Sunday, July 3, 2016

Cedar Brook Plankington Reserve - The Whiskey at the Intersection of Old Judge McBreyer's and the Whiskey Trust's Julius Kessler's Stories

Cedar Brook Plankington Reserve - photo by Chad Hartsfield
Bourbon, like America, evolved from humble roots on frontier farms to something big and industrial which, in the era of America's robber barons, meant trusts.  Farmers were replaced by corporate titans.  This is a story of two men who owned a particular Anderson County, Kentucky, distillery - Cedar Brook - at different times.  A new kind of American hero was replacing an older one.

A Cedar Brook ad from the early days of the Bottled In Bond Act - under Kessler's control.

Old Judge McBreyer

"Old Judge" William Harrison McBrayer was born in 1821 into a family of 11 children in a log cabin on the frontier, a mere generation after Kentucky became a state.  W.H. McBrayer was a true native Kentucky son.  Both his father and his grandfather probably made whiskey on their family spreads.  By the age of 18 he had joined his brothers in owning and running a general store in Lawrenceburg, KY (an Anderson County town about a dozen miles west of Lexington.  He used the proceeds to buy a parcel of land in the early 1840s from a freed slave who had inherited the land from his owners who had died childless.  He started off raising cattle there - and operating a still on the spread in the way he had been raised.  Sam Cecil reckons distilling operations started in around 1844.  It was RD No. 44 in Kentucky's 8th district.  I wonder what that whiskey tasted like.  I imagine it might have been pretty good, at least by the standards of the day, because he became popular enough that he was elected Judge of the county in 1851.  He would be referred to by that title for the rest of his life.  By 1856 he had parlayed that influence into a seat in the State Senate.  He was able to put more money into upgrading the distillery operation on his spread.  By 1861 Cedar Brook appears as a registered trademarked whiskey brand.  The details of the story about he created a superior product that we would recognize as fine Bourbon today are not known to me - but he had created something which impressed a global audience in the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia.  That show was of major significance.  It was the first World's Fair on US soil in the golden era of World's Fairs and to win the whisky category's gold medal must have been a very big deal.  It shows up in family histories to this day.  McBrayer bought the distiller at the time, Newton Brown, a gold watch as a reward.  
The Centennial Exhibition Award Medal - 1876
Business was good and the distillery expanded again to 570 bushels a day by 1887.  In December of 1888 W.H. McBrayer died, still at the helm of his distillery - and a strange inheritance drama played out because in his will he specified that he allowed his heirs to use his name in association with whiskey for only three years and then he wanted his name removed from what came after.  Was he a religious man who didn't want his name to stand for whiskey?  He was an officer in a teetotaler church and his widow had anti-liquor views (a bit ironically given her source of income).  This story is admirably told by Sullivan on Pre-Pro Whiskey Men blog:
"Moore, as manager of the distillery and co-executor of the Judge’s will with the widow, 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 Cedar Brook. While their opinion suggested that the quality of the whiskey had suffered with the Judge’s death, they agreed with Moore that he had never intended to disadvantage his beloved grandchildren. The McBrayer name stuck."

His son in law Colonel D.L. Moore, who was already in the whiskey business, ran it for a few years and then sold it to the Whiskey Trust in 1899.  The trust expanded it again to 1800 bushels a day. Meanwhile, the term "Old Judge" became associated with whiskey broadly - and a host of copycat brands used the term - hoping to catch some of the glamour of of the quality of what William Harrison McBrayer had created in his lifetime - exactly what McBrayer had been trying to avoid.

The irony is that Judge McBreyer didn't want his name associated with whiskey.
Kessler went whole hog on marketing Cedarbrook's whiskey.
Ad in El Paso Morning Times (El Paso, Tex.), Thursday, September 11, 1913

Julius Kessler

Julius Kessler was a Hungarian Jew, born in Budapest in 1855, who had immigrated to the US and came to dominate the Colorado whiskey trade in the mining boom era of the 1870s.  By 1899 when Julius Kessler bought Cedar Brook, he was a major veteran of the whiskey business and had become among the most powerful people in the industry.  He had led the reorganization of the remnants of Joseph Benedict Greenhut's first whiskey trust - the Distillers & Cattle Feeders' Trust - in 1896 and named the new entity, initially, "The American Spirits Manufacturing Company".  In 1899 the Kentucky Distillers and Warehouse Company emerged out of a complicated merger of 4 different companies including "The Distilling Company of America".  The complexity of the corporate formation was necessitated by the need to evade Federal attention.  Thus, the reboot of the Whiskey Trust required a lot of paper trail cover.  To understand that we have to go back a decade.  The first Whiskey Trust ran from 1887 to 1895.  The largest distillery in the world, Greenhut's Great Western, and 65 other distilleries merged to form the Distillers & Cattle Feeders' Trust with the goal of controlling the price of the commodity alcohol.  The problem was a large number of small distillers who dumped onto the market without tactics or control, lowering prices at awkward times.  The Trust aimed to buy them all up and close down the smaller less efficient ones and run the larger more efficient ones to higher profits.  The problem was that whiskey distillers were ornery people and many chose not to sell out.  The usual array of strongarm tactics were employed: threats, arson, killings, lawsuits.  Trusts were the Zeitgeist of the era and social reformers battled them.  The Sherman AntiTrust act of 1890 began the legal edifice which ultimately tore it down.  Greenhut bailed out in 1895 under the heat of Federal prosecution.  Kessler found a way to assemble the trust back to together and evade prosecution.

