At the end of the 19th Century Century, Cincinnati, Ohio, was the center of the Nation’s whiskey trade. In 1881 the ten leading Cincinnati liquor producers announced that their output for the prior year was 1.8 million gallons on which $103 million in taxes had been paid. Boasting the most wholesale liquor houses in America, Cincinnati presented a scene of intense competition to sell liquor. Late onto this stage arrived two men intent on success. One was a German immigrant named Max Halle; the other, Richard Kuhn, the Cincinnati-born son of a wealthy banker. Together they wrote the saga of the Sherbrook Distillery Company.
Born in Germany in March 1863, Max M. Halle at the age of 22 left his native land and immigrated to the United States, settling in Cincinnati, a town with a strong German population, many involved in the whiskey trade. Halle soon found employment, at one point working for the Turner-Looker Company, a local liquor house known for its hyper-aggressive marketing and advertising practices. As recorded in the 1900 federal census, Halle at 37 was a bachelor, living in a Ward 9 Cincinnati boarding house.
During the late 1890s, as Turner-Looker was undergoing corporate change, Halle decided to strike out on his own and in 1898 opened a liquor business at 104 West Second Street. Initially he called the enterprise Halle & Company but soon changed the name to Sherbrook Distillery Company. in 1905 he also trademarked his flagship brand, Murray Hill, along with the puzzling image for the company that opens this post. Halle’s formal description of his logo reads: “The representation of a still in action, on which is the word ‘Sherbrook’ and a man in a colonial costume smoking a large pipe working the same. A cloud effect with a face surrounded by a sunrise, all enclosed in a band-shaped border, in the upper part of which are the words ‘Sherbrook Distilling Co.” Whew!
An early sign that the proprietor was having a difficult time getting established in the overcrowded world of Cincinnati booze was a story in Newspaperdom, an organ of advertising sales. It reported that Halle was “posing as an advertising agent” for Sherbrook in order to obtain the agent’s commission on his own business. That was a “no no.” Halle also seems to have been designing his own advertising materials as exemplified by the envelope above. It features a photo of a distillery (not Halle’s), a strange laughing face and a distinctly unusual slogan: “Drink Sherwood…Laugh and Grow Fat.”
Halle’s major stray from the norm was his 1902 open letter addressed to “Whiskey Buyers of America,” shown right. In it he broke a cardinal rule of the liquor trade: Do not denigrate your competition in print. Instead, under his own signature and with underlining, Halle wrote: “So many Saloonkeepers have been imprudent enough to allow themselves to be carried by Wholesale houses, others have been prejudiced by unscrupulous and untruthful salesmen, others again have had undesirable experiences with mail order houses of little or no standing and less principle….”
Certainly Halle’s competition must have gotten wind of his attacks and made known their displeasure. He likely found himself a pariah in the trade, further affecting business prospects. Fortunately, he had befriended a young protege with deep pockets named Robert Kuhn, shown here. Born in Cincinnati in 1868 Kuhn was the son of a wealthy Polish immigrant and Cincinnati banker, Samuel Kuhn. Drawn to the liquor business, Kuhn learned the trade initially at the Fleischmann distillery and later at Turner-Looker where he met and befriended Halle. In 1906 the Wine & Spirits Bulletin reported that Kuhn had bought Sherwood Distilling and added cryptically that Halle “will soon go to Europe for a long rest.” I have found no evidence that Halle ever came back.
Meanwhile Kuhn was proving to be a savvy liquor wholesaler. Like other Cincinnati dealers, he hatched a veritable “blizzard” of labels, adding to Halle’s “Murray Hill” and “Sherbrook” at least 45 other brands of whiskey for sale. With the success of Canadian Club on the U.S. market, labels with “Club” in the title were appearing everywhere. Kuhn caught the tide with "Acme Club,” "Bachelor Club,” "Berkshire Club Rye,” “Campbell Club,” and "College Club.” He also christened whiskeys after well-recognized names: “Cracker Jack,” “Mail Pouch,” “Red Cross,” and “West Point.” Eight of Kuhn’s brands contained “Old” in the title.
Was each of these whiskeys made from an individualized recipe? That would have been virtually impossible. The differences likely were just in the labels. Kuhn published them lavishly in a catalogue for both his local and mail order customers. Catalogue pages shown here above and below illustrate the art work that distinguished the brands from one another, even if the flavor of the whiskeys likely was much the same.
To be competitive in the Cincinnati environment required a wholesaler to provide advertising giveaways to his customers. Those generally would be saloons, restaurants, and hotels, with good retail customers gifted from time to time. Kuhn’s principal give-aways were shot glasses emblazoned with the names of his major brands, as displayed below.
Active as both president and treasurer, Kuhn raised Sherbrook Distilling Co. into the upper ranks of Cincinnati wholesale liquor dealers. His market skills were notable, from the large, colorful and informative catalogue he offered, to the well designed labels that graced his whiskey bottles and his attractive shot glasses.
At the same time, however, Kuhn was battling the forces of prohibition that gradually cut off markets in Ohio and elsewhere through the use of “local option” by counties and cities to go “dry.” The final blow came in 1917 when Ohio voted a statewide ban on making or selling alcohol. When the law took effect in 1918, Kuhn shut the doors on Sherbrook Distilling, never again to open them. His brands were history.
Unlike many of his colleagues in the liquor trade, Kuhn did not undertake any new occupation but apparently enjoying ample financial resources, he simply retired at age fifty— or so he attested on a passport application. Robert had a lot to go home to. In November 1893, age 25, he had married Nellie Feiss, a local Cincinnati woman, 22. They would have three children. Robert Jr., born in 1894, Edward L. 1896, and Harriet K., 1903. To house his family, Kuhn purchased a large Cincinnati home at 507 Prospect Place, shown here as it looks today.
Still vigorous in his early 50s, Kuhn also took the opportunity to travel. His 1923 passport application outlined a highly ambitious travel schedule with Nellie to Europe, including the British Isles, Germany, France, Italy, Belgium and Austria, and to the Middle East including Egypt, Palestine and Algiers. The couple embarked from New York City to cross the Atlantic aboard the steamship Lapland, shown below. This extensive holiday was indication of Kuhn’s wealth. My surmise is that Robert and Nellie would have occupied a first class cabin on the top deck.
There, however, Robert Kuhn fades into the mists of history. One source set his year of death as 1934, when he would have been 66 and witnessed the Repeal of National Prohibition. But I have found nothing to substantiate that dating. Nor have I found any information about his and Nellie’s place of burial. My hope is that some alert descendant will see this post and help fill in the blanks.
As a final observation about this “Cincinnati saga,” it occurs to me that it sets the usual whiskey man story upside down. Usually it is the canny immigrant who triumphs in the American liquor trade by dint of his intelligence and hard work while the “rich kid” proprietor sometimes has been left in the dust. In the saga of Sherbrook Distilling, the immigrant Max Halle never quite found his footing in the high-powered competition of Cincinnati whiskey. By contrast, Robert Kuhn, the scion of a wealthy Cincinnati family, comfortably understood how success was achieved in that environment — and prospered.
Note: This post was compiled from a wide number of sources, most importantly ancestry.com. Posts on Turner-Looker Company may be found on this website at December 4, 2017, and on Fleischmann Distillery at March 28, 2012.