is speculated that there the Hilbert’s splurged on creating attractive highly embossed bottles and flasks for their whiskey, likely “rectified” (blended) in their own quarters. 


They also issued shot glasses bearing their initials that were given to favored customers such as saloons, restaurants and hotels selling their liquor.  They advertised as “Pacific Coast Agents” for Wilson Whiskey, a well known product from the Ulman, Goldsborough Company of Baltimore. [See post on this firm Feb. 24, 2017.] Below are trade cards issued by the distillers bearing the Hilbert name.

For all the fancy bottles and advertising ware, including bar tokens, evidence is that business was not going well for the Hilberts.  The San Franciso Call on October 1, 1896, carried an ad listing for sale their “old-established liquor store and bar.” That offer apparently drew no buyers and by the following January, the brothers were offering their grocery and bar enterprise for a three year lease at a measly $750 annually.  The photo below of their establishment, known as the Coronado Bar, discloses what must have seemed to the Hilberts as the answer to their financial woes.  It is the man standing at the far left.

Abe Reuf

He was Abe Reuf, the political boss of San Francisco. Born Abraham Rueff from French-Jewish parents, he was a bright student and, when barely fourteen, began studying at the University of California, Berkeley, majoring in classical studies. While attending the university, Reuf developed an interest in fighting the rampant corruption that was endemic to local politics and helped form a “Municipal Reform League.”  But a love for money and power later took him to the “dark side” of the spectrum.  Electing his own man, “Handsome” Eugene Schmitz, a violinist and union chief, as mayor in 1901 Ruef was prepared to accrue as much graft as possible.  He made the Hilberts a proposition that amid their financial woes the brothers accepted.

The brothers hired Reuf as their attorney at the then princely sum of $500 a month ($16,500 equivalent today).  Subsequently Reuf’s name on their business card was larger than their own.  They also made Mayor Schmitz a silent partner in their operation, paying him a commission of $50 ($1,600 equiv.) for every barrel of whiskey sold.  In return the Mayor and his agents pushed the saloons of San Francisco to buy whiskey solely from the brothers through their new named Hilbert Mercantile Company.

Mayor Schmitz

Both Colliers and McClure’s magazines, known as “muck-raking” (read “investigative”) journals published expose’ articles on the Ruef-Schmitz cabal. McClure’s explained the liquor scheme:  After the Hilberts made contracts with Eastern distillers for cheap whiskey at 52-85 cents a gallon, the Mayor and his henchmen forced local saloonkeepers and brothel owners to pay $3.50 a gallon for the substandard booze to avoid trouble.  A portion of the profit was kicked back by the brothers to city officials.  The Hilberts did not always require cash for their whiskey but also took promissory notes for sales. They then sold the notes at discount through San Francisco banks. 

Because of the evident ties to City Hall the Hilberts’ liquor became widely known as “municipal whiskey.”  Christopher and Fred may not have cared; the money rolled in.  As McClure’s noted:  “The saloonkeepers, of course, dared not refuse to take the Hilbert whiskey, because their licenses had to be renewed every three months and if they should insist on their right to buy where they chose, they might be forced out of business.”

That situation changed drastically on Wednesday, April 18, 1906, with the great San Francisco earthquake and devastating fire.  Some believe the Hilbert Mercantile Company was among those businesses destroyed in the conflagration; others are not so sure.  Mayor Schmitz tried to put the best face on the catastrophe by piloting a street car through the wreckage, a stunt that briefly made him popular.  There was, however, no way of restoring the “municipal whiskey scam.  When the promissary notes came due, Hilbert Mercantile Company declared bankruptcy leaving holders “high and dry.”

