Sunday, November 27, 2022

Whiskey Men With Classic Homes


 Foreword:   Many of the “whiskey men” celebrated on this blog celebrated the wealth their liquor trade engendered by building large houses for their families and themselves.  Although many of those classic homes over the years have fallen victim to the wrecking ball, some are still extant.  Of those a significant number have been included in the National Register of Historic Places.  The documentation accompanying that status often has been been important to my telling the story of the owner.  Shown here are five such residences all with a link to a distiller or liquor dealer.

After serving in the Confederate army, George Shawhan returned to Kentucky, got married, tried farming and quickly decided that making whiskey was a better way of life. It was an easy choice since his family had been involved in distilling for three generations. Unlike his forebears, however, George Shawhan moved out of Kentucky. In 1872 he transplanted his family and mother to Lone Jack, Missouri.

Shawhan bought a farm there and within a year completed his first distillery, Initially it had a capacity of producing two barrels of whiskey a day, each holding 42 gallons.  After a fire there he moved to Weston, a town on the Missouri River where he bought a distillery. It was located near a pure limestone spring and the quality of the water caused Shawhan to enthuse that with his whiskey formula he could “beat those Bourbon County fellows all hollow.”  He prospered.

As his whiskey business continued to grow throughout the late 1890s and early 1900s, Shawhan built a large Victorian home in downtown Weston for his family. Shown here, the house is considered a classic example of “steamboat architecture,” defined as a river town mansion, a big, square, two-story frame house, painted white and porticoed like a Grecian temple. As was typical it also featured a large grassy yard, a surrounding white fence, and a brick walk from gate to door.  Today it serves as a bed and breakfast.

John S. Cooke, an immigrant Irish cobbler’s son, found success and riches in Chicago selling liquor and beer.  An entrepreneur extraordinary,  with the proceeds from his enterprises  Cooke funded the design and construction of a home on Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, shown here, that has been called “a tour de force of the Shingle Style.”  He had become enamored of Lake Geneva, a town where many wealthy Chicago residents made their summer home.  For a time Cooke ran a hotel there.  When it burned, he decided to build a house for his family in Lake Geneva. He commissioned an architect to turn the hotel’s free-standing billiards hall, which had survived the fire, into a summer residence for his family.  

The result was a home of more than usual interest.  It was given Victorian elements such as wide verandas, turrets, and significantly the use of wood — thousands and thousands of shingles.  At the same time the house abandoned the Victorian boxy look in favor of lots of angles that make it stand out architecturally. Cook called it “Ara Glen” after a scenic spot a few miles from his 1837 birthplace in County Cork.  Today it is listed on the National Register of Historical Places.

Another Irish immigrant , James McNeely came to the United States as a youth. In 1855 he settled in St. Joseph, Missouri, a “jumping off” place for settlers heading west.  Warned about the unlikely prospect of resupplying along the way,  pioneers often bought their provisions for the entire journey in St. Joseph. Sensing an opportunity, McNeely opened a wholesale grocery and liquor store that provided staples and alcohol to retail grocers and trail suppliers serving the pioneers on their long treks westward.  Business flourished.

His wealth now grown considerably, in 1890 McNeely commissioned a local architectural firm to construct a mansion home for his wife and children.  Situated on a steep slope below the ridge line of the Missouri River bluffs, the house, shown above, was multiple-gabled with a slate roof.  Made largely of red sandstone, it resembled a medieval castle with its towers.  Below the towers is a massive front porch with two entrances, the one at left large enough to allow a horse and carriage to enter.

The interior was equally extravagant, featuring eight elegant fireplaces of unusual designs adorned with polycromed tiles and carved lintels with lions and other motifs.  One can imagine the excitement of the McNeelys as they moved into these palatial surroundings.  Family members would occupy the house for a half century before selling it. Later it functioned as a retirement home.

 The Hergets, two immigrant brothers from Germany and their sons, enhanced the economy of Pekin, Illinois, through their enterprise and investments encompassing eight decades.  At the center of their  business empire was making and selling whiskey. A 1910 history of Illinois described the Hergets this way:   “The members of the family stand high in the social circles of the city, and are universally respected for worth and nobility of character.”   The book failed to mention that the Hergets built mansion homes in Pekin, largely financed by liquor sales.

The emphasis here is on the home of a son, Carl, who managed the several 
Herget family enterprises , including the Globe Distillery and the American Brewing Company, a Pekin brewery founded in 1900.  Carl Herget perhaps is best remembered in Pekin for his mansion built in 1912 at 420 Washington Street.  Now on the Register of Historic Places, the house, shown here, was designed in the Classical Revival style and occupies an entire city block. 

Growing up, Edson Bradley probably could not tell sour mash from sweet corn, but in maturity he turned whiskey-making into abounding wealth. In the process he made possible the rise of Old Crow bourbon -- still one of America’s most popular whiskeys.  It also gave him the resources to build one of the largest mansions in America.

When he and his family moved to Washington, D.C. about 1885, Bradley bought a large Victorian home on fashionable DuPont Circle and tore it down to build the grandest mansion the Nation’s Capitol had ever seen.  Bradley’s home was truly his castle, featuring towers, turrets, and stained glass windows. It contained a Gothic chapel,  an art gallery -- to hold his extensive collection of ceramics, tapestries and books -- and a 500 seat theater he called “Aladdin's Palace.” Some interior rooms were imported intact from France.

In 1922, 70 years old and enormously wealthy from Old Crow profits, Bradley became restless. Leaving Washington, he moved to fashionable Newport, Rhode Island, and, almost incredibly, decided to take his castle with him.  Brick by brick, tile by tile, the mansion was dismantled and transported to Newport. There Bradley had purchased a existing mansion called Seaview Terrace. He joined the two structures to become one of the largest dwellings in America. Shown here, it featured 54 rooms.  Today Bradley’s Newport “castle” still stands. From 1966 to 1971 it was the setting for a spooky ABC daytime soap opera called “Dark Shadows.” The mansion currently serves as a dormitory for a local college.

Notes:  Longer post on each of the “whiskey men” featured here may be found elsewhere on this website:  George Shawhan, May 13, 2011; John Cook, March 3, 2018;  James McNeeley, May 27, 2018; Carl Herget, June 5, 2018; and Edson Bradley, September 19, 2011.

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

The Ways and Will of “Doc” Drake, Whiskey Man


He called himself “doctor” but when and how he achieved medical training is something of a mystery.  What we do know of Robert Polk Drake is that by opening saloons and a distillery he openly mocked the prohibitionists of Madisonville , Kentucky, and the “local option” laws they had enacted.  Although “dry” forces eventually shut Drake down, it was not before he had become rich.

Drake’s story was well told by Katherine Gramlin in her 2018 master’s thesis at Florida State University, the primary reference for this post.  Because Kentucky for so long has been considered the prime source of America’s best whiskey, it may be hard to understand that the prohibition movement, because of the state’s predominantly Protestant population, was stronger than in some states with few or no distilleries.

A Prohibitionist Party organized in 1887 in Madisonville was able to push through a number of laws on alcohol.  It was decreed that all saloons or taverns must be located at least a half mile from a church or other place of worship.  Existing “watering holes” would have to move or pay a penalty every three months.  Many relocated to Main Street, shown here.  In addition, judicial approval was required for any new establishment.  Higher performance bonds and taxes also had been imposed.  Saloon proprietors by law were required to maintain a trough for watering their customers’ horses.

Perhaps the most bizarre ordinance stipulated that sales for off-site use be in gallon-sized containers.   While some have seen the requirement as an effort by prohibitionists to encourage drinking at home rather than in a saloon, my instinct is that they believed a heavy gallon ceramic jug would have to be carried home to drink, but half-pint or pint glass flasks could be tippled anywhere, including public places.

“Doc” Drake sized up those restrictions and decided the risk of entering the liquor trade was worth the gamble.  A local boy,  he was born on February 14, 1849, in Hopkins County, of which Madisonville is the seat. He was the second son of Thomas Drake, a Virginia farmer who had moved to Kentucky about 1827 and Antha “Annie” Coleman Drake, born in the state.  Robert’s early learning has been described as “a good English education.”  

