The Wilken Family were the distillers for Schenley’s Lawrenceburg, Indiana distillery in the 1930s and 40s. This distillery was next to the former Seagram distillery that is now MPG Ingredients, Inc. It closed in the late 1980s and the last I heard a former United Distillers executive purchased it and was doing bottling for customers there. However it was an important part of the Schenley organization producing brands like Old Quaker and of course, Wilken Family blended whiskey.
The Wilken Family brand was created when Prohibition came to an end and Kessler came to them and offered to sell them his brand of blended whiskey. Kessler’s claim to fame was that he had sold more whiskey than anyone else at that time. Schenley rejected his offer and decided not to purchase a brand from a person who sold more whiskey than anyone else. It made more sense to create a brand that was based upon a family that made more whiskey than anyone else. Thus the brand was born. Did they really make more whiskey than anyone else? Probably not, but Schenley made the claim. The Wilken Family started distilling in 1886. I think the Beam or the Dant families could easily rival that claim even in 1935.
The booklet in my collection is a recipe book from 1949. It has many fun photographs of the family with amusing captions. The back cover has photos of Harry, Harry Jr., and William Wilken, the distillers. There are many interesting recipes, but it is interesting in that very few involve the use of whiskey. In the 1930s it was recognized that food could help sell whiskey and many distilleries were printing cookbooks. The emphasis was on recipes that could be described as “home cooking” – fried chicken, scalloped potatoes, and cakes and pies. The whiskey did not enter the book until the end of the book when they offered recipes for cocktails.
The book is 48 pages with a table of contents and an index so it is a nice little cookbook. The recipes are divided into sections such as “soups”, “entrees and vegetables”, “sauces”, “cakes and cookies” and “whiskey drinks”. The recipes are easily made with ingredients and direction clearly listed.
One of the few recipes with whiskey is “Ma Wilken’s Hard Sauce”. “Cream together ½ cup butter and 1 ¼ cup confectioners’ sugar, gradually adding 1 tablespoon Wilken Family Whiskey”. This recipe is typical in its use of whiskey – an ingredient in something sweet for dessert. Even their recipe for “Boston Baked Beans” does not use whiskey. It would take many years before distilleries would start placing whiskey in recipes involving meat or vegetables.
The “Whiskey Drinks” section has recipes for many “classic cocktails” such as Whiskey Sour, Manhattan and Mint Julep as well as punches and eggnog. The Manhattan recipe calls for a “dash of Angostura bitters or old Fashioned bitters, 1/3 sweet vermouth, 2/3 Wilken Family Whiskey. Add ice, stir until ice cold. Serve.” At least they call for a stirred, not shaken Manhattan!
The Wilken Family Home Cooking Album is an excellent example of distilleries using food to help sell whiskey. These cookbooks would evolve over the next couple of decades as recipes started calling for whiskey to be used in more dishes. They continued to be small paperback booklets up until the 1990s when Brown-Forman started promoting an expand use of Bourbon in cooking and released a hard bound Woodford Reserve Cookbook written by their chef in residence, David Larson. Cookbooks of this quality have been a growing part of the whiskey industry ever since. And it has not just been the distilleries releasing cookbooks. In 2010 Albert Schmid released his book “The Kentucky Bourbon Cookbook” and won the Gourmand Award for Best Book for Cooking with Wines, Beers and Spirits in the USA and for Best Book for Cooking with Drinks in the World. Cooking with whiskey has risen to a new level with respect from chefs from around the world.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller