After the Second World War, the distilling industry was growing at an astounding pace. The distilleries finally had aged whiskey that could compete with imported whiskey and rum. There were no limits on their ability to distill once the war was over and consumers were purchasing Bourbon and rye whiskey almost at pre-Prohibition levels. Out of this growth there were four companies that controlled over half of the production of whiskey in the United States. These companies were Schenley Distilleries, National Distillers, Hiram Walker and Seagram. How did they get to this status and what happened to them?
Schenley Distilleries was founded during Prohibition. Lewis Rosenstiel had acquired the Schenley Distillery in Pennsylvania and its license to sell medicinal spirits. He then began to acquire other distilleries for their brands and aging stocks. By the end of Prohibition Schenley had purchased the Geo. T. Stagg Distillery in Frankfort, Ky., the James E. Pepper Distillery in Lexington, Ky. and the Squibb Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Ind. They had also acquired the brands and existing stocks for the Jos. Finch rye and were looking to expand further. Within a few years after the end of Prohibition they expanded by purchasing the Bernheim, Distillery in Louisville, Ky., and the New England Rum Distillery in Covington, Ky. as well as purchasing the Geo. A. Dickel’s brand “Cascade” whiskey. During the war they began to acquire many smaller distilleries in Kentucky and elsewhere. By the end of the war they were the largest of the “Big Four” companies. Schenley survived until the death of Rosenstiel in the 1978. The person who came to control Schenley wrote his MBA thesis on how to make money by selling off companies piecemeal and that is exactly what he did to Schenley. In 1987 the parts of the company were sold to what became Diageo.
National Distillers was created during Prohibition from American Medicinal Spirits, which was formed from the old whiskey trust. They had a license to sell medicinal spirits and actually controlled the largest portion of those sales during that time. They owned brands like Old Crow, Old Taylor, Sunnybrook, Old Grand Dad, Mount Vernon Rye, and Old Overholt. They continued to expand after Repeal, opening many distilleries that had been closed during Prohibition but expanding with new distilleries for existing brands like Hill & Hill. During the 1970s their sales became stagnant and National began to close distilleries. By the mid- 1980s, the company was sold to American Chemical which owned Jim Beam.
Hiram Walker was a Canadian company. After Repeal, they entered the United States markets by building a huge distillery in Peoria, Illinois and started selling Ten High Bourbon. They had a few other brands, but their strength was still Canadian Club Canadian whisky. In the 1980s, Hiram Walker purchased the Maker’s Mark brand and distillery from the Samuels family but by the end of the century, this company too was sold off and the brands sold to other companies.
Seagram is another Canadian company. After Repeal they decided to enter the American markets by building a huge distillery in Louisville. During the war, they acquired Frankfort Distillery with its Four Roses brand and distilleries. They also acquired the Henry McKenna brand and distillery. By the 1950s they owned the two Four Roses distilleries in Louisville, Ky., the McKenna Distillery in Fairfield, Ky., the Atherton Distillery in Athertonville, Ky., the Four Roses Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Ky. and a Seagram Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Ind. Being a Canadian company, they focused their sales on blended whiskey such as 7 Crown and they turned Four Roses into a blended whiskey. Their flagship brand continued to be Crown Royal Canadian. They survived to the end of the 20th century, but then they too were sold off to Diageo who in turn sold the Four Roses brand and Distillery to Kirin of Japan.The Big Four were indeed huge companies after the war, but by the end of the 20th century, they all ceased to exist. Even so, the brands they built are still with us today. The decline of Bourbon sales in the 1960s,70s and 80s hurt them and they became only marginally profitable as a whole, but after these companies were split up and sold, they continued to be remembered through the brands they once controlled.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller