There was a legal spirits business during prohibition. There were six companies that applied for the license to sell “medicinal alcohol” during the great dry spell of the United States. These six companies were:
- American Medicinal Spirits, which later became National Distillers,
- Schenley Distilleries,
- James Thompson and Brother, that later became Glenmore Distillery,
- Frankfort Distillery,
- Brown-Forman and
- Ph. Stitzel Distillery.
Schenley Distillery was headquartered in Cincinnati and AMS was headquartered in New York. The other four companies were all located in Louisville.
These companies were allowed to sell spirits according to the individual state regulations which mostly limited the package to pint bottles but some states allowed for half pint, quart and 4/5 quart sized bottles. A person could get a doctor’s prescription for one pint of 100 proof spirits every 10 days. This could be whiskey, brandy or rum. The companies could sell to pharmacies based upon this demand and that was the bulk of their business. Once a year they could sell 12 pints of spirits to doctors and dentist for office use and they could sell 12 pints of brandy or rum to bakeries.
These six companies had a limited amount of their own spirits to sell. To increase their portfolio of offerings they would also act as representatives for companies who owned spirits but did not have a license to sell. When prohibition went into effect, there were many distilleries that had spirits in the warehouse and these distillers continued to own those barrels of aging spirits. In order to sell them they would contact these six companies and let them bottle and sell the spirits in the legal market, paying the sellers a small fee for the sale, as well as bottling costs and often storage fees. An example of this is that A.Ph. Stitzel acted as representative for Geo. A. Dickel’s Cascade, Wright and Taylor’s Old Charter, Henry McKenna, and Mary Dowling’s Waterfield and Frazier. They sold these brands but did not own the trademarks or the whiskey. They usually earned a fee of one dollar a case plus bottling costs.
As these companies began to run out of their own whiskey they would also purchase whiskey from distillers who had whiskey but could not sell it. Sometimes they would also purchase the trademark as well as the whiskey. A. Ph. Stitzel acquired the Old Fitzgerald brand and Brown-Forman acquired the Early Times brand in this manner. More often they simply purchased the barrels of whiskey to support their existing brands. If you examine the tax stamps on a brand you will often find multiple DSP numbers for the manufacture of the whiskey. That shows the different whiskeys that went into the brand over the long thirteen year period of prohibition.
In 1928 the government realized that the stocks of medicinal whiskey were running short. They allowed for a limited amount of production to these six companies to replenish their dwindling stocks. Since most of the distilleries were closed and often stills sold for scrap, there was a scramble to find production facilities and experienced distillers to make this whiskey. A.Ph. Stitzel Distillery was able to distill and they hired Elmo Beam as the distiller. He must have been very grateful to Stitzel for hiring him to legally do the job in a field he grew up doing. Stitzel made whiskey for themselves and also for Brown-Forman and Frankfort Distillery in 1928. Brown-Forman opened their own distillery in 1929 and began to make their own whiskey but Frankfort continued to contract distill with Stitzel until the end of prohibition and when Stitzel-Weller opened, Stitzel sold the old A. Ph. Stitzel distillery to Frankfort Distillery.
These companies did not make a huge profit but they survived prohibition and kept many brands alive. When prohibition ended they had some stocks of aging whiskey and operating distilleries that gave them a small advantage in the marketplace. Even so they had stiff competition from imported whiskey from Canada and Scotland which was already aged and ready for the marketplace. Many Americans preferred these products to the young whiskey or over aged whiskey the American distilleries could offer. There was also a great depression at the time and many companies did not survive for long after opening their distilleries after repeal.
Photos Courtesy of Maggie Kimberl