Historically, Louisville has always been the Bourbon Capital of the world. The city is a center for transportation and communication out Kentucky. Even today in the age of cell phones and the internet, Louisville is still an important city in the Bourbon industry, for many of the same reasons as it was historically. However until the end of prohibition, Cincinnati was the second most important city to the Bourbon industry.
Cincinnati is a river town and an important port in the days of steamboats. It had a thriving riverfront and its own version of whiskey row. Many distillers shipped their product down river through the port of Cincinnati. E. H. Taylor, Jr. had several important customers in the city when he owned the O.F.C. Distillery in Frankfort. This included the firms of Augustus Labrot as well as James Levy and Co. who were steady purchasers of whiskey from O.F.C. The Old Pogue distillery also had connections with the city and sent much of their production to Cincinnati. The dirty little secret about Cincinnati’s whiskey row is that they were mostly rectifiers. The whiskey sold to these companies doing business in Cincinnati often ended up as part of a blended whiskey. There were many rectifying firms in the city and many of them owned distilleries in Kentucky and Pennsylvania to insure their supply of whiskey for these blends. Ohio was also the home of Duffy’s Pure Malt and Cincinnati played a major role in that company as it supplemented its Ohio production by acquiring Kentucky Whiskey to put it in its bottles.
Fleischmann Bros. distillery was located in the city and this firm played an important role in the understanding and use of yeast in the distilling process. Their distillery was located on the banks of the Ohio River on the west side of the city. The late 19th and early 20th century saw a thriving spirits industry in the city. Prohibition would change that. During prohibition, the city was headquarters to the Schenley Distillery, Inc. who was one of the firms with a license to sell medicinal spirits during prohibition. It was also the headquarters for George Remus and his illegal spirits distributorship. Both Schenley and Remus had headquarters in the city for the same reason – the city was close to the distilleries in northern and central Kentucky and their warehouses full of whiskey barrels.
When prohibition ended, the Whiskey Row in Cincinnati died in much the same way as it did in Louisville. It was no longer important to have offices in the river cities. Ohio is also a control state and does not have a business friendly atmosphere for distilled spirits. Trucking also changed the way that whiskey was shipped to market. There was a distilling presence in the city with Fleischmanns and others having some manufacturing in the city, but Remus was put out of business before prohibition even ended and Schenley moved their headquarters to the Empire State Building in New York City when prohibition was repealed. National Distillers had a distillery and a major bottling plant northwest of the city. This was the last major operation in the city and it closed down early in the 21st century. The closest major distillery is down river with the MGP distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana.
This does not mean that the city is dead to the distilling industry. While Ohio is still a control state, the government has changed many laws to make it easier to distill spirits in the state. There are craft distillers who are doing business in the city and the surrounding area. The city is also still just across the river from Northern Kentucky and plays an important part in the distilleries in that region of Kentucky. The two regions are tied closely together economically and socially. The citizens of Cincinnati have more ties culturally with Kentucky than they do to the rest of the state of Ohio. When the people of Cincinnati founded a Bourbon Society, they put Northern Kentucky in their name and have their meetings on the south banks of the Ohio at the New Riff Distillery. Kentucky is still a better atmosphere for holding such meetings with a wider selection of whiskey to choose from in the liquor stores. That may change in the future as state liquor stores give way to private sector liquor stores and distribution. Laws are changing and the spirits industry is growing in the area. The future is bright for the Cincinnati liquor industry.
Photos Courtesy of Maggie Kimberl and New Riff Distillery