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A history mashed and soured by prohibition

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By Brad Bowman

The facts about the beginnings and end of the Eminence Distillery Company have faded just as the yeasted scent of roasting sour mash whiskey which once permeated the city’s air. 

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According to a 1902 Henry County Local article, The Eminence Distillery Company — once known as the Fible and Crabb Distilling Company — was supposedly built in 1875 and owned by the Renz family. Charles Bright managed the distillery and a Sanford Insurance map dating from 1908 lists Newman Clock as the watchman.

The distillery operated near the railroad tracks by the old Brunswick factory, was heated by steam and stoves that burned coal and had lights that burned from lard oil.

Local lore has given much fame to the distillery’s Old Blue Ribbon Kentucky Whiskey product, a bourbon and rye sour-mash whiskey, but evidence shows the Eminence Distillery and Old Blue Ribbon Distillery bottled numerous types of liquors and cordials at its location.

By 1915, the company was owned by George Benz and Sons Inc., who had offices in St. Paul, Minn., and Louisville. George Benz and Sons credits the company under their letterhead as distillers of Kentucky, Maryland and Pennsylvania whiskies.

On an invoice from Nov. 15, 1913, three cases of Blue Ribbon Pints cost $12 each and Blue Ribbon half pints were just a dollar more.

Two letters from the Eminence Distillery Company found in a safe at the Henry County Local were from Mr. D.W. Nichol Supt. of the Eminence Distillery Company.

One letter dated Dec. 8, 1917, from the Louisville office states, “Enclosed you will find shipping slip which is self-explanatory. Please forward this barrel promptly in accordance with instructions contained therein. Don’t fail to ship the car of cased whiskey for St. Paul just as soon as you possibly can. Yours truly, Eminence Distillery Company.”

Other liquor brands distilled or bottled on location included Geo. Benz and Sons products: Pioneer Select Whiskey, Ned Wilkes Whiskey, Red Star Whiskey, Oldays Special Reserve Whiskey, Ferndale Whiskey, Sim Carter Whiskey and Dellwood Mellow Reserve Whiskey.

The George Benz and Sons Wholesale Liquor Dealers included German and Scandinavian liquors like Arrac Punch, Militar Punch and Aqavit. The company also sold strawberry, Orgeat and grenadine syrups. Ginger ale could be bought in casks of five dozen pints at $8.50 or $1.80 per bottle.

The company wrote a notice to its liquor dealers in May 1919 stating that the importation of liquor of all kinds was prohibited in September 1917 including wines. The memo warns that prices will continue to advance as, “…the general opinion prevails that no further wines or liquors will be imported between now and July 1, 1919 when War-time Prohibition will take effect.”

The Blue Ribbon Distillery in Eminence had a 3,500-gallon daily capacity. The Sanford map shows 12 fermenting tanks, a mash floor, more than seven outbuildings and a grain elevator.

A Sanford map from 1886 shows the previous Highland Distillery owned by Fible and Crabb had five fermenting tanks, an out building with a 4,000 barrel capacity and produced bourbon whiskey and used a water supply from a small lake on the premises. The distillery included a bonded liquor warehouse for 11,000 barrels and the map states that, “two men sleep on the premises and includes cattle and hog pens.”

The Henry County Historical Society printed in its November 1981 quarterly that the Eminence Distillery Company may have started its demise due to the sentiment for prohibition. In the Kentucky Court of Appeals case, Eminence Distillery Co. vs. Henry County Board of Supervisors, the company disputed the $100,000 property assessment value on its real property. Circuit court reduced the assessment to $75,000, but the company appealed. The company contended that the fair cash value was no more than $50,000. The company argued it should only be taxed on 60 percent of the property value at $30,000.

According to the quarterly, the court decision stated that the, “…proof shows, without contradiction, that the property was in a first-class condition of repair for the purpose of manufacturing distilled spirits; that one of the brands of whiskey manufactured that the plant called the Blue Ribbon had a great reputation for excellence and was much esteemed by the users of distilled spirits, but the territory in which it had its chief sale was in the northwesters states…nearly all of which had adopted laws which prohibited the sale of intoxicating spirits…effective on the first day of January 1916.”

The court decision would state the depreciation for the property rested in the prohibition of distilled spirits.

“… the consensus opinion that within a short time the manufacture and sale of distilled spirits in the state of Kentucky would be prohibited by law, which would necessitate the abandonment of the property.”

Prohibition and the political conditions of the time dictated the closure of the distillery. In the court records it was noted that although the property exceeded $250,000 in value the owner was willing to sell the property for $50,000.