Drake’s medical training has not been documented.  In the 1800s one could claim the title of physician without having attended medical school by serving an apprenticeship with a local doctor.  To pay for his training and upkeep, the apprentice would do menial jobs around his mentor’s office.  He also watched procedures performed in the office and  would accompany the doctor on house calls.  In time, an apprentice would be allowed to attempt certain medical procedures and eventually be recognized as a doctor in his own right.  I have located a Madisonville press item about an individual “wounded, was carried to the residence of Dr. R. P. Drake and treated nine weeks, then sent home.”

Nonetheless, in the early 1890s, as he entered middle age, Drake decided that rather than pushing pills for a living, he would make and sell liquor.  In unabashed defiance of Madisonville’s “dry” advocates, he opened a saloon on North Main Street, located an appropriate distance from local churches.  It proved to be so profitable that he decided to prod the prohibitionists further, opening another saloon on Center Street in what had been a ladies’ hat shop.

Drake soon decided that making his own whiskey was more lucrative than just

pushing drinks over the bar for nickels and dimes.  In 1895, he bought land on Onion Hill, named for its strong, lingering scent.  Located just outside the Madisonville city limits, the site included two springs that fed a small watercourse known as Flat Creek.  Those water sources were critical to Drake’s effort to erect a distillery.  Construction was completed by March 1896 and he immediately began production.  

By Kentucky standards, Drake’s was a decidedly small distillery, producing only about 28 gallons a day, the rough equivalent of half a barrel.  Assuming that the distillery produced whiskey every day allowed (never on Sundays), the yearly output was no more than about 165 barrels.  Drake’s equipment included a steam boiler, mentioned in his will.  Also shown here are a doubler and copper pipes used in distillation that are on display at the Hopkins County Historical Society Museum.  The equipment is assumed to be from Drake’s facility.

The reaction of Madisonville’s prohibitionists to a distillery on their border has gone unrecorded, but it must have rankled.  Drake obviously did not care. He produced whiskey for his own saloons and had some to sell others.  Over that period his gallon ceramic jugs bore several names, including “The R.P. Drake Distillery,” “The Twin Springs Distillery,” and “Turner Springs Distillery.”  The one shown here from the Hopkins museum reads “Old Hickory Distillery” on the base.

For reasons yet unexplained, Drake maintained his distillery for only 14 months before shutting it down.  Perhaps he was dissatisfied with the quality of his product.  Making whiskey is a tedious and delicate process.  Many things can go wrong in distilling that render the results undrinkable.  Drake continued to operate his two local saloons and opened a third in Evansville, Indiana, about 50 miles due north of Madisonville.  He may have assumed (correctly) that Evansville would remain reliably “wet” even if his home town banned liquor.

With the wealth from his liquor pursuits, Drake also was investing elsewhere.  Hopkins County was part of the Western Kentucky coal fields.  In 1896 Drake announced he had opened a new mine near the railroad line about a mile and a half from Madisonville.  Claiming the coal seam to be 38 inches thick, he advertised that his “work was done with a view to testing the coal for parties who wish to lease.”   In other words, he was speculating, not mining himself.  At the same time the “Doc” was investing in a local bank and in real estate.  The latter included farmland, office and apartment buildings, a “colored housing” development, and a rooming house available specifically to members of the Presbyterian church.

If Drake thought this outreach toward the Presbyterians would soften prohibitionist sentiments, however, he was mistaken.  In 1912 local “dry” forces were able to enact by “local option” a complete ban on alcohol sales.  Shown above is a marvelous photograph of an event of civil disobedience by prohibitionists in Madisonville as men, women and even small children blocked Main Street demanding that saloons be closed.  The caption reads:   “Streets blockaded by prohibitionist fighting the open saloon, winning victory by big majority.  Madisonville Ky., Jan 24, 1912.”

