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: http://www.kansascity.com/news/local/article301699/Long-hidden-stash-of-empty-bottles-hints-at-KC-secrets.html#storylink=cpy

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.