When people think about the distilling industry in Kentucky, they think of places like Louisville, Lexington, Bardstown, Lawrenceburg, Frankfort and Owensboro. This is because these are places where the distilling industry prospered after the repeal of Prohibition. If Prohibition had not closed down this industry for fifteen years (people forget about war-time Prohibition that started in 1918), many more distilleries in other Kentucky towns might be around today. I am going to look at the Mida’s Financial Index Directory from 1909 and list the Kentucky towns and counties with distilleries in the index and focus on Cynthiana, Kentucky, one such town that has lost a vibrant distilling industry.
Cynthiana, Kentucky is located in Harrison County, north of Lexington. In 1909 it had a thriving distilling industry with three distilleries providing jobs to its citizens. These distilleries provided taxes, not only to the federal government, but also state and local taxes. The wages of the distillery employees supported other local businesses.
The first distillery was the F.S. Ashbrook Co., Distillery Number 35 of the 6th District. Their rating in the Mida’s Financial Index was a “CCC”. This meant they were worth $150,000 to $200,000 at the time. This is a substantial value in 1909 dollars. This distillery was locally owned so all of the profits of the distillery went back into the local economy. The other two distilleries were owned by firms in other states. These were the C.B. Cook Distillery. Distillery Number 6, 6th District, owned by National Distributing of Cincinnati, Ohio and A. Kellar Distillery, Distillery Number 9, 6th District, owned by Paris, Allen & Co. of New York City. National Distributing had a rating of “BBBB” with a value of $400,000 to $500,000 and Paris, Allen & Co. had a rating of “AAAA” with a value of over a million dollars. While the profits from these distilleries went to investors in other states, the taxes and employee wages went back into the local economy. Think of it as a similar impact to the economy as if an auto manufacturer decided to build a plant making parts for their cars in a small town.
To add to the economic impact of these distilleries, they needed grain to make their whiskey and local farmers could sell corn to these distilleries. They needed women for the bottling line at certain times of the year, so they supplied employment for women when there were very few options for women to earn money on their own. Times were good until Prohibition shut the distilleries down.
After repeal, there was a distillery that reopened and distilled until the 1960s when it was shut down, but Cynthiana never reached the same level of investment as it did in its pre-Prohibition hey-day. The result is Cynthiana has not had the economic advantages from distilling that towns such as Bardstown and Lawrenceburg have enjoyed over the years. In the modern world, this includes the economic impact of Bourbon Tourism.
There is hope for the future. With old brands being revived by new artisan distillers, Cynthiana could get back into the business. There was once a thriving business in Cynthiana, so the local water sources must exist and there are plenty of farmers to supply the grain. May a descendant of the Cook or Kellar family can find the old records of their distilling ancestor and revive the family business. The Pogue family did this just up the road from Cynthiana in Maysville, Kentucky. It would be an economic benefit for this small, Kentucky town.