Although Drake was forced to shutter his two saloons, he remained a major figure in Madisonville.  Ms. Gramlin observes:   “While he never served in office, Drake did use the influence of his wealth and businesses to ensure the future success of his ventures. By strategically locating the majority of his businesses downtown, buying stock in influential banks, gaining the favor of local churches by renting homes and apartment spaces to congregation members, and renting farmland and equipment to county farmers, Drake ensured that he had his thumb in every pot. He was an influential and powerful man in Hopkins County.”

Drake’s personal life, however, was not without its vicissitudes.  At the advanced age of 43, in 1892 he married Willie N. Richardson, 17, in Robertson, Tennessee.  In addition to the age disparity, there was some indication of haste.  The wedding occurred on February 2;  the marriage license was issued after February 21.  The couple’s first child, Lorenzo “Loren”, was born five months later.  Several years later a second son, Owen, died in infancy.  As a doctor, not being able to keep his child from dying must have been extremely painful for Drake.

The relationship between the father and his son Loren appears to have been strained.  The breach is evident in the will “Doc” Drake made on February 2, 1916, just days before his death.  In it he left the bulk of his extensive properties to Loren but only as a caretaker for his grandchildren, Robert, then two years old, and Mary, an infant.  The will stipulated that his son was to have “no power of authority to sell, convey or dispose of said property in any way or manner” but must maintain the property for the children “to be theirs absolutely.”  

His wife Willie, as administrator of the estate, could sell property but the proceeds also were directed to Robert and Mary.  Drake left his son 150 acres of farmland in Hopkins County with a house on it.  That Loren could sell it but none of the proceeds were to be used to pay off the son’s debts “in any manner.” Once again all proceeds were to be passed on to the grandchildren.  Thus was expressed a father’s apparent displeasure with a son.

Drake’s will was completed and filed only two weeks before his death, although he apparently had been under a doctor’s care since the previous March.  The diagnosis on his death certificate was “tuberculosis of throat and lung.”  Dead at 67, Drake was interred in Slaughters Cemetery in Webster County where his parents and other relatives were buried.  Shown here, Drake’s is one of the largest memorials on the grounds, unusual because the statue of Jesus it contains is looking away from the grave.  The monument records the deceased as “Dr. R. P. Drake.”  Wife Willie is not buried with him.

Although the story of Robert Drake and his tussle with prohibition is not unique, it illustrates the “dry” pressures brought against alcohol production and sales in Kentucky,  despite the state being world famous for its whiskey.  By navigating around Madisonville’s “dry” laws for more than 20 years, however, a canny operator like “Doc” Drake was able to a build a fortune. 

Notes:  In researching the story of a medical doctor who owned saloons and, at least for a time, distilled whiskey, I almost immediately became aware of Ms. Gramlin’s dissertation.  My efforts to locate her to for permission to quote her material and use her photos have not been fruitful, although I have emailed to an address she used and called telephone numbers listed to her.  Perhaps a reader will see this post and alert her to my efforts.  



Saturday, November 19, 2022

When the Whiskey Trust (Not Really) “Went Bust”

 In August 1918 the monopolistic attempt to corner the market on American whiskey sales known as the Kentucky Distilleries & Warehouse Company came to a crossroads. This expression of a Whiskey Trust held a stranglehold on whiskey manufacturing in Kentucky.  More recently, however, the combine had experienced problems related to increased economic and social pressures. From its headquarters in Louisville’s Stark Building, Trust officials held what at first glance appeared to be a “fire sale” of 17 Kentucky distilleries among the many it owned or controlled.  Hostile press accounts cheered that the auction signaled the demise of the syndicate. But did it?

The Trust distilleries “on the auction block” included producers of well-known Kentucky bourbon brands.  Among them were five, each facility captured in an illustration below. 

Keller Company, Cynthiana, KY:  Established as early as 1840 by Abraham Keller, this distillery, operated under his management for two decades, brought him fame throughout Kentucky and beyond.  Although Keller sold the facility before the out break of the Civil War, subsequent owners kept his name on the company.  Acquired by the Trust in 1902, its executives continued to market A. Keller whiskeys. By 1910 they had expanded the distillery, shown below,  to increase mashing capacity to 450 bushels a day and warehouse capacity to capacity to more than 30,000 barrels.

W.H. McBrayer, Lawrenceville, Ky.  William Harrison McBrayer, called Judge McBrayer, is credited with being among the handful of Kentucky distillers who raised the quality and image of the state’s whiskey to international renown.  His Cedar Creek brand was called:  “The whiskey that made the crowned heads of Europe turn from Scotch to bourbon.”  In 1900 McBrayer heirs sold the distillery to the Trust.  By then, as shown below, it had three ironclad warehouses and a number of outbuildings.

J. M. Atherton Co., Knob Creek, Ky. After the conclusion of the Civil War, John Atherton, 26 years old, built a new distillery on the bank of Knob Creek and gave it his own name. Shown below, this plant was capable of processing one hundred bushels a day to make about seven barrels of what was known as “sweet mash” whiskey.  In 1869 he purchased an interest in a small distillery owned by a man named Thompson and the next year bought him out entirely.  Atherton moved this facility to the east bank of Knob Creek, across from his first distillery, calling it the Mayfield Distillery.  As a harbinger of the philanthropic efforts in his future, Atherton created homes, a school and a church for his workers at both plants, calling the complex “Athertonville.”

T. J. McGibben, Cynthiana, Ky.  During the 1850s, McGibben brought a distillery he called “Edgewater” and named his flagship brands “Edgewater Sour Mash Whiskey” and “Edgewater Rye.” As sole owner, Megibben lost no time in improving and enlarging the distillery.   It was expanded over time into a large complex, featuring five warehouses with the capacity to hold 25,000 barrels of aging whiskey.   McGibben’s whiskey was one of the Kentucky brands featured at the 1893 Columbian World’s Fair in Chicago.  Subsequently a Kentucky publication boasted that Edgewater Whiskey “is to be found in nearly every first-class hotel and bar in this country.”

Wiley Searcy, Anderson County Ky.  In 1886 Searcy is recorded as having purchased a distillery that had been established in Anderson County in 1818   When Searcy bought it, according to insurance records,  the distillery was of frame construction with a metal or slate roof. The property included two bonded warehouses.  The Captain wasted no time in advertising his “Old Joe” brand of whiskey.    His product contained “no jug yeast,” he claimed and was “The best whisky that can be made.”


These were just five of the many Kentucky distilleries acquired by the Trust over time and shut down, leaving scores of distillery workers without jobs, in the syndicate’s effort to corner American whiskey production.  By 1918, however, the Trust had suffered a number of setbacks.  Its efforts at gobbling up the rye distilleries of Pennsylvania and Maryland failed.  A strong backlash among distillers and whiskey blenders led to new competition.  The WWI ban on alcohol sales for beverages threatened production.  Last, but by no means least, prohibitionary forces had dried up markets in many states and localities.   

The “fire sale” approach by the Trust, however, was deceptive.  As the terms of sale advertised in the Louisville Courier Journal clearly stated:  ”There will be reserved from sale all distilled spirits now in bond on any of said premises.”  In addition to continuing to owning that whiskey the Trust retained the right to bottle and market it under established brand names, apparently in perpetuity.  In effect, the Trust was selling its liabilities — shuttered distilleries — while keeping the assets — the stored whiskey — for itself.  Moreover, the longer that whiskey aged, the more valuable it became.   

The Eastern financiers behind the effort to monopolize the whiskey market further refocused their efforts in March 1919 by incorporating the Kentucky Distilling and Warehouse Company and other holdings into the Distillers Security Corporation.  That entity owned or controlled 13 active plants located in Peoria and Pekin, Illinois; Louisville, Baltimore and New Orleans.  Other distilleries were converted to manufacture “cereal products, food and feed products, syrups, alcohol, yeast, vinegar, glace fruits, fruit butters, malt, etc.”    Management was under the aegis of another new entity, the U.S. Food Products Corporation.   