As criminal investigations against Reuf and Schmitz began, authorities wanted to talk to the Hilberts.  The press reported that Fred had left California and was traveling in Germany with Schmitz.  Christopher was known to have retreated to his wife’s home in Suisun, California and had told friends that the couple were off for a pleasure trip to the Philippine Islands, now a U.S. possession.  Although speculation was that the younger Hilbert actually was seeking to join his brother and Schmitz in Germany, Christopher spent the next two years in the Philippines and apparently never returned to San Francisco.

Fred eventually came back to California but dropped out of sight.  Before the earthquake and fire he had been recorded living in San Francisco with his wife Amelia and their two daughters.  In the 1910 census the family was still there.  Fred, however, was absent from the home.  He resurfaced in Vallejo in 1915.

Meanwhile, Schmitz and Reuf were convicted of extortion and bribery in a San Francisco courtroom.  Reuf was sent to San Quentin Prison.  The office of mayor was declared vacant while Schmitz was sent to jail to await sentence. Shortly thereafter, he was given five years at San Quentin, the maximum sentence the law allowed. He immediately appealed; while awaiting the outcome, he was kept in a cell in the San Francisco County Jail.  After having his sentence reversed by higher courts, Schmitz twice ran for office again and was soundly defeated both times.

After returning to the U.S. from the Philippines Christopher Hilbert relocated to New York City working as a commission merchant.  That occupation allowed him to travel widely to Europe and Asia, often with his wife, Marie Robbins, and their two daughters.   Christopher died at the age of 61 in February 1928 at a hotel in Capri, Italy.  Cremated in Rome, his widow had his ashes buried in his natal  Hamburg.   Meanwhile Fred was employed in a variety of occupations that resulted in his family frequently moving around California.  After his wife died, Fred eventually returned to living in San Francisco and died there in 1945, age 82. He was buried in Cypress Lawn Memorial Park in Colma.

In contrast to Reuf and Schmitz, despite their active participation in one of San Francisco’s most blatant extortion schemes, inexplicably neither Hilbert brother was ever charged with a crime.  

Note:  An embossed bottle led me to the great amount of information available on the Internet about the Hilberts and their activities in a corruption-ridden San Francisco.  A prime source was material at the “Virtual Museum” of the Federation of Historical Bottle Collectors (FOHBC).  The Colliers and McClure’s articles on the Reuf-Schmitz ring were key to understanding how the “municipal whiskey” extortion operated and the integral role played by the Hilbert brothers.

Thursday, January 13, 2022

D.L. Moore: A “Distillers’ Distiller” — and Much More

Born into a prosperous family of Kentucky gentry, well educated and eminently successful in business, Daniel Lawson Moore carved his niche in Kentucky whiskey history by fighting to keep alive the name of his father-in-law.  Moore also used distilling premier bourbon as the economic stimulus to create for himself an agricultural empire that stretched from the Blue Grass State to Mississippi and Colorado. 

Among the most celebrated early Kentucky whiskey distiller was Judge W. H. McBrayer.  One contemporary account says of his “Cedar Creek” brand: “It was the whiskey that made the crowned heads of Europe turn from Scotch to bourbon.”  After McBrayer’s death in 1888 his will passed the distillery to his grandchildren.  Having married the judge’s daughter, distiller D. L Moore was their widower father.  The ninth clause of the Judge’s will stated that his heirs could run the distillery in his name for three years after his death: “After which time I desire that my name be entirely stricken from the business.”

This unusual request probably stemmed from the fact that McBrayer had been an elder in the Presbyterian Church, a denomination that frowned on drinking, and personally was a tee-totaler. His widow Mary also had developed strong objections to alcohol. Moore, as manager of the distillery and with Mary co-executor of the Judge’s will, attempted to nullify the clause. He argued that the McBrayer name was worth at least $200,000 to the Judge's grandchildren (millions today). Nonetheless, Mary took him to court.

When a lower court agreed with her, Moore appealed to the Kentucky Supreme Court. The judges there were more sympathetic, apparently well acquainted with McBrayer’s bourbon. While their opinion suggested that the quality of the whiskey had suffered since the Judge’s death, they agreed with Moore that he had never intended to disadvantage his beloved grandchildren. The McBrayer name was retained.  By persisting Moore had perpetuated a Kentucky legend.

