Monday, November 11, 2013

Old Ren Bonded Bourbon: An Antique And Delicious Mystery That Ranges From Chicagoland To The Ohio River To A Texas Tiki Bar And Back.

What is Old Ren?  It is a straight bourbon distilled at Graham Distillery Company (Illinois Distillery No. 6) in the Fall of 1936 and bottled in bond by a company called W.P. Squibb Distilling Co. Inc. of Vincennes Indiana (I.R.B.W. No. 9) in the Spring of 1944.  It was a one-off contract order for a magician whose name I didn't know  (but I sure found out) whose picture appears on the bottle, smiling in a top hat and tux and pulling a white rabbit out of a hat.  The magic theme is in the motto:  "There's Magic In Its Taste".  Apparently the magician used the bourbon for promotion of his magic show.  After his death a quantity of it was found in the basement of his home.

(see the more detailed bottle shots near the bottom of this post for the labels showing the distilleries involved and the years)

A case of Old Ren whisky showed up at Bonhams in the October sale in NY this year as lots 187-190.

There is definitely what I'd categorize as "a little mystery to figure out".   As it turns out, there is a ton of interesting tidbits to this story - and a kind of crazy low weave that seems to connect various bits and pieces of it in that "it's a small whiskey world" kind of way.

The Graham Distillery in Rockford Illinois appears in the text of a booklet titled

PRICE, 50 CENTS. POSTAGE ON THIS BOOK, FOUR CENTS. ROCKFORD, llili.: Forest City Publishing Company.
June, 1891.

The online text has obviously been OCR'ed and not proofed.  It reads:
"Graham's Distillery. This firm consists of Julius, Freeman and Byron
Graham, with a capital stock of $150,000. They manufacture sour mash whiskies. The annual product is $300.000. They employ forty-five hands, with an annual pay- roll of $30,000."

Their invoices in the first part of the 20th century look like this (from a recently completed auction on Ebay):

There is thread on Straight Bourbon where people are busy tracking down where in Rockford the distillery was located and where the locally famous Graham house is:
"The Graham-Ginestra House was constructed in 1857. The original owner, Freeman Graham, Sr., was a prominent local businessman who built the first sour mash distillery in the State of Illinois, and achieved a national reputation for his whiskies. Graham was also part owner of the Rockford Cotton Mills, and his home at 1115 S. Main Street was located approximately midway between the Mills (202 S. Main) and the Graham Distillery (1602-08 S. Main)."

But there's not much I could find about the whiskey itself or how the distillery fired back up after Repeal - and when it stopped operating.  Rockford IL is in the greater Chicago region - a region that had a number of distilleries to provided that whiskey thirsty city.  The lingering reputation isn't really one of quality - but the proof is in the glass.

The bottler's story is a bit more iterated.  For the history of the Squibb Distilling Co. - the Indiana Brewing History site "" has the following very dense paragraph.  I'm going to present it in its entirety because it's so redolent of the kind of connections among brands, names, cities, and history that turn me on so much in this field:

"William P. and G.W. Squibb started a distillery in Aurora in 1846. Kosmos Fredrick joined them in 1867 building a new distillery in Lawrenceburg that could process 300 bushels of grain per day. This was at 2nd St. near Main. Fredrick sold his shares to W. P. Squibb in 1871. He went on to form a new distillery with Nicholas Oester.
In 1885 they installed a continuous still. When the two Squibbs both died in 1913 they left the distillery to their seven sons and cousins.
By 1914 four of the sons and one cousin build a new distillery on the same site.
From 1937 until 1949 they also used the defunct Eagle Brewery in Vincennes.
This operation produced Chimney Corner, Old Dearborn, Rock Castle, and Gold Leaf Rye.
It was called the Old Quaker distillery. "Old Quaker Distilling Frankfort KY, Lawrenceburg IN, and Fresno, CA". The motto is "Old Quaker is in tune with today's growing preference for mildness and mellowness. You don't have to be rich to enjoy rich whiskey."
Just before prohibition ended Schenley bought the plant and rolled it into a new conglomerate along with the Schenley, Finch, Ancient Age, James E Pepper, Blanton, Old Stagg, and more distilleries.
Legend says they made 80 barrels of whiskey eight days before prohibition ended and the whiskey was ready in 1936.
During WWII they made penicillin at the plant."