Yet another Trust subsidiary was organized explicitly to sell whiskey abroad called  the “Trans-Oceanic Commercial Corporation” with offices at 25 Broadway, New York City.  It was incorporated at $1,000,000 to “carry on an export business in whiskies, spirits, alcohol and other products.”  The canny “money men” guiding the fortunes of the Trust believed that impending National Prohibition might offer them better opportunities by selling liquor overseas.  

Those machinations have been described in detail by Laura Field, a Philadelphia-based whiskey specialist, who has reviewed the tangled story of the Trust in detail.  She notes:  The Kentucky Distillers and Warehouse Co. was well positioned after Prohibition as the largest holder of aged whiskey stocks in Kentucky. The Whiskey Trust created their own consolidation warehouses to bring as much of their assets into nine warehouse locations in Kentucky.”  

The U.S. Food Products Company and the Kentucky Distilleries and Warehouse Company were merged in 1924 by the New York money men to become National Distillers.  Field relates:  “In 1933, when Repeal became imminent, National Distillers began to buy up any remaining/available aged whiskey stocks in the United States. Two Pennsylvania distillery locations with large rye whiskey stocks remaining were purchased….”  Rye supplies earlier denied the syndicate now had come under control of this Trust clone.  By 1934,  National Distillers had cornered about half of all the Nation’s aged whiskey just as National Prohibition ended.

Field believes that the history of the Whiskey Trust’s was “riddled with corruption.”  Its tortured history bears her out.  The 1918 sale that shut many of the most prestigious Kentucky distilleries resulted in attracting only a single bid, one submitted by a Trust “insider” group of investors.  Reviewing that outcome the New York World  commented:   “The Whiskey Trust’s plan of reorganization is as unlawful as a burglary.”  Indeed!

Notes:  To learn more about Laura Field, shown here, check out her personal blog, Dram Devotees.  She has done excellent research into areas of whiskey production both historical and contemporary.  Earlier posts on each of the five distillers featured above may be found elsewhere on this website:    Keller, Aug. 1, 2017; McBrayer, Oct. 2, 2011;  Atherton, Feb. 12, 2015; McGibben, Sept. 26, 2015; and Searcy, June 22, 2013.

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Leon Kuhn’s Long Road to Mexico — and Back


Born into a well-off family in the waning days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire,  Leon Kuhn, shown here, found his way from Hungary to America, working in the whiskey trade in several Midwestern cities before seizing the opportunity to open a distillery near Mexico City.  That enterprise would make him rich, but later was destroyed in brutal civil conflict.  Kuhn’s story is the stuff of which novels are made.

According to their own lore,  the Kuhn family originally was Swiss, involved in the shipbuilding industry.  Possibly because Switzerland is landlocked, the ancestors “for better business prospects” moved to the city of Arad, shown below, a major city in the Austro-Hungarian Empire with a Jewish population of more than 10,000.  There Leon was born in 1854.

Of the boy Leon, little is known.  He was given a good education, including a period at the prestigious Technical University of Dresden where he studied chemistry, a subject directly related to his career.  Meanwhile, in the early 1870s his two brothers, seeking to avoid conscription in the army of Emperor Franz Joseph, left for America, settling in Texas.  At the age of 19, Leon followed, sailing from Bremen in August 1873 aboard the Kronprince Wilhelm.  

Kuhn’s early residence and occupation has gone unrecorded but it appears that at least for a time he was living in Pennsylvania and possibly using his chemistry background to good effect in distilling.  A sole clue is his having obtained American citizenship in Meadville, Pennsylvania, a notable center for the production of rye whiskey.  Kuhn then seemingly moved to Cleveland, Ohio.

In 1881, Kuhn made a return trip to Europe.  His passport description recorded his height at 5’ 11” and his eyes blue.  On a visit to Budapest he met Theresa Edmunda de Prorok, a young woman from a wealthy family, who was spending the summer there. They fell in love and in on May 1, 1881, the couple were married in England.  Leon was 26; Theresa, 21.  