In that same year of establishment of the new Trust, 1899, Kessler also purchased Cedar Brook.  He renamed "Cedar Brook" "Kessler" and made its Bourbon his namesake product.  The Bottled in Bond Act had just passed in 1897 and Kessler made the most of it in his advertising.  He upgraded Kessler Distillery and was trying to build something big.  The first two decades of the 20th century were the good times.  Kessler advertised extensively and Cedar Brook was his top of the line.  True, the whiskey trust wasn't effective in controlling commodity alcohol prices, but whiskey was a good volume business in that era.  But it wasn't long until it was all shut down by Prohibition in 1920.  Kessler tried his hand selling women's underwear - but only a year later - 1921 - he had decided to give it up and retire to Austria (in some versions it's back to Hungary).   He languishes in the Old World - apparently running out money until 1934 when Sam Bronfman brought him out of retirement to front a huge new brand roll out.  The brand sold big and old man Kessler made a fortune and died rich in 1940 - with an obituary in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.
Kessler's portrait on a Repeal era mini bottle on

The big question in that story is why Bronfman chose Kessler.  Many Jews had produced major and important brands of American whiskey (Kessler no less than anyone.)  But no one had ever put one of their Jewish names on any of the brands.  Kessler himself had gone with the court fought value of the name of Old Judge McBreyer when selling his own whiskey.  Now, in the first dawn of Repeal Bronfman was putting the might of Seagram's behind branding for a product that was always conceived of as a blend: i.e. a mix of Bourbon and grain neutral spirits (vodka).  Blends are always about glamour - and Sam Bronfman paid Kessler a fortune to be the name and face and ambassador of the brand.

Maybe it was the romantic story of Kessler's early career?

One liquor store site says - paraphrasing the WSJ obituary:  "Julius Kessler (born Gulag Kessler) ... is said to have gone saloon to saloon selling more whiskey than any man alive...  He personally used pack mules to haul whiskey over the Colorado Mountains to many thirsty silver miners in Leadville, Colorado."'

Another idea is that Bronfman may have been recognizing a kindred spirit in Kessler as a manager of the Whiskey Trust - with it's attempting to strong arm the market.  Bronfman played the same game.  There is the facts of their biographies:  both were Eastern European Jews who had come to the North America and had shot the moon in the liquor industry.  Or maybe it was just the whiskey itself.  Kessler had put his face all over Cedar Brook's whiskey advertising.  Maybe Bronfman loved the juice from the Kessler distillery (Cedar Brook) and felt that it was something that should be iconic.  The whole affair fills a section of  Stephen Birmingham's
"'The Rest of Us': The Rise of America's Eastern European Jews".  It's a fascinating story - with Kessler giving away the last of his money to a mysterious Hungarian and then embarrassingly trying to make a living by selling liquor consultancy services to American liquor barons.  Sam Bronfman didn't know Kessler, but apparently, after a visit by a mysterious Hungarian he created Kessler Distilling Corporation as a subsidiary of Seagrams with Julius Kessler as President and Seagram's Master Blender Calman Levine to create a special whiskey calculated to sell well in the marketplace.  Birmingham speculates that maybe Kessler "had something" on Bronfman - perhaps from back in their mobbed-up Prohibition days.  But he also recounts a warm friendship and an anecdote about Kesller giving his gold musical watch to little Edgar Bronfman who admired it.  There was a charming exchange reported where Kessler said "I'll give it to you on your Bar Mitzva", but when little Edgar replied "But you're an old man.  You might not be here for my bar mitzva", Kessler gave the child the watch on the spot.

Seagrams produced Kessler's Blended Whiskey until WWII when it was taken off the market because of the demands of the war effort for alcohol.  But by 1951 it was back with aged stocks and fresh grain neutral spirits.  When Seagrams began breaking up most of their brands went to Vivendi (Pernod Ricard) or Diageo (via United Distillers) but Kessler's ended up with Beam and thus to Beam Suntory.  Quietly, Kessler's - as a bottom shelf well whiskey - remains a huge seller.  According to Beam Suntory, it's the #2 selling blended American whiskey in world.

