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    Bourbonian of the Year 2011
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    Sep 2002
    Toronto, Canada

    1933 Fortune Article on End of Prohibition and Publicker

    A 1933 issue of Fortune magazine assessed the state of the U.S. liquor industry as it entered the post-Prohibition era. There were around 20,000,000 gallons of whiskey in the warehouses. Most had been distilled since 1929 under special permits (available to some companies which already owned whiskey stocks, the new production was intended to replenish inventories for the medicinal spirits market). Of the 20,000,000 gallons, only about 3,000,000 were pre-Prohibition whiskey.

    The article projected that most of this whiskey would be “cut”, i.e., the old and newer whiskeys would be combined and alcohol and flavouring added to make blended whiskey. It was noted that much of the pre-1920 whiskey market was composed of such blended whiskey and the reconstructed industry would follow suit in this regard. It was noted nonetheless that some pre-Prohibition whiskey would be sold on its own in 1934, especially under old brand names that had been hallowed for quality. I have seen mid-1930’s ads vaunting the last of such uncut, pre-Prohibition whiskey. It was projected that the shortage of straight whiskey would cease by the later 1930’s, i.e., once the new production furiously underway had aged a sufficient time.

    Of the 20,000,000 gallons, half was controlled by National Distillers which emerged out of the pre-1920 “whiskey trust” and which had also become a producer of industrial alcohol and food products. During the 1920’s, it absorbed the largest medicinal spirits supplier, AMS, and this potent combination produced National Distillers which endured as we know until 1987. One–quarter of the gallonage was controlled by the emerging liquor empire of Schenley. The rest was spread amongst a series of smaller companies of which Publicker of Philadelphia, PA was one. (Thus, it was not Publicker which controlled the 25% as I suggested earlier, but rather Schenley).

    Fortune devoted a separate story to Publicker, profiling a company which sought to become a major force in the emerging legal liquor business. Publicker was the name of two brothers in Philadelphia who before World War One were engaged in different aspects of alcohol production. One became a distiller after initially selling liquor removed from the staves of used whiskey barrels (it was done by a steam process). The other brother was involved in producing alcohol for industrial purposes. One of the Publickers had a son-in-law, Simon Neuman, who became the President of the Publicker which emerged from the Volstead era.

    The story in Fortune focused mostly on the plans of Publicker to age whiskey faster than normal through some kind of special process. Its chief chemist, Dr. Carl Hamer, was working on a method in which much hope was placed. The story did not disclose the details which no doubt were secret.

    On another website, it has been suggested the process subsequently was used in the production of whiskey blends but not to make straight whiskey – this makes sense since with the benefit of history we know that to date no substitute has been found for the process of aging spirits for years in wood to achieve the desired maturation results.

    Thus, while to all appearances the secret Publicker process did not produce what was expected, at least for straight whiskey, the company nonetheless grew into a large and respected producer both of straight and other whiskeys and numerous other forms of liquor. Also, as has been explained in other threads on this site, it continued and expanded its production of alcohol for industrial purposes. The name Continental Distilling for the beverage alcohol operations was already devised in 1933 and is referred to in the story.

    The Fortune piece indicates that Publicker intended to create new brand names for its whiskey, unlike, say, National Distillers which had collected famous old names such as Old Gran-dad, Old Taylor, Old Overholt and Mount Vernon and re-established them as quality straight whiskeys. Dave gave the example of Rittenhouse rye, named after Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia.

    It is interesting to consider what Fortune thought would occur in the repeal era in terms of U.S. liquor consumption patterns (i.e., in general). It was projected wine would become a major drink, as it did ultimately although it took longer than I think the Fortune writers thought might happen. They did accurately predict the high quality of American wine production, stating it would compete with all but the best vintages in France and Germany (probably still true). They accurately predicted that beer would remain a mainstay American drink. They predicted that gin would grow by leaps and bounds due to its popularity in the 1920’s, as it did until partly eclipsed much later by vodka, and that the taste for imported Scotch would grow. I don’t think they saw though how big Canadian whisky would become. The writers seem to have regarded it as the same as the native American bourbon and rye and felt that tariff barriers would prevent it from becoming a force in the American whiskey market. However, Canadian whisky grew quickly after repeal despite the tariff. Canadian producers cleverly positioned their blends as quality beverages which appealed to those of refined taste due to their mildness and lightness. Of U.S. straight whiskey and the blended derivative, Fortune assumed they would be the mainstay of the U.S. liquor business for many years. Indeed this did occur, for some four decades. Still, I think Fortune in 1933 would be amazed at how straight and blended whiskey have fallen off the perch as the main form of liquor consumed in America and become a smaller, specialty market (fortunately rebounding now to a degree).

    In 1933, liquor meant, simply, whiskey; now, that has changed.

    Last edited by Gillman; 02-27-2008 at 10:38.



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