After their honeymoon, the couple lived in Cleveland where their daughter Alice May was born.  Soon after Kuhn saw better opportunities in the Cincinnati area, at the time the center of the American liquor industry.  The couple settled in Covington, Kentucky, just across the Ohio River.  Their sons were born there,  Alfred in 1884 and Leonard in 1888.  A Covington business directory in 1886 listed Kuhn as “distiller,” likely working for one of the sixty organizations listed as distilleries in the Cincinnati area.

Kuhn’s reputation in the liquor industry was growing, becoming known for his ability as a yeastmaker.  Whiskey guru Michael Veach has emphasized the importance of well-prepared yeast to the final product.  Even if the contribution of yeast is only 5%, he says:  “…It is a vital component to the whiskey.  Think of it this way — adding salt to a dish is a small part of the overall taste, but if there is too little or too much it is noticed in the taste.  The same can be said for yeast in whiskey — the wrong yeast will be noticed.”

That is what the American Spirits Manufacturing Co., an arm of the “Whiskey Trust,” apparently was thinking in 1888 when it reached out from Peoria, Illinois, to ask Kuhn to join its distilling team.  ASM recently had purchased from John H. Francis several properties, including the Monarch Distilling Company, below, a facility Francis personally had built in Peoria.  Not related to the Monarch distilleries of Kentucky, the Illinois Monarch has been described as “operating at certain times of the year for the manufacture of whiskies, gins and spirits.”  The Wine and Spirits Bulletin of February 1903 included the Monarch, shown below, with other Trust properties in declaring:  “These distilleries will eventually furnish the trade throughout the United States with cheap Bourbons that heretofore have been manufactured in Kentucky but of late years in Peoria.”

Over the next dozen years, with the Monarch Distillery as his headquarters Kuhn built a reputation in Peoria as a leading yeastmaker and distiller for the Whiskey Trust.  Increasing affluence allowed him to house his family in the large frame home.    It also brought him into the inner workings of the Trust itself during the years 1888 to 1895, its heyday.  The syndicate produced 300.4 million gallons of alcohol — 75 percent of that produced in the United States.   With a seeming stranglehold on American whiskey production the Trust responded by raising prices, in part to help pay off extravagant bonuses they earlier had promised to distillers who joined.  It backfired. The combine slowly slid into bankruptcy.

By 1894 Kuhn apparently could see the impending demise of the Trust.  He began to look around for other opportunities.  His brothers earlier had left Texas and gone to Mexico.  As he looked “South of the Border” Kuhn saw a possible opportunity.  In September he made an exploratory visit to Mexico City.  After several weeks of investigation, he concluded that the possibilities were great in Mexico for the distilling business.

Kuhn’s next step was to get assured financial backing from East Coast “money men.”  He may have had an advantage there from his earlier stint in Pennsylvania where he possibly had met Francis V. Strauss, a capitalist who operated from Philadelphia and New York City.  Strauss, assuming the role of senior partner, assembled a group of investors who agreed to back Kuhn’s initiative in Mexico.

Armed with those assurances and his own reputation as a distiller, Kuhn was afforded an interview with Mexican president, General Porfirio Diaz.  His timing was propitious.  Díaz's regime had ended years of political instability and was attempting to achieve growth after decades of economic stagnation. The President fostered a group of technocrats known as científicos ("scientists"), whose economic policies were tailored to benefit his allies and foreign investors.  The latter were offered Industrias Nuevas contracts, part of a program by Diaz to encourage investment from abroad.

Diaz was willing to give the Strauss, Kuhn Compania a monopoly on manufacturing and sales of whiskey and other alcohol products in Mexico so long as the Presidente was given a fifth of the firm for himself and his son.  The partners agreed.  By August, 1895, the Chicago Chronicle newspaper reported that Kuhn was in Mexico supervising construction of a distillery capable of producing 5,000 gallons of spirits daily.  It was located on the right bank of the Viga Canal on the outskirts of Mexico City near the Indian village of Santa Anita.  The distillery was named “Le Grande Union.”

Kuhn shipped material for the building and equipment from Peoria on 26 train cars.  A correspondent for the Chronicle visited the site, described as “a busy scene”:  “Boilers, pumps, iron tanks, lumber, etc., are piled around and are conveyed to the site by the natives.  Gangs of men are busy erecting buildings of solid masonry, the machine shops, warehouses, and a malthouse over 100 feet long being nearly completed.   The foundations of a large mill building four stories high are now in progress.”