On Beam Suntory's official web site for the Kessler brand they say that Julius Kessler was known as "Uncle Julius".  They also say his whiskey has always said "smooth as silk" and that it delivers on this promise to this day.  It's a blended American whiskey with high 72.5% level of grain neutral spirits (same stuff as everclear).  Josh Peters, over at Whiskey Jug, tasted it and didn't much like it.  It's a sad legacy - but perhaps the fact that it's a huge seller with a lot of bulk grain alcohol in it is true to the aims of the Whiskey Trust.
The current Beam Suntory product - and image of Julius K. 
Kessler is a puzzling figure in many ways.  Both warm and generous, and also potentially coercive and powerful.  He exists in the nebulous area between the glamour of the old West and the mobbed up world of machine politics and violent business tactics common in the "Boardwalk Empire" world of the early days of the 20th century.  I suspect the truth is complex.  As it turns out, so was his whiskey.

A glimpse of both Kessler's style and the positioning of Cedar Brook can be seen in an interview one of his marketing managers gave an advertising journal in 1902:

January 1, 1902 issue of  Printer's Ink (a "Journal for Advertisers"):
"THE JULIUS KESSLER COMPANY SYSTEM As a contrast to the usual methods of selling whisky which is appeal to the consumer a demand is created to which dealer must respond witness method adopted by Julius & Company That concern operating an aggregation of distilleries attacks the dealer and is never diverted from straight object of inducing him buy in lots of five barrels or in bond."  ...
" Our leading brands for instance WH McBrayer's Cedar Brook Atherton and Sam Clay Whisky has previously been sold to wholesalers only and if to the retailer at all only in the shape of a blend containing a small percentage of this whisky mingled with other brands and while our brands were known to the wholesale trade their sale in bond direct to retailers thus assuring absolute purity found friends so rapidly that our success during the past two years has placed us beyond doubt at the top of the ladder in our line "

FYI - the brands of that era in Kessler's Company control were some of the biggest and most respected:
"Anderson County", "Belle of Marion", "Belle of Nelson", "Big Spring", "Blue Grass", "Bond & Lillard", "Boone County", "Camp Nelson", "Cedar Run", "Chicken Cock", "Coon Hollow", "E L Miles", "Honeymoon Whiskey", "Hume Bourbon", "J B Wathen", "J M Mattingly", "J N Blackmore", "New Hope", "Old A Keller", "Old Boone's Knoll", "Old Darling", "S P Lancaster", "Spring Hill", "Sweetwood", "T B Ripy", "Taylor Whitehead", and "Wm Appleton & Co.."
So - what did that legendary old pre-Prohibition Cedar Brook taste like?  Well, thanks to whiskey enthusiast Chad Hartsfield, I actually had the opportunity to taste from a bottle of it that he opened.  Chad also has a 2 gallon carboy that is up for auction at Christie's right now:

FYI - all the carboy and bottle pics to follow are Chad's photos (with the exception of the sample bottle and filled glass tasting note pic which is mine).

Chad's carboy currently on sale at Christie's.  Spring 1903-1915

Chad Hartsfield
Plankinton Reserve was the name of several bottlings of 10 and 12 year old bourbon distilled around 1902-1904 and bottled 1912-1916. I don't know much more about it than that - except that bottles and 2 gallon carboys and boxes infrequently turn up on auction sites - such as the old pre-liquor ban Ebay (some photos at the very bottom of this post). I didn't have a theory about Plankington Reserve but Chad Hartsfield did.  Chad had heard that "Plankington Reserve" was a special premium aged version of Cedar Brook made for Milwaukee's Plankington Hotel.  How do we know?  Well, John Plankington was one of the midwest's leading industrialists.  A guy who built a meat packing empire on sausage and canned ham in Milwaukee as an only slightly smaller version of what the Armour brothers were doing in Chicago at the time.  The Plankinton house itself was a grand edifice which has had at least 3 major incarnations over its century and a half of existence.  The photo below is of the form it would have had in the first decade of the 20th century when the Plankinton Reserve would have been sold there.

"In 1868, John Plankinton, founder and owner of the Plankinton Meat Packing Company, erected the Plankinton House Hotel on what is now the corner of Wisconsin and Plankinton Avenues. In 1915, the building was razed and the hotel was rebuilt just south of the original structure. In its place was built the Plankinton Arcade, which consists of the basement and first two stories of the current building."

Plankington Hotel circa 1889
But how do we know that the Plankinton reserve bottlings were really meant for the Plankinton House Hotel?  A strong piece of independent circumstantial evidence is found in the tax statement on Chad Hartsfield's 2 gallon carboy.  As the photo below (Chad's photo) shows - it's a Wisconsin tax statement.
Wisconsin tax strip backs up Plankington Hotel theory.

Wisconsin's First District is in the southeast corner of the State - forming the southern part of Milwaukee itself.  This is strong evidence, indeed, that the Plankinton Reserve was really made for the Plankinton House Hotel.

Cedar Brook Plankinton Reserve - 1902-1916 (or possibly 1914)

Color:  medium coppery amber
Nose:  Phenolic, sweet and nutty.  Toffee, leather, corn, acetone, and sweet straw lead off, with sawn oak, vegetable oil, dried marigolds, bourbon vanilla pods, and chamomile underneath.  Elegant, herbal, and inviting.

Palate: It starts on bright sweet, vegetal tree sap sweetness, along with its tannin edge.  Bright heat and rich mouth feel give a 50% abv BiB sense of high proof.  Rich dark toffee with molasses and big black greasy vanilla influence glows honeyed sweet in the expansion.  There are coconut lignan flavors, along with bright herbal flavors of corn shucks, dried flowers, and sun dried meadows iterating that sweetness.  Herbal rye flavors creep in as we get close to the turn to the finish along with some effervescent mouth feel - almost like how carbonation feels.  I'd wager this was made from a high rye mash bill.  At the turn to the finish the oak hits and there is a bitter tannin note, along with a sense of oak char's bitterness.  I have no doubts that the age statement on the bottle is true.  This drinks like a mature 14 year old Bourbon. The finish is long, with a an interplay of the toffee sweetness and a whole ton of dark herbal flavors like the shadowy ivy places past the shed heading into the forest.  I get a feeling some of these dark bitter herbals have something to do with long maturation in barrels made of old growth wild oak.  The green and gamey taste of those trees sometimes get tagged as "wintergreen" but I read it more as "ivy and forest weeds".   I confess that I love how it plays against the rich dark sweet bourbon flavors up front.

Sniffing the glass after it's over reveals a richly oaked and sweet residual - almost like a sherried Scotch.

90 *****

How has age affected this century old dusty?  It's fresh.  The only tell as to age is that it starts to fade with extensive air time a bit more than I'd expect a contemporary BiB to fade.  Balanced, rich, dark Bourbon cut from the same cloth as 1960s-70s vintage Wild Turkey, or pre-mid-1980s dsp-ky-414 Old Forester, Old Prentice era Eagle Rare, or Old Taylor BiB from the 60s-70s.  None of the candied fruity sweetness of Yellowstone or IW Harper or Old Charter.  It's a big dark bruiser.  It has more herbal flavors and more obvious rye than the aforementioned dusties.  This darker, more herbal intensity might be the influence of old growth oak in the barrels where this bourbon spent a long time.  Old growth oak forests were still being cut down in that turn of the 20th century era.  Or it might be something to do with the production methods.  Corn and yeast strains from the Pre-Prohibition era are different than what followed for the most part.  A fresh and delicious peek at an old classic brand.  Might be a tad too bitter from herbal flavors, old growth oak wintergreen, and oak tannin.

Thanks, Chad, for a special opportunity to taste a bit of history.  In Cedar Brook we see the ambitions of two American whiskey pioneers.  They never met, but they shared a passion for a particular Bourbon flavor signature that was clearly and recognizably Bourbon - but was unique to a distillery that died with Prohibition.

Enjoy some more of Chad's photos of the historic carboy below...

Chad's other bottle (empty) was dated Spring 1903-1914

Stuff on Ebay previously:

Bottle (January 2015)  Ebay:

Box and Carboy in March 2015:

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Why I Am Going To The Water of Life Event - And You Should Too

Passionate whisky enthusiast Matt Lurin is hosting the second annual Water of Life whiskey event Thursday night 5/12/16 and it's not to be missed.  The event serves an important charitable cause, supporting the medical research charity Life Raft Group's efforts to cure Gastro Intestinal Stromal Tumors (GIST). It's a good cause and, as a fund raiser, the cost of admission is tax deductible. But that's not why you should go.  The whisky community is generous, and many people donated excellent whiskies and other prizes for a raffle at the culmination of the event.  Personally, I'm bringing a 1970s-80s I.W. Harper to donate.  My friend Joe Hyman of Skinner's spirit auctions is bringing some stuff too - for one of the VIP extra classes:

Joe Hyman is bringing this....
...and this.
They feed you at this event too - with a focus on some
unique food and whisky pairings.  One of the VIP program options is a cigar terrace where you get to smoke special cigars with some special whiskies.  Last year the cigars were amazing and the whiskies were even more tremendous.

Last year - hanging on the cigar terrace with good friends:
David Bailey, Compass Box rep (left) and Timothy Malia  
But those aren't the real reasons why you should go either.

