Article Review: George Dickel Tennessee Sour Mash Whisky

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Article Review: George Dickel Tennessee Sour Mash Whisky

Unread postby bourbonv » Mon Jan 31, 2005 10:22 pm

George Dickel Tennessee Sour Mash Whisky: The Story Behind the Label, by Kay Baker Gaston. Tennessee Historical Quarterly, Fall 1998, pp. 150-167. Illustrated, End Notes.

This is a very interesting article that discusses the early years of George Dickel and the distilling business he owned. It traces his roots from Germany to Nashville, where he started life in America as a shoe and boot maker. According to his obituary, he started in the liquor business in 1861. After the war the city directories show that he opened a liquor store at 23 South College Street. It later moves to Market street and he hires E. Shwab as a book keeper. The article then gives the history of Shwab.

Shwab eventually becomes a partner in the business and they buy interest in the Cascade Hollow Distillery in Tullahoma. This distillery was owned in part by McLin Davis. The article then gives the history of Davis. Dickel had the distribution right for Cascade Tennessee Whisky and owned them until his death in 1894. Victor Shwab, E. Shwab's son gains control of the company and the distillery. The article ends by describing the beginning of prohibition in Tennessee, the company moving to Louisville, National prohibition and the family going into the banking business. The last page describe's Schenley's rebuilding of the distillery and the creation of the George A Dickel brand.

This is an interesting article with many great stories. The writer does a fair job of bringing this chaotic history into a comprehensional article. It is well worth adding this article to a library of distilling history.

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Unread postby cowdery » Sun Mar 23, 2008 1:03 pm

I finally got a copy of this article and Mike, you left out all the good stuff.

The author found evidence that Dickel was a bastard (literally). His father's family acknowledged him but in a backhanded way, by having his bastard uncle stand as his godfather.

Dickel probably was a smuggler during the Union occupation of Nashville, as was Shwab and a 3rd partner, never mentioned in Dickel histories, because this partner was actually convicted. It looks like the capital that helped them get set up in the liquor business came from their smuggling activities. This other partner, Meier Salzkotter, spent time in a military prison for the offense.

Salzkotter was in business, both licit and illicit, with Shwab's father and was married to Shwab's older sister. He worked for Dickel before Shwab did. She also found evidence that Shwab changed his name many times in many small ways in his early years, probably to avoid identification by the authorities.

None of this was necessarily disreputable, at least within their community, as they were all good Rebs doing what they could to get around the Yankee occupation.

She also talks about another key part of the Dickel-Shwab business, the Climax Saloon, which was in Nashville's vice district. The Climax featured liquor, gambling, and prostitution.

She also has a few things I didn't know about MacLin Davis, who appears to be the man most responsible for the success of the whiskey itself. He and Shwab apparently had a close relationship, to the point that one of Shwab's daughters married one of Davis's sons.

All of which is more interesting than anything Diageo will tell you.
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Unread postby bourbonv » Sun Mar 23, 2008 4:57 pm

Chuck,
I agree that there is a lot of fun information in the articles, but I wanted the review to focus primarily on the fact that the article was well researched and written. I did not want to make it sound like a "tell all" article in some supermarket magazine.

Dickel was a very typical Nashville businessman of the time, struggling against the Federal government when possible and trying to make a buck at the same time. Unfortunately he also was involved in the saloon scene that became the focus of the prohibition propaganda. It is a very interesting story and you are right, nothing like the bullcrap Diageo has made up about Dickel.
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Unread postby EllenJ » Mon Mar 24, 2008 3:55 am

Once upon a time -- it really doesn't seem that long ago but when I look at a calendar it seems like more than a decade already(!) -- I began to be fascinated by the stories about how American whiskey came to be. Among the sources of knowledge I most treasured was one Charles K. Cowdery, whose essays were easy to find on the internet, and each of which targeted important aspects of American whiskey (only bourbon at the time, but it changed to include nearly any American spirit). As I, too, became a contributor to the base of American Whiskey knowledge, Chuck and I have had many a discussion, both private and public over multiple contexts, all of which have added to my (and hopefully his) understanding of this wonderful subject. There are times when I've thought of Chuck as a God of Whiskey Knowledge, and there are times when I've thought of him as totally full of bullsh!t. I'm pretty sure he's felt the same about me, at least the second part.

But having read some of Chuck's blog articles on George Dickel, I have to admit that I've returned to my original state of awe. For awhile, as I began to dive deeper into the twisted and (certainly intentionally) obscure history of our familiar modern brands of American whiskey I, too, enjoyed shining light upon the differences between myth and truth. But after awhile, the fact that it was so common to every aspect of the industry made it feel somewhat boring to me. And the fact that some elements (of an industry steeped in the tradition of smuggling and extra-legal activities) hinted strongly of threatening suggestions, caused me, I somewhat shamefully admit, to press less firmly for answers they did not wish to give me. I'm not the only one to see which side of the toast carries the butter; at least one certified historian I know has also become more (some would say "mature"; others just "careful") about whose toes are stepped upon these days. I can't say that I blame him. Let's just say that running moonshine whiskey is no different than running moonshine... well, anything else. And some of the same families and organizations that operated during Prohibition have learned to prosper through diversification since then.

I'm only in this for the fun of it, folks. And I feel I know when to quit poking around. And that's why I don't claim to be a real journalist. For awhile, Chuck was not a "real journalist", either. In fact, for awhile, I think Chuck had backed off, at least with his Bourbon Country Reader publication, until he was basically quoting company's media info. But that was apparently not a permantent situation. In opening his blog, Chuck seems to have re-acquired that sense of investigative journalism that made his articles of a dozen years ago so different and important. One can sense that he's re-acquired that feeling of "fun" that poking into these dark, spider-infested holes can often be.

The articles about Dickel are outstanding, Charles. Thank you! I know that the history of American whiskey is a rather narrow special interest, but if there were a Pulitzer category for blogs, I would certainly nominate yours for that prize. Everything that so amazed me about the truth behind the media hype you once revealed has returned, and I truly believe, despite the fact that I retain the right (and the need, in many cases) to disagree with you, that anyone not following http://chuckcowdery.blogspot.com should not expect to be taken seriously as a student (or even an Enthusiast) of American whiskey.

Thank you!
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Unread postby bourbonv » Mon Mar 24, 2008 9:55 am

John,
If you are accusing me of being soft on this article because of Diageo you are wrong. I was more concerned that the reader of the review might not take the writer seriously if I tlaked about the scandals than I was concerned about Diageo. The article is well researched and fairly well written. It is a confusing story and there are times the writer seems to have trouble bringing order to the events, but as a whole she did a good job with the story. I would hate to hasve a researcher think that it was simply an article of the type you would find in the supermarket checkout line. It deserves better respect than that.
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Unread postby EllenJ » Tue Mar 25, 2008 12:24 am

Actually, Mike, I haven't read Kay Gaston's article, only Chuck's treatment on his blog. I'm sure hers is impressive, too, but I can understand your concern. One aspect of Chuck's writing that I really appreciate, and she may not have it, is his ability to take an idea that is heavily weighted down with generations of cultural misperceptions and re-describe it in words that bring it into a more familiar scope so that it makes sense and not just "makes it sensational". It's what keeps his articles from reading like the checkout tabloids you described. :notworthy:

And I certainly didn't think you were going "soft" on Diageo. I'd pretty much bet the farm on that!! :yawinkle: Actually, I had more local interests in mind, and you'll notice I don't mention her a whole lot, either. Let's just say that anyone who thinks Hillary's capable of growling and biting your ankles ought to head out Loretto Road a ways. :whistle:
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Unread postby bourbonv » Tue Mar 25, 2008 11:58 am

John,
If you wish a copy of the article, I can make one for you.
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Unread postby cowdery » Tue Mar 25, 2008 12:51 pm

Thanks, John. I very much appreciate your comments. Although I apparently do what I do because of some strange compulsion, it's good to know somebody is paying attention.

I've actually become a little more accepting of the companies and why they spin things the way they do, as I have decided that telling the real stories as best I can is my job.

The sensational stuff, I think, makes the players more human and Gaston (the author of the THQ piece) isn't reporting rumors and conjecture. The piece, as Mike says, is well-researched and documented. No shot at Mike was ever intended.

I forgot to mention that Salzkotter did time in a military prison in Alton, Illinois (near St. Louis). While he was away, his wife (Shwab's older sister) left him, moved to Louisville, and became a prostitute there.

As I've been thinking about all this and trying to imagine it, I come to the conclusion that Dickel himself was either an amiable dope, who let himself be used as a front by caggy operators like Salzkotter and Shwab, or he was the ringleader, the brains behind the operation, who always stayed in the background and kept himself out of harm's way. I prefer the latter.
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Unread postby EllenJ » Wed Mar 26, 2008 2:54 am

Then again, it could also have been that everyone around there were little more than a bunch of sleazes. Not that whiskeymakers would ever be anything but fine, upright citizens, of course. Funny, isn't it, how, even though we glorify, for example, pirates, when we know they were (and are) terrorists and cutthroat murderers, we understand they weren't exactly the kind of folks we'd REALLY want our children to hang out with. Same for cowboys. And rogue spaceship drivers like Hans Solo, too. But for some reason, we all like to think of whiskeymen either as Country Gentlemen, with fine horses (whether thoroughbreds or walkers) and hunting hounds, or else as Pappy Yokum, all friendly and open, with a big smile for visitin' strangers. Fact is, there probably were some of those. Julian Van Winkle always seems to fit the gentleman part pretty well in my mind; and Chuck Miller out in Culpeper Virginia does a great Pappy Yokum (at least for a guy with a degree in aeronautic engineering and career to match). But there were some real thugs, too. Probably more of those than of the others. Mike can give some examples of what choirboys George Stagg and Ed Taylor were(n't). And I'd be willing to bet that Jesse James wasn't the only Samuels who ever spent a night at the Jailers Inn. Some time ago we were discussing Ben Holladay out in Weston, Missouri, and what would eventually become McCormick's. But that would have been long after his original purpose of producing whiskey for his chain of stage-stop "houses". And while it might take a big ol' nasty mule-skinner with particular underworld influences to conquer a big city like, say, Nashville, or St. Louis, or Montgomery Alabama, for his uncle, I'd guess the more rural areas, even train hubs like Tullahoma, had their own share of poolhall fiefs who controlled distribution of liquor, gambling, prostitutes, and religion.
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Unread postby cowdery » Wed Mar 26, 2008 6:08 am