The newspaper reported that  the property contained barns to accommodate as many as 800 to 1,000 head of cattle.  As was common with distilleries in the United States the cows would be fed from the spent grain mash.  The owners expected the distillery to be finished and in operation by October, 1895. Below is an illustration of the completed complex.  The Strauss, Kuhn distillery was a most impressive facility.

The enterprise was a family affair.  Gustave Strauss, likely a brother of Francis, born in Switzerland and educated in Germany, was an officer of the distillery while keeping a New York City address.  Francis Strauss visited frequently but also resided in the States.  At least one of Kuhn’s brothers, Fred, was on the scene in Mexico to assist and the Kuhn sons were enlisted when they completed their schooling.   Kuhn was so keen that his children should get excellent European educations that he bought a house in Paris for them to live.  From passport records he seems to have visited them frequently.  After graduation his eldest son Alfred dutifully moved to Mexico to assist at the distillery. 

The second son, Leonard (“Leo”), at the direction of his father had been sent  to England for postgraduate training in business.  The expectation was that he too would join the distillery management team.  Although Leo went to Mexico in 1907, his daughter related,  he determined “…He was not cut out for business, preferring the arts instead.”  Shown here, Leo painted pictures he never sold, avoided the liquor business, and lived off family money.

For the next 18 years the Strauss, Kuhn “Grande Union,” the only distillery of its kind in Mexico and holding a monopoly on whiskey and alcohol production, proved to be a highly lucrative enterprise.  It also proved a boon to Squire Turner Willis and the whiskey he was producing at his Glen Springs Distillery in Woodford County, Kentucky.  Although the Mexican populace favored tequila as its liquor of choice, whiskey was making inroads, particularly among the wealthy.  Through trade cards and other forms of advertising, Kuhn featured the S.T. Willis brand, bottled at the Mexican plant.

As the years passed, Mexico increasingly was driven by unrest, resulting from civil repression, regional conflicts, strikes and other uprisings from labor and the peasantry.  Both had been left behind economically.  The year 1910 marked the beginning of “The Mexican Revolution,” a conflict between government and rebel groups, struggling among themselves for power.  In 1913, the revolution came to the Strauss, Kuhn distillery.  Likely seen as a symbol of the hated Porfirio Diaz or “Yankee imperialism,” rebels attacked and destroyed the plant.

Leaving his brother Fred to watch over the ruins, Leon Kuhn left Mexico and returned to the United States.  After order had been restored by the Carranza government, Kuhn returned to Mexico in 1916.  The purpose he said on his passport application was “looking after investments.”   Kuhn may have been seeking compensation from the new government for the destruction of his distillery.  There is no indication he was successful.

Two years later, on Christmas Day 1918, Kuhn died in Boston, perhaps on a visit to his daughter, Alice May, who was living there.  His will, written on New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel stationary, listed assets of $500,000 (equivalent to almost $10 million today) in a New York bank, bank accounts in Europe, the house in Paris, and properties in Mexico.  Perhaps wishfully, Kuhn also counted as assets 378,500 pesos worth of shares in the now defunct and destroyed Distillery Grande Union.

Although Leon Kuhn’s long road to Mexico ended badly, his role as a pioneer in whiskey history cannot be denied.  He was the first American distiller to venture “south of the Border” and for almost two decades prospered.  He showed the way to other whiskey-makers like Mary Dowling, Peter McGowan, and John Casper who moved their operations to Mexico in response to America’s National Prohibition of the 1920s and early 1930s.

Note:  This post owes its origin from information sent me by Michael Tarabulski, an archivist working for the National Archives in St. Louis.  He also graciously provided me with the pictures of Leon Kuhn and his distillery.  Thanks also are due Aileen Blomgren, who is steeped in all whiskey matters connected with the name “Monarch.”  She sent me materials crucial to this post, including the Chicago Chronicle article.