There are going to be over a hundred whiskies being poured - and if you go you will have the opportunity to taste over 25 of them (and please don't drive after having 25 whiskies).  These are top expressions from the best distributors and distilleries.  It's a top tier show.  The format for the tastings are really special.  Rather than crowded at tables, you get to sit down with the brand ambassadors and have a relaxed set of drams.  It's a "speed dating" arrangement where after a while you switch tables to enjoy a new set of drams.  It's incredibly civilized and makes a big difference.  It's more relaxing and pleasurable than any other whisky show I've ever gone to.  There is also a terrific raffle afterwards with a lot of fantastic whisky and other great prizes.  Your odds of winning are very high given the numbers.

But that's not the ultimate reason you should go either.

For more about the event go to the event's web page:

Tickets aren't cheap (but, again, your purchase is a tax deductible donation for a very good cause):  $300 for standard admission.  11 whisky speed dates, initial cocktail and hors d'oevres hour at 6pm.  Dinner, dessert, and glencairn.  $375 for VIP which steps up to 13 whisky speed dates, with  some special VIP selections, premium VIP offerings to be found in exclusive roof seating areas and a cut crystal glencairn.  You can use discount codes for 24 more hours (until 5/11/16).  Here's one from the best web site for checking out NYC's whisky scene:  "NYCWHISKY"

Here is the link for tickets:

So - why should you go?  The people.  There are a TON of great NYC whisky people going to Matt's event.  There will be a ton of love in the room.  It's something you can feel and it colors the whole event.  I had an absolutely amazing time last year and I can't wait to go again.  See you there!

(FYI - The write up of last year's event on Coopered Tot:)

Matt Lurin - host of Water of Life

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Old Lancaster, Three Shawhans, and Boss Tom Pendergast

Bourbon's history includes farmers, pioneers, entrepreneurs, and industrialists.  It also sometimes includes operators, wise guys, and gangsters. Today's hero is a whole lot like Nucky Thompson from "Boardwalk Empire."

(Bottle photos credit: Chris Martin)

I  Tom Pendergast's Machine

Tom Pendergast (1872-1945) was born in a poor Irish immigrant family, the last of nine children.  He rose from working in his brother James' saloon in Kansas City to rule a vast political machine that controlled government patronage jobs, voting fraud, organized crime, law enforcement, and political policy in Missouri and ultimately sent a Senator to Washington who ended up as President of the United States.  Crime paid, but he got his comeuppance in the end.

Along the way, in 1938, Pendergast purchased a distillery called S.P. Lancaster in Bardstown, KY.  He gave it the name "Shawhan" - a storied distillery name from Missouri that he bought during Prohibition.  It wasn't surprising that Pendergast would have wanted a distillery.  His criminal activities during Prohibition had almost certainly involved a share of the bootlegging action.  Certainly whiskey oiled the saloon lifestyle in Kansas City in an era when a special type of Jazz was born; made famous by the likes of Count Basie, Walter Page, Bennie Moten, Lester Young, and the "Bird" himself, Charlie Parker.  Along the way, Pendergast briefly resurrected a some historic 19th century Kansas City whiskey brands one last brief time before they disappeared again into the darkness of history - carried along by the tide of social justice which routed Tom Pendergast out and put him in prison in an attempt to rid Missouri of systematic graft and political corruption.
Tom Pendergast depicted as the head of a machine
whose tentacles encompassed Kansas City - Daniel Fitzpatrick cartoon.

[St. Louis Post-Dispatch Editorial Cartoon Collection, March 31, 1939, The State Historical Society of Missouri]

In the era before Repeal, urban working class life centered around a peculiar institution that no longer exists:  the saloon, where laborers headed with the week's paycheck. In Kansas City, some saloons were the banks and the only way an immigrant got cash. Saloons offered prostitutes, gambling, music and entertainment and access to patronage jobs and gigs in organized crime.  Tom Pendergast was only 17 in 1889 when he arrived at his brother James' saloon, named after the race horse "Climax" (a sexual double entendre maybe) in "West Bottoms." "Big Jim" was active in the machine politics of the day and had a good deal of pull in the community.  Twenty years later, Tom inherited the saloon (and a couple of more besides) and the political influence.  Tom found it expedient to open T.J. Pendergast Wholesale Liquor Company. Look at him here in Howard G. Bartling's 1912 "Kansas City in Caricature" (pic below).

Tom Pendergast - owner of the 
T.J. Pendergast Wholesale Liquor Company - 
[Kansas City in Caricature]
But politics proved irresistible.  He ran for his brother's seat as Kansas City Alderman in 1911 - the year Big Jim died.  He won.  He controlled a wide section of KC - but he shared control over the immigrant machine political pie with another boss, Joseph Shannon. Pendergast's supporters were called "Goats" and Shannon's "Rabbits".  There was a truce with a 50-50 split agreement that lasted for several years.  In the end Shannon double crossed Pendergast and the Goats by giving all the jobs to the Rabbits for a time. It was a mistake.  By the mid 20s Pendergast's wards had a higher number of voters.  He got rid of Shannon in the following election cycle by getting control of the city council and then boxing him out for good.

Over the 20s and 30s Pendergast ruled Kansas City and Missouri politics with iron control.  He successfully fought the State government for control over Kansas City's police force over a period of several years with his proxy, City Manager Henry McElroy ("Old Pencil Neck") defunding the police, and driving a turf argument with the State for control all the way to the State Supreme Court which ultimately turned over the hen house to the foxes in granting control over KC's police to McElroy and Boss Tom.  He also had iron control over organized crime.  That included close associations with mob bosses like John "Brother Johnny" Lazia.  He wasn't above setting up competition among organized crime captains  such as that between  Lazia and Michael "Jimmy Needles" LaCapra which resulted in Lazia being fatally shot on the street as he stepped out of his car (with his family still inside it) by a car full of LaCapra's men.  McElroy's daughter was kidnapped by petty thugs in 1933 and later fell into a depression when her captors were caught and sentenced to death.  She had become friends with them.  Kansas City was a tough town.  It was notorious.  America's most corrupt city.

Harry Truman started off under Pendergast's umbrella as an elected judge in 1922 and was appointed a county official in 1926. While Truman stayed clean - and ran successfully for senator - he couldn't shake the implications of Boss Tom's corrupt control over the region.  In 1934, Huey Long mocked him on the Senate floor, greeting the new arrival as "the senator from Pendergast."

Pendergast's name on a box found in a secret
speakeasy stash found walled up a in KC home.
In Prohibition. Pendergast seems to have been connected to the illicit liquor business.  Recently a renovation in Kansas City turned up a secret room full of moonshine jugs and bottles.

"A hidden room in the basement. A tall steel vault door. Inside, a collection of approximately 40 empty jugs and liquor bottles, themselves awash in an almost ankle-deep tide of close to 1,000 corks, glass caps and stoppers."

"And a plank of wood from a wooden crate reading 'TJ Pendergast.'

Read more here:

Another awesome Daniel Fitzpatrick late 1930s cartoon
of Tom Pendergast for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

It all fits.  Pendergast's prior career as a liquor wholesaler and saloon owner had put him in directly contact with the network of liquor distribution prior to Prohibition.  With his organized crime connections and political control there is little doubt he was involved, or directly controlled, a lot of the illicit trade and production of alcohol in KC during that time.  There are millions of stories and rumors.  But the actual written accounts of history leave all that out.
Tom Pendergast's
1939 mug shot.

What they ended up actually getting Tom Pendergast on was tax evasion.  Reminiscent of the story of Al Capone - Pendergast's operation was clean as a whistle.  But the downfall was pure political dirty pool.  Pendergast had helped to create Missouri State Governor Lloyd Stark.  But Stark wanted to go to Washington as a Missouri Senator and Pendergast told him to stay put.  Stark helped get a Federal voter fraud investigation underway.  It resulted in 100s of firings and arrests.  It wasn't enough to take Pendergast down until in 1939 a Federal investigation found that Tom Pendergast had intervened on behalf of a consortium of insurance companies in a lawsuit involving the State of Missouri in exchange for $750,000 back in 1936.  Pendergast had failed to declare this on his taxes - so the IRS was able to put him in jail on tax evasion charges.  The affair was called "The Insurance Scam".  Pendergast was sentenced to 15 months in prison and 5 years of probation.  It didn't end his machine - but it was the beginning of the end.  Pendergast died in 1945.

II  Three Distilleries named "Shawhan"

Somewhere during Prohibition, Pendergast bought the name of the Shawhan distillery.  The name was prized by Pendergast because of its role in Kansas City's whiskey history.  George Shawhan, a man from Kentucky who understood Bourbon, had started a distillery called "Shawhan" on a farm in a place called Lone Jack, Missouri, after the Civil War.  (He had served with Morgan's Raiders cavalry on the side of the Confederacy).  He produced a number of brands but the best known one was "Shawhan Whiskey".  As his business grew he purchased a larger, more industrial distillery, in Weston, Missouri that had been started in 1856 by David Holladay, with management offices in Kansas City.   (Ben Holloday is another great story).  Shawhan sold out in 1908 (I'm not sure to who).  By the end of Prohibition Shawhan distillery in Weston MO was in Isadore Singer's hands.  In some accounts it had closed with Prohibition.  In others it still ran producing medicinal whiskey.   The Singer family apparently sold the name "Shawhan" to Pendergast and then renamed the Weston MO distillery "McCormick" after another distillery nearby.  Pendergast bought the brand name, apparently, because he believed that Repeal was going to take place and wanted the local Kansas City Shawhan brand name to use.  I like to imagine that it meant something to him - a saloon owner in the era of smoky backroom deals and sultry and vibrant jazz in great clubs in their 1930s heyday in Kansas City's bottoms.  In any case, in 1947, the distillery, still called "McCormick",  in Weston MO was sold to United Distillers for its old stocks.  They flipped it a few years later in 1950 to Cloud McRay, President of Midwest Grain Products.  The McCormick distillery has been owned by Ed Pechar and Mike Griesser since 1992 and continues to operate to this day making vodka, tequila, Platte Valley moonshine and Triple Crown Whiskey.  It has a claim to being the USA's oldest continuously operated distillery going all the way back to 1856.

So that's how Tom Pendergast came to purchase a newly rennovated distillery in 1938 in Bardstown, Kentucky and rename it "Shawhan" right away.  The distillery he bought was in  Nelson County's 5th District.  From the 1840s until 1919 it was known as S. P. Lancaster, RD No. 415  This wasn't the original S.P Lancaster distillery though.  That one had been built as a farm distillery in 1850 by J.M. "Matt" Lancaster on Plum Run Road (south of Bardstown about 5 miles).  The railroad came through Bardstown in 1860 and Matt's brother Sam wanted to move close to the railroad.  Sam bought  a parcel of land near the railroad containing a spring called "Old Blue Talbott" (after the family who owned the farm originally on the land).  Matt didn't want to move - so they didn't.  But when he died in 1881, Sam moved the distillery right away.  It thrived and grew over the late 19th century in the new location. The primary brand over this period was "Old Lancaster".  In 1903 it sold up to The Whiskey Trust who continued to operate it until Prohibition when it was shut down.  By Repeal at the end of 1933 the property was owned by a Will Stiles and he organized funding and refitted Old Lancaster (with his brother Jack Stiles as the distiller).  But their first barrels were barely ready to drink before they sold out to Tom Pendergast in 1938.  Pendergast had his own employees in mind and brought on Chester Hecker to manage the distillery.  A scant half decade later - an ex-Con and with his empire crumbling and just two years from in death in 1943 - Pendergast sold Shawhan to the States of Oregon and Washington under a special wartime provision for manufacturing industrial alcohol for the war effort.  It returned to Bourbon, rechristened "Waterfill and Frasier" after the war by its new owner, Joe Makler of Chicago.  The distillery closed for good in 1969, although the facility was bought by Jim Beam for warehousing and bottling in 1974 and remains with them to this day.

III A Hoard - & Some Tastings

The bottle we tasted.
Tom Pendergast loved his whiskey.  Recently a spectular trove of Prohibition and Repeal era bottlings from the Pendergast period (1938-1943) showed up.  There is excellent pedigree connecting these bottles to Tom Pendergast but no one wants to go on record.  Suffice it to say, I'm pretty convinced of the provenance.  It's an unusual hoard - solidly limited to the period of Boss Tom's period of power - and centered on Kansas City brands and the products of Shawhan.  The brands represented in the hoard include the eponymous "Old Lancaster"  with examples of both Prohibition and Repeal era bottlings.  There's a brand called "Pride Of Nelson" which clearly refers to Old Lancaster's Nelson County location.  "Pride of Nelson" was probably a new brand made up by Pendergasts crew.  It seldom appears anywhere.  In the NYPL's menu archive it appears exactly once - in 1940 where it's among the cheapest on the menu.  The 1940 date is squarely in Pendergast's period of ownership.  There are Repeal era bottlings of the eponymous"Shawhan".  "Waterfill And Frazier" - an amazing brand with a long and colorful history that will be subject of its own post soon.  I don't know anything about "White Seal".  It's a pretty generic name and might have been made up.  The more famous "White Seal" was Carstair's White Seal - a venerable Maryland rye whiskey that came back after Repeal as a cheap blended American whiskey from Schenley.  I suspect this brand might have ended quickly and quietly with a letter from Rosensteil's lawyers.

 "Old 1889" commemorates the year that Tom Pendergast moved to Kansas City as a boy to work in his brother "Big Jim's" saloon.  He made it better than the rest - 7 years old BiB (the oldest allowed at that time - and at the highest proof).   Old 1889 is currently owned by Heaven Hill and sold in the Japanese market.  But all of these were exactly the brands that Tom Pendergast's distillery in Bardstown was making in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

There are items in the find that expand the story of the Pendergast brothers.  For example, there is an empty bottle of California apple brandy called "Old Abbey" that references the Pure Food Act on the label, dating it after 1906 - but by the style of it not much after.  Further confirmation comes at the bottom of the label.  It says "Bottled By James Pendergast & Co. 526 Delaware St., Kansas City".  Since James died in 1911 it probably predates that.  Significantly, it shows that James was bottling hooch too.  It holds out the tantalizing possibility that Tom got onto the liquor business in James' footsteps.