Daniel Moore was born in Mercer County, Kentucky in January 1847, from a distinguished English family.  His spacious boyhood home, shown here was called “Moorland.” His father, a physician, horse breeder and “gentleman” farmer, could afford to have young Daniel educated by private tutors, attend Center College in Danville, and study law under an eminent Kentucky barrister.  Moore passed the bar but never practiced.  Instead, according to one biographer, “…He used his legal knowledge altogether in handling his extensive business affairs.”

From the outset of his career, Moore was drawn to distilling.  About the age of 25, he built the distillery shown above.  It was located five miles east of the Harrodsburg Courthouse at Shawnee Run Creek on the turnpike between Danville and Pleasant Hill, Kentucky.  Distillery water originated in a pristine stream issuing from a cave where Daniel Boone famously had spent the winter of 1769-1770.  By the mid-1880s, Moore’s distillery was mashing 250 bushels a day and had two bonded warehouses with a total capacity of 12,500 barrels. 


Moore dubbed the location “Vanarsdell” and called his premier bourbon the same name.  He advertised the brand extensively.  Shown here is an apparently unembossed clear quart bottle of “Vanarsdell Hand Made Sour mash” whose colorful label alone apparently made it worth $2,100 at auction recently.   Below are two views of a Vanarsdell flask, also apparently unembossed.  Another Moore brand was “Stone Wall Whiskey.”  He also produced whiskeys sold by Charles Rebstock, a leading liquor wholesaler of St. Louis. [See my  post on Rebstock at September 6, 2011.]

Following McBrayer’s death Moore sold his own distillery to the Dowling Brothers and devoted his energies to managing the McBrayer Lawrenceburg plant.  Early in the 1900s, however, Moore sold the McBrayer distillery to the Kentucky Distilleries & Warehouse Company, one of the expressions of the monopolistic “Whiskey Trust.”  He continued to manage the facility and the Trust was happy to have title to prestigious McBrayer’s bourbon.

In 1891 Moore found a woman to provide mothering for his three minor children.  She was Minnie Ball, descended from the same family as the mother of George Washington.  They were married in her home in Versailles, Kentucky, and would go on to have two girls of their own.  Shown here is a portion of a family photo that pictures Daniel, Minnie and their daughter, Anita.

Meanwhile Moore was increasingly busy in other activities.  In 1881 he was elected on the Democratic ticket to represent the 20th District in the Kentucky State Legislature.  There he is said to have performed “his duties in an intelligent and capable manner and eliciting the commendation of his constituents.”  Despite being a distiller, Moore pushed through a bill levying a special tax on Kentucky whiskey to be used for schools. He also had become the largest individual stockholder in the Mercer National Bank and from 1892 to 1908 served as its president.

A “gentleman” farmer, Moore was responsible for overseeing the planting and harvesting of cotton in Mississippi on three plantations totaling thousand of acres originally accrued by his father.  He also owned several thousand acres of timberland in that state and supervised the logging.  His work there led him to built a spacious home on one cotton plantation where he, Minnie and the children spent the winter months.  Described as a “nature lover,” Moore then turned his attention to Colorado, the Rockies and the  “spiritual uplift of the mountain solitudes.”  In 1881 he bought a ranch of 6,000 acres in North Park, Colorado.  According to a biographer he then “…Introduced some of the finest cattle and horses, making it a center of improved livestock in the far West….”  

Although these activities took him away from Kentucky about half the year, Moore determined to built Minnie and their family a spectacular home on Lexington Pike near Harrodsburg, a structure, shown here, that still stands as a landmark.  Taking five years to build and costing the equivalent of $1.4 million, the Romanesque Revival mansion features a verandah of large semicircular arches on short round pillars of polished granite with carved limestone capitals.  Among its other elegant features is a four story tower crowned by a parapet.  

Moore was living there when he developed heart trouble as he approached his mid-60s.  His heavy work schedule presumably had begun to catch up to him.  After several months of decline, Daniel died on October 20, 1916.  His death certificate read “organic heart disease.”  He was buried in Harrodsburg’s Spring Hill Cemetery, Section S, Lot 29, below a large cross.  

For the next two decades, Minnie Moore took up where Daniel had left off, running Mississippi cotton plantations, the stock ranch in Colorado and a farm in Kentucky where she supervised tobacco production and the breeding of quality livestock.  One observer commented:  “Mrs. Moore since the death of her husband has given convincing evidence of the possession of unusual business talents and has handled her extensive affairs with admirable judgment and efficiency.”

Of Daniel Moore a fitting testimony appeared in “Kentucky: A History of the State,” by Battle, Perrin, & Kniffin, 4th ed., 1887:  The authors wrote: “Few men have more friends, or retain them better than Senator Moore….He is liberal and generous to a fault, a representative of true Bourbon Democracy, of strict integrity, and thorough honesty of purpose and deed. As a business man he has by his success in other fields reflected great credit upon his native State of Kentucky.”

To this encomium I would add that Moore’s court battle to keep the McBreyer name before the drinking public has paid dividends down to the present day.  Descendants have formed an organization called McBreyer Legacy Spirits and in limited quantities have issued a bourbon in his name.  If Moore had not challenged the Judge’s will, this welcome development might well have been impossible.

Notes:  This post was gathered from a wide variety of sources.  Unless otherwise indicated in the text, direct quotes are from “A History of Kentucky and Kentuckians,”  by C. Polk Johnson, 4th edition. 1912.

Sunday, January 9, 2022

Whiskey Men Who Owned Hotels

Foreword:   It is not surprising that a substantial number of liquor dealers owned hotels.  The identification of inns with taverns is embedded in American history.  Brought to the current day it is not unusual for an individual (like me) to check in, find the room, and then head down to the hotel bar to see what’s gong on.  Presented here are three men, all of whom became wealthy through whiskey sales, that owned and operated hostelries in pre-Prohibition times.

At five feet, nine inches tall, Frederick Rudolph Welz was not a big man, but he carried a lot of weight in St. Paul, Minnesota, as owner of the city’s largest and most prestigious hotel and a major liquor house and saloon.  An immigrant from Germany, Wells was worth the equivalent today of $25 million when he died. It was said of him: “…Every dollar which he possesses has been earned since he came to America….”

Welz launched his career in hotels in 1878 when he purchased the Circle Park House in Indianapolis, a leading hostelry and favorite of circus folks.  After three years, he sold it and headed north to St. Paul, Minnesota, where he initially was in the liquor trade.  In his new home city,  Welz eventually acquired the Clarendon Hotel.  Although that hostelry had proven unprofitable under three previous owners, Welz transformed it into a first class, money-making property.  “He brought to the business keen discernment, unflagging enterprise, and a knowledge of the demands of the traveling public….”   After three years, however, Welz tired of running the Clarendon, sold it, and took an extended holiday with his wife to Germany.

Upon his return, Welz brought or, some sources say, leased the Merchants Hotel, shown left. This was a premier property in St. Paul at the corner of Jackson and Third Streets, a popular place for social reunions and political gatherings.  Just before the convening of the Minnesota legislature and state conventions the hotel’s rotunda and halls were crowded with politicians and onlookers.

As was his usual pattern, after five years of operating the Merchants Hotel, Welz decided to get out of the hotel business and again set his sights on St. Paul’s lucrative liquor trade.  Welz took a local businessman, Robert Mangler, as a partner and established a wholesale and retail liquor business called “Welz-Mangler Co., Importers and Jobbers, Wines and Liquors.” 

While still involved in the liquor house, Welz’s interest took another turn.  A St. Paul family named Mehls had built and attempted to operate a large luxury hotel called the Ryan. It is shown right.  Apparently not experienced at managing such an establishment and facing a economic downturn during the Panic of 1893, the Mehls went bankrupt and a bank repossessed the hotel.  Welz bought it.

St. Paul newspapers were positive about the takeover, citing Welz’s past success in turning hotels profitable and noting that the new owner, despite other business interests like the liquor house, would be “giving his whole attention to the Ryan.” The economy rebounded.  The Ryan Hotel prospered. To quote a biographer:  [Welz] made it the leading hotel of the city….Made the name of Ryan famous throughout the Northwest….”  This time Welz stayed the course, running the hotel until 1904 when he reached 71.

Unlike many of the impoverished immigrants to the U.S. who engaged in the liquor trade, William Sheppard Norman, born in 1859, was the scion of a wealthy family of Cheltenham, England that owned and operated two newspapers as well as a large printing and lithographing business.  Upon immigrating to the U.S. Norman’s business acuity led to his managing Spokane companies that provided telephone, telegraph, electric and street railway services. 

Hailed for his “ability, power of organization and initiative spirit,” Norman’s next foray was into hotels.  When the Spokane Hotel, shown right, went into bankruptcy in 1893, he saw an opportunity, bought and remodeled it into what was termed “the finest hotel in the ‘Island Empire.’”   From there Norman went on to purchase the posh Tacoma Hotel, below left, and the North Yakima Hotel, right.  Aided by his brother, Benjamin, before long William was operating a string of hotels in the West under the name of Norman Hotels, Ltd.  A biographer said of him in 1912:  “In a summary of his life, Mr. Norman can be accorded a prominent place among the empire builders of Eastern Washington.”

Being an hotelier took Norman into the whiskey trade.  Each of his hotels  contained a liquor store that Norman called “Silver Grill Cellars.” Norman claimed not to be a rectifier but said he was bottling and selling only straight goods in ceramic jugs of half-gallon (below left) and gallon size. Norman’s flagship whiskey label was “Viking,” a name he never bothered to trademark.  Eventually his efforts in alcohol would conflict with Washington State’s prohibition laws and he was arrested and fined.

Forced to shut off the alcohol in his hotels, Norman expanded his  investments to include mining and real estate.  The millionaire utilities executive, hotelier and whiskey man lived to see Prohibition repealed in 1934, remaining active into his nineties.  

Unlike Welz and Norman, Harris Franklin, an immigrant from Eastern Europe, came late to the hotel business.  Moreover, unlike the other two who bought struggling properties, he built an hotel himself from money he made selling whiskey in the South Dakota boom town of Deadwood.

With a partner, Franklin created the largest liquor wholesale house in the Upper Midwest region with an annual trade approaching $125,000, equivalent to more than $3 million today.  This wealth also took him into successful investments in banking, mining, and railroads, all benefiting his adopted city.  Despite its development, however, Deadwood lacked a first class hotel.  For years business leaders had been attempting to construct one without success.  One try resulted in an abandoned foundation used for a time as swimming pool for local children.

In 1902 Franklin stepped into the situation. It was only when the whiskey dealer offered in 1902 to match any contribution to a building dollar-for-dollar that construction began in earnest.  The hotel, finished a year later and considered a marvel of modernity, was named for him.   Shown here, half of its 80 rooms had private baths, a novelty at the time.  Theodore Roosevelt, William Taft, Buffalo Bill Cody, Babe Ruth and world heavyweight champion John L. Sullivan were among Franklin Hotel guests in its heyday.  The Franklin Hotel became Deadwood’s pride and its owner a hero.

Note:  More complete posts on each of these three whiskey men may be found elsewhere on this website:  Frederick Welz, February 16, 2017;  William Norman,  March 21, 2020; and Harris Franklin, May 30, 2017.