Popcorn Sutton, a contemporary case in point.
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Unread postby EllenJ » Wed Mar 26, 2008 11:29 pm

Nice point. I suppose it would be interesting to pursue the cost/success ratio of successfully bringing such a dangerous and notorious criminal as Popcorn Sutton into custody as compared to that of Osama ben Laden (assuming any such success ever actually occurs). It might be even more enlightening to compare it with the cost/success ratio for providing healthcare or education to his grandchildren (or mine). But I'll leave that to folks with a blog and an audience. :yawinkle:
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Unread postby cowdery » Wed Mar 26, 2008 11:49 pm

More related to your earlier point, one thing I would love to research, but I'm not sure how you'd go about it, would be the connections that the pillars of the post-repeal industry had with organized crime. It's always been assumed that the big four (Rosentiel, Bronfman, Hatch & Porter) all did have those connections, but nobody has ever put it all together.
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Unread postby EllenJ » Fri Mar 28, 2008 1:56 am

I'd guess the difficulty is in defining just when a series of associations and joint ventures becomes "organized crime". Certainly Bronfman had some distribution within the pre-repeal United States, but then so did Joe Kennedy. Does New York governor Eliot Spitzer's connection with organized prostitution make him an honorary Gambino family member? What does that tell us about FDR and the NYC dockworkers, without whose cooperation we might all be "Zieg Heiling" today (I know; some say we already are anyway). With neither federal nor local government relief for the depression unemployed and starving, were the Capone-operated and supplied soup lines in Chicago an example of criminal activity? As a matter of fact, some thinkers might find the destruction of private liquor venues and terrorism of innocent patrons* with an axe to be far more criminal than tommygunning known mobsters. And the WCTU was surely about as organized as one could want.


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* contrary to popular myth (encouraged by misinformation from temperance organizations) it was NEVER illegal to consume alcohol in the United States. Unlike current statutes which make no legal distinction between heroin, crack cocaine, speed, and marijuana, no federal law ever existed (despite severe pressure from temperance groups) that made possession of alcohol a crime. The 18th Ammendment addressed only the "manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors". Sensationalist Movietone newsreels to the contrary, police had no authority (nor desire) to round up speakeasy patrons and cart them off to the hoose-gow. It was the speakeasy's owner (and bartender actually making sales) they were after. And the product, of course. Your Aunt Bessie didn't need to hide that bottle of rye in her sewing basket after all. Of course this isn't for Chuck, who's already quite aware, but for those of our readers who weren't -- and among my friends who "don't drink that hard stuff" and those whose enjoyment contains more than just a little of that "I'm getting away with doing something I shouldn't", I kinda think that would include most of them.
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Unread postby cowdery » Fri Mar 28, 2008 12:54 pm

Although johns are committing a crime, unlike the speakeasy patrons described, Spitzer's alleged crimes have more to do with financial irregulatities, although he also certainly put himself in a position to be blackmailed. As a practical matter, johns are rarely prosecuted.

As for the Emperor's Club itself, it is inconceivable that it did not have OC connections.

As for Bronfman and Kennedy, the allegations are that they participated in organized crime activities and were what law enforcement calls OC associates. Not members, but willing and knowing participants in criminal ventures. That doesn't mean Sam or Joe ever killed anyone or ordered a hit, but they had to know that violence was a tactic used by their business associates.

Ultimately, the harm caused by organized crime is not so much in its satisfaction of illicit needs, or its internal warfare (that does occasionally touch innocent victims as well), but in its corruption of government and other institutions, and that we should not take lightly.
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Unread postby bourbonv » Sat Mar 29, 2008 7:37 pm

Pappy Van Winkle on the other hand worked hard to keep clear of the criminal element. His sale force was given instructions that if there was even a hint of irregularity in a business, then stay away from that place. He fired a few who did not follow that rule.

Rosenstiel is an unknown factor in that he was friends with Herbert Hoover (if the biography written on Hoover is correct they dressed up in women's clothing together) and that either made it very easy or very difficult for him to be involved in organized crime. I will let Chuck look into that more deeply for now.
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