Recently, I had the rare opportunity to taste a few of the items from this hoard.  My three selections include a Prohibition era bottling and two from Pendergast's ownership time (and brands).  It represents a good opportunity to try to see if there's a consistent Old Lancaster / Shawhan distillery character.

Old Lancaster BiB Spring 1917-Fall 1930 50% abv

A lot of old Prohibition bottlings are overoaked, or just taste weird with old growth oak notes, or destruction caused by oxidation, heat damage and/or light damage.  Not this one.  Mint condition (see photo above)

Color: medium amber.
Nose: tingly brown sugar, apricot pie, peanut shells, char, old barn, the inside of an old chest, and something distant but distinctly fungal.  Forest floor with mushroom.
Palate:  Creamy sweet opening with honey, sandalwood, nutmeg and a bright acid fruity note like strawberry lemon.  The mouth feel is creamy.  Buttery vanilla kicks in on the mid-palate.  At the turn there is plenty of char and oak - burned oak and old trunk oak and also herbal rye notes: licorice and mint, but also something less tidy: dank ivy behind the shed.  The finish brings the char and the herbal dark note to the fore and ends a bit bitter.  This a pretty decent pour.  A tad lacking in intensity (probably the degree of oxidation common in Prohibition era medicinal pints), but really interesting - with a wealth of unusual flavors and a decent balance between bright fruity acids and dark herbal bitter which is plenty drinkable.
87 ****

The reverse of the Old Lancaster medicinal pints
 shows it was bottled by J. A. Dougherty's Son's - Philadelphia.
But the Bourbon was from S. P. Lancaster Distillery No. 415,
District Of KY.

Old 1889 BiB 1938-1946 50% abv

Color: medium copper red - like an old copper coin that is still red, but on the verge of toning.
Nose:  Tingly spicy rides above carob, solvent, dark karo syrup, sawn oak, creamy vanilla pudding, damp earth, and distant fire.  
Palate:  Sweet and dark on opening: like dark chocolate with coffee or mocha cocoa but curbed with mint and a buttery wood herbal note giving way at mid-palate to char and grape magic marker.  There is a dank herbal "noble rot" flavor - like crushed ivy with a bit of mildew at the turn too.  It's a flavor I associate with Old Hickory (Pennsylvania Bourbon from the glut era).  The finish is lightweight but lingering on old oak, char and angostura bitters.  Lacking in intensity - almost certainly some oxidation, but a fascinating mix of flavors remain.  There is definitely kinship with the flavors of Prohibition era Old Lancaster - but lighter, as you'd expect in a younger whiskey.  7 1/2 years is the oldest that the Bottled In Bond act delayed tax payment for at the time.
84 ****

King of Nelson bottle bottom glass stamped '43 45% abv

Color: medium amber with a strong copper penny red tint.
Nose: Oak, varnish, marigold, more of that herbal bitter dank ivy aroma, chalk dust, with a peculiar metallic twang down deep - like dried ketchup,
Palate:  sweet opening with vanilla, honey, an a creamy citrus compote note up front.  The expansion brings more citrus zing and some spice (oak, sandalwood tannin spice), but also the dank herbal crushed ivy and a bit of old basement almost mildew - but also a bit like wintergreen.  The turn to the finish is about the sweetness draining leaving oak tannin and char and fading herbals terminating in a bitter fadeout.  Also somewhat subtle (bordering on weak).  I suspect oxidation again - or the fragility of great age.  Another take on what is now clearly the Old Lancaster distillery character of high-rye Bourbon with old growth oak and maybe some dirty washbacks.  Interesting, and not unpleasant to drink despite some off flavors.

81 ***

So, Tom Pendergast's whiskey is Ok, but not spectacular.  I can see why Old Lancaster / Shawhan / Waterfill & Frazier No. 415 ended up closed.  The odd musty herbal notes might be a detail of production, or they might be the flavors of old growth oak - or something from long basement storage.  The fact that these all come from the same hoard means that common storage may have helped produce common flavors.  But I think I was tasting the whiskey and not the basement here.  Tasting Boss Tom's liquor isn't just about the taste buds anyway.  It's about time traveling back to the world of gangsters, smoky rooms, and the golden era of Kansas City jazz.  America in a glass.

Below is a gallery of bottle shots from the Pendergast hoard taken by the talented Chris Martin.  These were whiskies that Tom Pendergast kept - perhaps because they were notable in connection with his distillery activities, or because he liked them, or who knows?  They are a remarkable set of bottles.  These are just a few highlights from the extensive group.  Enjoy:
Pre-Pro 21 year old whiskey?  A Kansas City mystery.

The earliest possible Prohibition bottling.  Almost Pre-Pro.