View Full Version : H.L. Mencken's bunker

02-20-2006, 08:22
Tha American journalist, author and editor, H.L. Mencken, the "Sage of Baltimore", was famously a curmudgeon and iconoclast. Many of his ideas are derisory today (unfortunately he tended to racialism and in general an extreme version of Social Darwinism) but he was a master prose stylist and certainly an individualist, hard to classify by modern terms. He enjoyed responsible drinking and was a fervent anti-Prohibitionist, something here most of us can relate to, at any rate. On the eve of Prohibition he sold his Studebaker and put the money into an extensive liquor and wine cellar, stockpiling hundreds of bottles for the drought. The cellar was in the home on Hollins Street in Baltimore in which he lived most of his life. In a new biography of Mencken by Rosemary Elizabeth Rodgers (available from Oxford University Press, however Rodgers is an American), there is a photo of some of the shelves of the cellar. It is hard to tell when the photo was taken. It shows a bottle of Chivas Regal, a brand created in the early 1950's (Mencken died in 1956) but clearly many of the bottles in the cellar date from the years of the First War. Many of the labels are decipherable or one can tell the brand by their design. Up until a few years ago and maybe still at present, one could tour the Mencken home which was maintained as a musuem of his life and work. I toured the house a few years but did not think to ask to see the cellar; this photo will have to do since I believe the home is no longer maintained as a museum.

In bourbon, there is pictured Bond & Lilliard, and also Cascade whiskey (ancestor to the current George Dickel), possibly from the time it was made outside of Tennessee. Next to these are other bottles which must be bourbon but they do not bear readable labels.

There are at least 2 bottles of corn whiskey (odd perhaps for one known to knock the rural South and its folkways).

There are numerous rye whiskeys including the Maryland stand-bys Roxbury Rye and Melrose Straight Rye, Old Overholt and Seagram V.O. (V.O. was invented in the 30's so like the Chivas clearly added long after the bunker was created).

In Scotch: Dawson, Haig & Haig, Chivas, Ballantine and Old Ransom I believe.

There are numerous cognacs and brandies but their labels are harder to read, one bottle's shape suggests Hennessey of the mid-20th century. Also, I am fairly sure a Jameson whiskey is included - at this time it would have been pure pot still, the one Doug found recently is probably quite similar to Mencken's. Oh also the German brandy, Asbach Uralt.

Numerous liqueurs such as Cointreau and Benedictine are in evidence.

A few rums, including Myers (Dark, I assume) with a label looking just as it does today.

On a lower shelf there is vodka (e.g., Relska, famed brand of the Russian "ancien regime"), bottles of Dutch genever and what may be German schnapps. Mencken was famously not an "anglophile" or "anglomaniac" (his favorite words for Americans he viewed as servile to Britain and its authority in matters cultural and political) and perhaps this explains the seeming absence of dry gin from the cellar. Maybe the bottles are there but the labels are too hard to read or obscured by other bottles.

There are about a dozen beers on the floor, half are clearly Lowenbrau, the bottles looking much as they do today.

Many wines are on the shelves but the labels cannot be seen: Mencken liked Moselle and other German wines.

As a native of Baltimore he appreciated the native straight rye whiskeys, and from a quotation in Michael Jackson's 1987 World Guide to Whisky it is clear Mencken knew the difference between a straight and a blend.

Over the entrance to the cellar is a sign with skull and crossbones warning that unauthorised entry will release, "chlorine gas at under 200 pounds pressure". :)

Now that was a bunker. Maybe he invented the first one. :)


02-20-2006, 08:36
Tha American journalist, author and editor, H.L. Mencken, the "Sage of Baltimore", was famously a curmudgeon and iconoclast.

He was also a homebrewer. That was legal during prohibition (as was winemaking). Is that mentioned in the book?


02-20-2006, 08:44
Jeff, it is mentioned. The book said he acquired a fair facility at it although some of his brews were not that successful. I knew that some home winemaking was allowed but I did not know that any form of homebrewing was.


02-20-2006, 21:45
Any chance you could upload a pic/scan of his bunker for us to envy ???

02-21-2006, 03:40
I lack the tech skills to do this but don't feel badly because the picture is indistinct black and white and you wouldn't see much. I recommend the book to anyone looking to add something to their reading night table. It is very well written and while I don't always agree with the author's perspective or interpretation, it contains much food for thought. Also, through its extensive quotes from the Mencken canon, it offers much that is amusing and sometimes laugh-out-loud because Mencken was a humorist of a high order, "of the first chop", to use one of his favorite expressions.


02-21-2006, 08:38
Jeff, it is mentioned. The book said he acquired a fair facility at it although some of his brews were not that successful. I knew that some home winemaking was allowed but I did not know that any form of homebrewing was.
You know, I may be wrong about that. It was certainly tolerated. Winmaking was explicitly permitted - I know that. Pretty much because there would have been an Italian-American revolt if it hadn't been. Robert Mondavi's family lived in (I think) Minnesota druing prohibition, and the winery business got its start when the father began buying California grapes in bulk for local Italian-Americans to make their own wine. As I recall from Mondavi's biography (somewhere around here in the mess), this evolved into more and more buying trips to California and eventually with the family moving there.

When prohibition ended, home winemaking was again explicitly permitted in federal regulations, but, apparently due to a clerical mistake, home beermaking was not. It took until 1979 for this oversight to be rectified.

Not that this stopped me - I began brewing in the early 70's.

I'll see if I can find out for sure if beermaking was permitted during prohibition.


02-21-2006, 20:29
You can still get in the house but it is empty. If you want to visit contact secretary@menckenhouse.org

02-22-2006, 12:53
So far in the book (I'm not quite through it yet) I've come across a couple of references to "Maryland rye". (No brands are mentioned in the text). One states that after the terrible Baltimore fire of 1904, there was a procession of firemen leaving the city. These firemen had come into the city from other places to help Baltimoreans and of course were greatly appreciated by the citizenry. Author Marion Rodgers, apparently quoting contemporary accounts, states that "flasks of Maryland rye" were pressed into the hands of the departing heros by grateful citizens. A second reference states that at one point, Mencken and a good friend, Philip Goodman, were visiting a lady, Sara Haardt, who later became Mencken's wife. (Sadly she died after only a few years of marriage, from TB and its complications). The story says the men drank "the traditional Maryland rye" and the lady sipped a cocktail made with gin, Cola and lemon. But most of the references to drink in the book are to beer which was Mencken's favorite tipple. He had strict rules about consuming: never when he had any work to do, never during the day in any event, and never alone (I wonder about this latter rule, I think he must have relaxed it in the later years). It is again an excellent book about a difficult man who could be exasperating and fixed in his ideas but who was a great prose stylist. Many quotes in the book are gems and some are very funny. But his was a take-no-prisoners type of humor, not for the faint of heart or super-sensitive.


02-24-2006, 09:07
I believe the legal status of homebrewing and winemaking during Prohibition was the same: prohibited but tolerated. Supposedly the American taste for "red sauce Italian" restaurants developed as a result of the many tiny, family-run restaurants that came into being during this period. Patrons came for the wine but fell in love with the spaghetti. Many Italian immigrants also operated small stills and made a type of raw brandy from their homemade wine.

02-24-2006, 10:58
My dad found one in my great grandmother's brownstone after she died.
He didn't realize what it was and kept the coil, discarding the kettle as trash.
My great grandfather did make a distilled spirit, but it was more like a grappa according to my mom. Distilled clear and some was enhanced with Anise, sugared lemon or spices.
(Think, Anisette, Limoncello, Galiano)
My grandmother continued to make the liqueurs from vodka, using the old recipes.