Tuesday, May 1, 2012

August Graf Launched a Whiskey Triple Threat

While many distillers, rectifiers and wholesalers of whiskey produced multiple brands, most of them had a flagship label that was the strong focus of their merchandising and advertising efforts.  Occasionally a liquor company would feature two brands.  August Graf of St. Louis, Missouri,  was virtually unique in strongly featuring three brands and giving almost equal attention to each.   His “Glen Forest Whiskey,” “Old Governor Sour Mash,” and “Old Capitol Rye” posed a “triple threat” to his competitors.

Graf was born in St. Louis in 1848, one of several children whose parents had emigrated to Missouri from Baden, Germany.  How he begin in the liquor business is unclear.  According to a 1901 history of St. Louis,   in 1867 he opened a liquor store at 1325-1329 South Seventh Street, between Rutgers Street and Park Avenue,.  He was only 19 years old.

For the next 34 years at the same location,  Graf built a business that boasted a large local trade and extensive sales over all of Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma , Illinois, Iowa, and Indiana.  He did it while actively selling three brands, as shown advertised on an 1897 A. Graf & Co. envelope.  Graf issued ornately etched shot glasses for each brand, as shown here. Altogether there were more than a dozen variations, amounting to an expense that Graf obviously thought worthwhile.  He also packaged his three brands in ornate ceramic containers and giveaway mini jugs and advertised them with a humor well beyond the usual whiskey flackery. 

With his business expanding rapidly,  Graf purchased buildings adjacent to his on Seventh Street, occupying them for office, salesroom and warehouse purposes.  The company apparently also had a stake in the Mayfield Distillery in LaRue County, Kentucky.  Federal records for 1892 show A. Graf & Co. being supplied with whiskey from that distillery. Later a claim was made that Graf was an officer of the Glencoe Distillery, a facility dating from 1872 in Jefferson County, Kentucky.  There is no corroborating evidence of such involvement apart from it being a possible source of supply.

August also found time for a personal life.  In 1872, he married Sophia Rauer, a woman of German heritage four years his junior.   They would have six children, five sons and a daughter.   Both Adolph A., the firstborn in 1873,  and Louis J., third in line in 1877, would grow up to work with their father in the liquor business.  Richard, born 1876, left home for San Francisco, and August V., born 1882, became a nationally-known chemist of water, a handy occupation for someone with a family in the beverage trade.

Graf’s energies led him into an number of different avenues.  In 1883, in partnership a woman named Catherine Schlieper, he established a soft drink company that existed for 24 years and issued a number of popular St. Louis beverages.  He also was a director of the Lafayette Bank and a member of the executive committee of the Broadway Building and Loan Assn.
As his reputation grew,  Graf was tapped for positions of leadership in the liquor industry.  He served as president of the St. Louis Wholesale Liquor Dealers group and was a member of the executive committee of the National Wholesale Liquor Dealers Association of America.

About 1900 the firm incorporated for $100,000, eventually changing the name to the A. Graf Distilling Company.  At the time,  many rectifiers and wholesalers were adding “distilling” to their names without actually owning a distillery, believing it to be a good marketing tool.   The firm registered Glen Forest and Old Capitol with the government in 1905 and Old Governor in 1906.

In January 1905, A. Graf &  Company ran afoul of the federal government in the form of an officer of the Internal Revenue who seized three barrels that indicated they held distilled spirits.  The agent discovered that burnt sugar aka caramel had been added to the liquor and claimed violation of the law.  The company fought the case vigorously, contending that they had paid the original tax on the contents and what happened to the barrels later was outside the jurisdiction of the revenue agents.   When the Circuit Court agreed with the Grafs, Federal officials took the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court where it was argued in 1907.  The decision, in January 1908, upheld the Grafs.

By this time, however, August was not around to enjoy the victory. He died in November 1905 and is buried, along with his wife and several of his children in St. Peter and Paul Catholic Cemetery in St. Louis.  His inscription is at the bottom left of the Graf monument.

His sons, well groomed for the job by their father, took over management of the business, Louis as president,  Adolph as secretary-treasurer.   In 1911, they moved to new quarters, shown here on a postcard, at 1236-1244 South Seventh Street.

Despite their demonstrated business acumen they could not avoid further problems with the Federal Government.   In 1912 Department of Agriculture chemists did an analysis of a shipment of “port wine” into Missouri.   They found it misbranded. “Port wine”  was exclusively a designation on products from Portugal and the liquid seized had been made in America.   From the list of chemicals it contained, the vintage possibly was concocted in the basement of A. Graf. This time the firm did not fight the charges.  In 1913 the Grafs pleaded guilty and paid the $5 fine involved.  Truly a “slap on the wrist.”

A much harder slap was only a few years in coming.  As state after state in which A. Graf Distilling did business went “dry,” the business dwindled until, in 1918, the company with the triple threat whiskey combination was forced to close.   August Graf had proved that three flagship whiskey brands could be better than one or two, but in the end, it really did not matter.

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