DEATH OF THE MILWAUKEE LIQUOR INDUSTRY
Article courtesy of John Lindsay with minor alterations by the Editor.
Last Revised 01/11/2016
About a hundred and twenty years ago, the Milwaukee liquor industry was dealt a death blow. Here is how it happened.
The distilleries and the breweries grew up here before the Civil War in competitive harmony, even though beer was not then used as a chaser. With Milwaukee whiskey selling for 15 cents a gallon, there was little need for slowing down consumption by the use of chasers of any kind.
During the Civil War, the Federal government slapped a $1 a barrel tax on beer and a $1 a gallon on whiskey, which made beer drinking a bargain and led thrifty Milwaukeeans to change their drinking habits.
After the war, the whiskey tax was raised to $2 a gallon, even though President Ulysses Grant, of all people should have known better.
There were then eight distilleries in Milwaukee and a number of others outside the city limits. The local distillers were Otto Bierbach, Brunst & Casperi, Koeffler Bros., O'Neill & Reynolds, Rindshopf & Son, J.B. Schram, P. Young, and Schuckman and Waldeck.
Even in those days, Milwaukee was a law abiding community and the distillers paid the $2 tax, grumbling all the way. But before long they ran into difficulty with competition from Chicago distillers.
Chicago whiskey was selling here for $1.15 a gallon. Bierbach, Brunst, Koeffler, Rindshopf and their friends figured out that if the Chicagoans could sell whiskey that was taxed at $2 a gallon, for $1.15 they must not be paying the tax.
They were paying off the people charged with enforcing the tax instead. Most of the Milwaukeeans switched over to the new rules that were developed by the Chicagoans. Washington found its liquor tax wasn't bringing in much revenue, but everyone else was satisfied until 1876, when the stakes were raised.
It was then that Congress decided that a manufacturer of contraband booze would be subject to a prison term as well as a fine. Jacob Nunnemacher, for one decided to get out of the business.
He sold his Nunnemacher Distillery, located well out in the country near what is now 27th & Oklahoma, to the Kinnickinnic Distilling Co. He had been willing to take a chance with a fine, but wasn't ready to go to jail.
The Kinnickinnic outfit, despite its catchy name , didn't last long, and within a few years only three distilleries remained in the city. They were Meadow Spring Distilling Co., Wm. Bergenthal Co., and John Meiner.
By 1916, there were only two distilleries here, although one had three companies operating out of the same address. National Distilling was one, and S.C. Herbst was the other. Herbst's three firms were, Benson Creek Distillery, Old Judge Distilling Co., and the Old John E. Fitzgeralds Distillery.
Prohibition closed these distilleries down, but the real turning point was in 1876, when Jake Nunnemacher decided that he didn't want to risk going to jail.
Editor's Note:Additions to the Liquor Industry Business in Milwaukee
Some of Milwaukee's earliest distilleries did not only make liquor but ale and beer as well. The first was what became the Lake Brewery, Milwaukee's earliest brewery. Another was the Empire Brewery operated by the Best family.
Please visit Milwaukee's newest distillery at Great Lakes Distillery, LLC
THE WM. BERGENTHAL CO., MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN
Importers and Jobbers of Fine Old Kentucky Whiskies...
Note: the origin of this article is unknown, most likely dates to 1900, first appeared in The Cream City Courier without acknowledgment, the editor has modified certain words and punctuations.
Milwaukee has always been an important whiskey market. Many large liquor houses are located here. In front of these institutions stands the Wm. Bergenthal Company, importers of the best foreign productions in this line and dealers in fine old whiskey at wholesale, whose premises are located at 476 and 478 Fourth Street on the corner of Cherry.
Mr. William Bergenthal, the founder, was born in Westphalia, Germany in 1844 and came to Milwaukee in 1867. Two years later he established his present business which has prospered and increased in the most gratifying manner. In 1879 the large and growing interests involved became incorporated under the laws of Wisconsin with a paid-up capital of $100,000. Mr. Bergenthal assuming the double duties of president and treasurer, and Mr. Henry Figge, whose connection with the house as a traveling salesman dating from 1876, being appointed vice-president.
The location has always been in the near neighborhood of the above and the splendid premises now occupied were taken possession of in 1874. These consist of a two story structure with basement having vaults and sub-cellars thirty feet below. They are the largest and most complete in the Northwest, and are only adapted for the storage of wines, foreign and native, and for preserving them in all seasons at a certain required temperature. In these splendid vaults, so far removed from adverse influences are kept the best vintages of fine old imported and native wines in casks. Ample means for through ventilation have been provided and these superior beverages are kept in the most perfect condition an shipped to consumers in all parts, who are invariably pleased with their high quality. On the ground and upper floors are also stored a splendid stock of old bourbon and rye whiskies, known as the leading brands of American, gins, brandies, rums, and cordials. The basement is devoted to the storage of ales, porters, and mineral waters, and case goods of Rhine and Moselle wines, Clarets, Burgundies, and different other kinds imported in glass.
On the first floor are the offices and the stock, operating and packing rooms, while the second floor is used for surplus goods. The company are direct importers of the best French, German, Russian, Norwegian, and English productions and their trade extends over Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Utah, Washington, Oregon and the two Dakotas. Twelve capable assistants are employed in the house and six traveling salesmen are kept continually upon the road.
Mr. Bergenthal is not only recognized as an authority upon details of the industry in which he is engaged but is highly esteemed among the mercantile community generally. He is a member of the Wholesale Liquor Dealers Association and has for twenty years been an active member of the Chamber of Commerce.
Mr. Figge was born in Germany and after a residence of six years in Cincinnati, Ohio, came to this city twenty years ago (1876). He is an active and progressive businessman and justly merits the golden opinions he has won.
The company are the sole proprietors and jobbers of the following brands of bourbon and rye whiskies; Old Lexington, Mohawk, W.H. McBrayer, Hermitage, and Old Crow, Bond and Lillard, O.F.C., M.V. Monarch, R. Monarch, Anderson, Anderson Country Sour Mash, T.B. Ripy, Henry Clay (J.E. Pepper & Co.), Ashland, Mellwood, Blue Grass, Guckenheimer, Montrose and Overholt.
From Michael L. Olson, "Melo's Minis", whiskey specialist comes the following letter and pictures of several Wisconsin whiskey bottles:
The only mini whiskeys bottles in Wisconsin that I know about were WISCONSIN CLUB KENTUCKY STRAIGHT BOURBON WHISKEY. They were bottled by the Wisconsin Liquor Co. of Milwaukee. They made five variations before the war and one shortly after.
Some liquor stores/bars did have personal miniatures made and these can be found from the 1930's until the 1970's. The best were the two WATERWHEELS made for The Platten Bros., Green Bay, Wis. They had multi colored labels and were bottled by John A. Wathen of Lebanon, KY. during the mid-1930's. Another good series was made by Medley Distilling Co. of Owensboro, KY. (see photo next page). These were made in the early 1950's and are very desirable.
There were others, including a SARATOGA CLUB from Superior, WI., circa 1936 and a series made by Chase. Stewert of Milwaukee in the 1970's.Hope this short history helps.
309 Knopp Valley Dr., Winona, MN. 55987 507-454-1499