So - the Squibbs started in Aurora, Indiana.  This is the next town downstream from Lawrenceburg, Indiana (which is, itself just a dozen miles barely over the State line from Cincinnati Ohio).  Then from 1867 on they were in Lawrenceburg, IN.  Yes, THAT Lawrenceburg, IN - the one where Seagrams made Bourbon and Rye and where LDI/MGP makes it now.  But this was bottled in the Vincennes plant - which was the former Eagle Brewery.  According to a 1998 history of the city, titled, eponymously, "Vincennes" by Richard Day and William Hopper, one Julius Hack was president of Eagle Brewery.  "Always well dressed, Julius was nicknamed "Dude."  When Prohibition came in 1919, "Dude" tried to convert to low-alcohol "near beer" but the brewery closed in in 1930.  From 1937 to 1949, it operated as W.P. Squibb Distillery, then was acquired by Vincennes University and used for classrooms until 1994."

The oval sticker says:
"Texas State Tax Paid / Liquor / 1/5th Gallon / 25.6 cents"
But what of Old Ren himself.  "Ren" is a nickname of "Reginald".  At first, searching for Chicago area magicians named "Reginald" went nowhere.  The key was the little tax sticker for Texas.  Ft. Worth Texas had a magician who was active at the time.  His name was A. Renerick "Ren" Clark.  A quick search hit instant undeniable pay dirt in the form of the exact same photograph that's on the whiskey bottle appearing as the cover of Genii magazine (a major magazine for magicians - and perhaps the oldest):

Ren Clark was featured on the cover of the June 1942
edition of Genii magazine - with the same photo that's on Old Ren

There is a richly detailed bio of Ren Clark in the MagicPedia. It reads as follows:

Ren Clark (1904-1991), M.I.M.C. with Gold Star, served as president of the IBM (1947-48) and was one of the founders of the Texas Association of Magicians.[1]

He received his Bachelor of Science degree from the Texas A. and M. College and later served as banker and as an executive for several oil and gas companies.[2]

He first became exposed to magic in 1910 when Willard the Wizard crossed through Cross Plains where he was growing up.

Clark moved from Kansas City to Rockford, Illinois, and helped formed a local magic club, which later bore his name during its active days.

In 1939, he joined the Society of American Magicians, Chicago Assembly No. 3. When he moved back to Texas and settled in Fort Worth, he transferred his membership to the Dallas Assembly.

In 1940, he joined the I.B.M. and later became the I.B.M. convention Chairman in 1942, overseeing the convention in Fort Worth. He then served as International President in (1947-48) where he worked hard to make a true international organization by visiting many countries.

With friends in Austin, Ed Deweese and Doc Mahendra, he helped form the Texas Association of Magicians in 1946.

Clark would entertain friends, perform for his fellow magicians, donate his services to church groups, boys clubs, civic and fraternal organizations, and during the war years to the entertaining of hospital patients and to military personnel. Ren developed an Oriental act due to the influence of his friend Herbert J. Collins (Col Ling Soo) of London.

At the age of eighty one, Clark was still attending local club meetings, and the occasional national conventions .

Clark was made an Honorary Life Member of the following magical organizations: Texas Association of Magicians; International Brotherhood of Magicians, the British Ring; I.G.P. Club de Azteca of Gaudalajara, Mexico; I.B.M. Ring No. 15 of Fort Worth, Texas, Swedish Magic Circle; Circulo Magico Argentino; El Circulo de Magos Mexicana, Mexico, D. F.; All India Magic Circle; and the Singapore I.B.M. Ring No. 115 of Singapore.[3]

The IBM Ring No 15 in Fort Worth, Texas is called the Ren Clark Ring in his honor. He was a member of the I.B.M. Order of Merlin, Excalibur (50 years) and the recipient of the highest award that can be bestowed by the Board of Trustees of the I.B.M., the Medallion of Honor.

He was featured on the cover of The Magic Circular, May 1990.[4]"

(note, I.B.M. here refer to the "International Brotherhood of Magicians" - not International Business Machines).

Did you catch that he lived in Rockford, Illinois? I wonder if that influenced his decision to buy whiskey from Graham Distillery? Well, Ren Clark also shows up in the history of Tiki cocktail culture because of a restaurant he had called "Ren Clark's Polynesian Village". The following description appears in Humuhumu's Tiki-Wiki:

"Ren Clark was a magician, and held several posts in magician groups in the 1950s. For entertainment at his Polynesian Village resaurant he performed a magic act; as a souvenir, patrons could purchase a grotesque mug of a severed head -- this mug has become one of the more sought-after tiki mug collectibles, despite it not being really all that "tiki."

Ren Clark's Polynesian Village

Ren Clark's Polynesian Village was in the Western Hills Hotel. It is not known what years the Polynesian Village was open, but the hotel was open from 1951 until it burned down in 1969.

The location is currently a Winn-Dixie Marketplace."

Severed head mug?  Yes "ren clark severed head" pops up on Google as a frequent search and there are plenty of them on Ebay (with sale figures topping $800) and there's lots of history and commentary about them as a cultural topic.  

A Ren Clark Severed Head Tiki Mug (photo from an Ebay auction)
A couple of years ago Fort Worth Weekly did a piece on the Fort Worth Magician's club.  The piece is about the club now, and some recent events, but it cannot help but linger over Ren Clark - who really set up magic in that town.  Check out the details about Ren's magic act:

"In terms of magic’s history, the Fort Worth club is probably most notable for its founder, Fort Worth oilman and philanthropist A. Renerick “Ren” Clark. Remembered as a sprightly man with a bald pate and a penchant for oriental décor, Ren Clark first became acquainted with the art of magic as a young boy, via a traveling post-vaudeville magic show featuring a famous entertainer named Willard the Wizard.

Willard, known posthumously as “the last of the big tent show magicians,” traveled in an extensive caravan of trucks, touring small venues and conventions across the Southwest. Clark graduated from Texas A&M University in 1924 with a degree in electrical engineering and went into the oil business, but he never forgot his fascination with Willard’s show.

His career in the oil industry took him to Canada and across the Midwest. While living in Parsons, Kan., in the ’30s, Clark wandered into a magic shop and bought a coin trick. Soon he was skilled in the sort of sleight of hand that had thrilled him as a child. Before long, he had joined the International Brotherhood of Magicians and in 1940 started the Fort Worth club as its 15th chapter. As oil boomed, so did his business, the Double Seal Ring Company. The resulting wealth enabled him to treat his passion as something more than a hobby.

In 1947, the oil magnate-cum-man-o’-magic became president of the brotherhood and immediately began a five-month international jaunt promoting the art of illusion in clubs around the world. As his reputation as an ambassador of magic grew, so did the number of local magicians’ groups. Soon, magic clubs were appearing across the globe like doves out of a hat. Upon word of an upcoming visit by Ren Clark, club leaders would scramble to invite new visitors, hoping that the oilman’s personality and passion would inspire them to become members.

His enthusiasm for magic was at least as ardent at home as it was abroad. According to friend and longtime club member Bob Utter, Clark loved coin tricks. “He’d start with one and then all of the sudden he’d show 10 in his hands,” Utter said.

Clark was also famed for his Asian-themed productions. “Ren really liked Asian things. A lot of his tricks involved long, flowing Asian silks, umbrellas — he’d make umbrellas appear out of nowhere,” Utter recalled. “He went all out — he would dress in these Chinese costumes, put on the eye makeup, the whole nine yards.”

Clark’s act was more than just small-scale sleight of hand. “His production had all kinds of intricate folding boxes that he’d had made special in Japan, and he used a lot of birds too,” Utter said. Indeed, Clark’s home boasted an aviary, with a motley flock of exotic birds.

As if cockatiels flying out of kimono sleeves weren’t enough, Clark’s penchant for post-war exotica spread to other interests, particularly in the Western Hills Hotel (now long departed) on Camp Bowie, notable for its tiki-themed Polynesian Village restaurant and Sunken Galleon bar and equally famous for its “mermaid,” a woman who swam in costume in a giant aquarium behind the bar. Clark had a stage built in the Galleon, big enough for his elaborate act.

The hotel was a hit among socialites, in part because of its then-trendy design scheme, but also because of Clark’s business partner, none other than Desi Arnaz. In other words, Clark was one of those mischievous grandpas who produces quarters from a kid’s ears, except that he did it in a fantastic tiki room and the kid was Desi Arnaz Jr."

Well, Ren Clark really sounds like a fun guy and his act sounds like it was blast.  But what about the whiskey?

Light through shows the extreme color on this whiskey.

Old Ren 100 Proof (50% abv) 4/5 Quart

Color: Dark amber to chestnut with red copper glints.

Nose:  The nose is huge, pungent, and very very rich. Vanilla - iterated black greasy pungent aged high end bourbon vanilla pods.  Molasses.  Malted milk balls.  The wineyness of of malted milk trending into Cognac - but a nice rich old XO cognac dripping with rancio.   There are over-ripe squash notes and baking spices that made a guy at Bonhams exclaim "pumpkin pie"!  The longer it airs, the more the vanilla comes to the fore.  I've never encountered an aroma on a whiskey more hugely redolent of vanilla.

The vanilla and malt story are big on the opening.  Sweet, floral, and rich.  But the body surprises by being thinner and hotter than you'd expect - with a big hit of rye spice that comes across as the heat from cinnamon, cloves, and allspice and a big twist of cracked black pepper.  Time and air open and thicken the palate.  The progression is this:  molasses, malted milk, and vanilla extract sweetness jump all over the opening.  The mid-palate waxes big and spicy with rye heat and rye herbal notes, with plenty of leather and cured tobacco.  Oak begins to own the palate at the turn with oak tannins driving the drying at the finish.  As the finish fades all the powerful aspects of the nose return:  black greasy bourbon vanilla pods, malted milk balls, cognac rancio, black strap molasses, cloves and allspice.  They come back and then - 5 minutes or so after the sip ended, they paradoxically wax larger and larger.  You can't stop tasting this.  The finish gets stronger for about a good quarter hour after you stop drinking it.  Weird.  Weird and wonderful.

Something immediately jumps out at me as a result of all of this.  Normally, when you think about a guy buying a run of anything to be used as a promotional item you'd think it would be done on the cheap and maybe not be of the best quality.  I must admit that was my first thought when I heard that this was a run of whiskey for promotional use and it was distilled in Illinois.  But a couple of details don't fit that scenario.  1) Why use straight bourbon?  Blended bourbon was all the rage in those days and it was much less expensive.  2) Why use Bonded bourbon that was aged over 7 years?  This stuff is a full 7 and a half years in oak.  That had to add significantly to the expense.

The answer, having read Ren Clark's bio and the additional detail that he operated a Tiki bar and restaurant suggest something else.  Ren Clark probably loved bourbon.  That would explain why he selected a very mature bonded bourbon for his bottling.  The fact that he lived in Rockford during the period this bourbon was maturing suggests that he may have known, tasted, and enjoyed Graham's bourbon first hand.  Indeed, perhaps he even put the batch under contract at that time.  I have no idea, but the fact remains - Old Ren is very good bourbon indeed.  There IS magic in its taste.

FYI - an update to this post speculating about the word "Straight" canceled on the labels here with a pattern of red squares is blogged here:


  1. Very Nice Story Joshua. You put a lot of research in this one. Thanks for reviewing!

    1. Thanks, Jan! I certainly did. This was an absorbing case.

    2. Glad MagicPedia was helpful. We will have to update his bio with this info.

      Joe P.

    3. Joe P., what an honor and a pleasure you dropped by. Without the MagicPedia I never whould have found Ren Clark or that rich vein of his celebrty. To have anything to add to the excellent MagicPedia completely makes my day!

    4. Do you have a small picture of a bottle of "Old Ren" which we can include in our MagicPedia article on Ren Clark?

    5. Absolutely. I'll take one against a white background tomorrow and I'll e-mail it to you. I'm not sure of your address (tried to follow your profile and didn't see it). My e-mail address is josh[at] Let me know where to put it.

  2. WOW. Awesome story, JGF! Lately, I've been more excited by the stories behind the whiskies than the whiskies themselves. Sounds like this one definitely lived up to its history and all the research, thanks!

    1. Peter. It's not lately. I've been going to The Casks blog for back story on whiskies for years and you know it. You love the stories and do a great job of researching and presenting them. This Old Ren whiskey was obviously a massive story waiting to be told. I'm just very lucky that Ren Clark was the amazing celebrity that he was - which made him easy to find (mainly thanks to great information presenting people like Joe P. who wrote the comment above who is part of a great repository of history of magicians.)

  3. Amazing post! Josh I could totally see you pursuing your retirement as a traveling exotic magician (note to self - buying you one of those hats for xmas). Why don't people do promotional whiskey anymore? We should do a fake bottle promoting something ridiculous. Like "Tea Party Bourbon" with pictures of Ted Cruz photoshopped in a Dr Seuss outfit. In all seriousness love this depth of inquiry and how it all relates to an awesome old hooch! Keep up the great work.

    1. Yes - I need that outfit. That's for sure. I kept thinking what a fun guy Ren Clark would have been to hang out with. Yes - it made me fantasize about my own promotion whisky bottling. But we see people doing that. Josh Hatton and Jewmalt boys just did a Heaven Hill Bottle. Belgian Auchentoshan obsessed super hero and Star Wars insane maniac not only went to the planet of Tatouine to rebuild the Lars Homestead. He then issued a whisky bottling with a single cask of 20 yo Bruichladdich (and is doing a second one with - wait for it - Auchentoshan.):

  4. Fantastic article Mr. Feldman!! Like Peter's post, learning the history, personalities and other miscellaneous details brings life to the liquid! I appreciate all the digging it took to put this together!

    Eric S.

    1. Thanks, Eric. It's definitely unusual to encounter a bourbon where every aspect of it is a mystery. The whiskey world is deep and wide and has many secrets. But it's amazing how when you start digging you find a densely interconnected web. I was surprised to find that Graham Distillery went back as far as the mid-19th century. I was surprised to find that it appears to have survived Prohibition, at least in some form. I was surprised, most definitely, that its bourbon was extremely good. I'm not as surprised, but of course I hoped, that it's character is quite different from other bourbons I've tried.

      As for the web of connections - I propose we play a variation of the Kevin Bacon game called "The Sam Bronfman" game. The challenge: can you connect any whiskey within 6 degrees of separation to legendary Seagrams CEO Sam Bronfman. Old Ren is easy via the Squibb bottling plant when ended up in Schenley which had been bought by Sam Bronfman's Seagrams. But the Graham Distilling Angle is an island away from the archipelago. It appears to have been family owned and its later history is just a mystery until it just disappeared. If anyone knows or has leads on the post-Repeal story of Graham Distillery and what its brands may have been I'd love to hear it..

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  7. here are silent auctions where you are free to write down a price you are willing to pay and other people will write down their prices on the same piece of paper and after a specified time buying antiques