The Henry McKenna brand has grown in popularity since the 10 year old bonded Bourbon was named a best buy a couple of years ago. The brand was created by Irish immigrant, Henry McKenna. Henry McKenna was born in Ireland in 1819. He came to America and settled in Kentucky in 1838 where he owned a flour mill in Fairfield, Kentucky. He married Elizabeth Goodwin in 1847. In 1855 he started a distillery. It was a small distillery making less than a barrel a day and it is said McKenna placed an emphasis on quality over quantity in making whiskey. He hired another Irish Immigrant, Patrick Sweeny to be his distiller in 1860 and by 1865, he enlarged the distillery to make a little over a barrel a day. His whiskey was growing in popularity and by 1880, McKenna opened a sales office on Market Street, in Louisville to meet the growing demand. The very next year, he purchased a larger office on Market Street which came to be known as “the old Blue House”. The McKenna brand was well established as a fine Kentucky Bourbon.
Henry McKenna’s son, James, was by now working for his father and helped oversee this growth. In 1883 the McKenna family built a new, brick building in Fairfield, Ky., to house their new larger distillery capable of making 3 barrels a day. He received praise for the quality of the whiskey. Dr. Dudley S. Reynolds was quoted in the 1886 Industries of Louisville and New Albany saying “H. McKenna’s whiskey is the purest and best I have ever seen”. McKenna believed in well-aged whiskey and in 1892, the ”McKenna Bill” was placed before Congress asking for an unlimited bonding period. It failed to pass.
Henry McKenna passed away in 1893 and his sons James, Daniel and Stafford took over the business. The business continued to grow and the distillery was enlarged another couple times before Prohibition forced them to close down. Their aging whiskey was stored in the consolidation warehouses owned by A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery. The family still owned the whiskey but Stitzel and W. L. Weller & Sons bottled and sold the whiskey for the McKenna family as medicinal spirits during Prohibition, charging a fee for the bottling and a dollar a case commission for selling to pharmacies.
After repeal, James and Stafford McKenna (Daniel had passed away) re-opened the family distillery in Fairfield. Coleman Bixler, who had followed Sweeny as distiller before Prohibition, returned as distiller and the new distillery had a capacity of 20 barrels a day with storage for 8,000 barrels. Julian Van Winkle served briefly as vice president of sales to help the family get re-established. Bixler retired as distiller in 1936 and his son-in-law, Sam Simpson, became the new distiller.
The years of the Great Depression, followed by World War II caused the company to struggle to continue. The deaths of first Stafford and then James McKenna caused the family to sell the brand and the distillery to Seagram in 1941. However, the family did not sell the recipe for the whiskey to Seagram.
In 1943, Sam Simpson left the company to become distiller at the Barton Distillery. Seagram made the distillery just one of their many Kentucky distilleries. They continued to sell H. McKenna Bourbon, but most of the whiskey made at the Fairfield distillery was destined for other Seagram blends like Seven Crown and Four Roses. The demand for whiskey was large enough that Seagram enlarged the distillery in 1958 to 1,600 bushels per day.
The decline of straight whiskey sales starting in the 1960s and lasting into the 1980s, caused many Kentucky distilleries to close as they were no longer needed to fill demand. The McKenna distillery was no exception. In 1974, they made their last whiskey at the McKenna distillery in Fairfield. A young Ed Foote had gotten a job at McKenna in the early 1960s and was working there when it closed as their distiller. Ed would eventually leave Seagram after 20 years to become the distiller at the Old Fitzgerald Distillery in Shively, Ky.
In the early 1980s, Seagram sold the domestic rights to the Henry McKenna brand to Heaven Hill, but retained the rights to the brand for the overseas markets. Heaven Hill continues to sell McKenna Bourbon in regional markets in the United States. In 1995, Heaven Hill introduced a single barrel, 10 year old expression of the brand. In the early 21st century, the export rights for the brand were with Four Roses and Al Young worked on releasing the brand as a Bourbon in the New Zealand market, but I am not sure it was ever released. The sale of Four Roses to Kirin may have disrupted this plan release.
Henry McKenna is a brand with a rich heritage. Heaven Hill has done an excellent job keeping the brand alive and their single barrel expression is a very popular and tasty Bourbon. It would be interesting for Heaven Hill to get the overseas rights to the brand, as I expect it would be very popular in those markets.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller