Sunday, July 3, 2016

Cedar Brook Plankington Reserve - The Whiskey at the Intersection of Old Judge McBrayer'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 McBrayer

"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 McBrayer 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 McBrayer 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: