Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Lost Dickel Partner.


My recent interest in George Dickel history led me to an article in the Fall 1998 issue of the Tennessee Historical Quarterly. It is entitled "George Dickel Tennessee Sour Mash Whisky: The Story Behind the Label," by Kay Baker Gaston.

She offers the same overall outline for the history that has long been known and agreed upon by just about everybody except Diageo. What's fun is some of the other stuff she uncovered, especially about Dickel and Shwab, the early years.

First, she found evidence that Dickel was a bastard (literally). His father's family acknowledged him but in a backhanded way, by having his bastard uncle stand as his godfather.

Dickel probably was a smuggler during the Union occupation of Nashville, as was Shwab and a 3rd partner, never mentioned in Dickel histories, probably because this partner was actually convicted. There was some evidence against Shwab, but not enough, and nothing against Dickel directly. Gaston concludes that the capital which got them all set up in the liquor business after the occupation came from their smuggling activities during it.

The other Dickel partner, the forgotten one, was Meier Salzkotter.

Salzkotter was in business, both licit and illicit, with Shwab's father and was married to Shwab's older sister, Cecelia. He worked for Dickel before Shwab did and was a partner in the Dickel enterprise until his death in 1891. All three men--Salzkotter, Dickel and Abram Schwab--did various kinds of business together in Knoxville and Nashville. Victor, Abram's son, dropped the "c" from his surname and joined a Christian church, but otherwise followed in his father's footsteps.

The author found evidence that Shwab also changed his given name many times in many small ways in his youth, apparently to confuse the authorities.

None of this was necessarily disreputable, at least within their community, as they were all good Rebs doing what they could to get around the Yankee occupation (1862-65).

Salzkotter got the worst of it. He was caught using false-bottomed wagons to smuggle prohibited goods past the Union blockade and spent time in a military prison for his offense. While he was away his wife, Victor's sister, decamped for Louisville and became a prostitute there.

Gaston also talks about another key part of the Dickel-Shwab-Salzkotter business, the Climax Saloon, which was in Nashville's prime entertainment district, close to the famous Maxwell House Hotel. The entertainment at Climax included liquor, gambling, and prostitution.

She also has details I didn't know about MacLin Davis, the distiller at Cascade (and part owner) who appears to be the man most responsible for the success of the whiskey itself. He and Shwab apparently had a close relationship, to the point that one of Shwab's daughters married one of Davis's sons.

All of which is more interesting than anything Diageo will tell you.

Gaston's sources are deed books, wills, newspaper stories, census records, city directories, and other sources published during the time the events occurred. No "oral history."

Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Soft Bigotry Of Low Expectations.

In September of 1999, Texas governor George W. Bush was already running for president. On September 2 he gave a major address on the subject of education to the Latin Business Association Luncheon in Los Angeles. During that speech, Bush introduced a memorable phrase, “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

Here’s what he said:

Some say it is unfair to hold disadvantaged children to rigorous standards. I say it is discrimination to require anything less – the soft bigotry of low expectations. Some say that schools can’t be expected to teach, because there are too many broken families, too many immigrants, too much diversity. I say that pigment and poverty need not determine performance. That myth is disproved by good schools every day. Excuse-making must end before learning can begin.

It is great political rhetoric because he defines a set of beliefs, allegedly held by his political opponents, then easily repudiates them on high principle. I don’t know who was saying those things, about schools not being expected to teach, surely no one, yet the phrase “soft bigotry of low expectations” rang true.

It came to mind today because the Geraldine Ferraro pot is still boiling. On “The McLaughlin Group” today, Pat Buchanan kept pressing the point of, “if he were white, with his resume at the time, would he have gotten the keynote speech in ’04?” The thrust of all this, still being argued with vigor by Clinton supporters in so many words, is that Obama’s is an Affirmative Action candidacy, possible only because of White Guilt and consequent soft treatment by the media.

Obama called Ferraro’s original statement “ridiculous” and that is the correct word for this whole line of reasoning. The most cynical part of the Clinton strategy is that many, perhaps most, of the people making the argument know it is disingenuous, but they’re making it because it resonates with whites of a certain age whose racism takes the following form. Although they do not practice racial discrimination as they perceive it, they still hold a deep-seated belief in white superiority and, therefore, they believe non-whites can only achieve positions of power and authority if they get extra help, i.e., an unfair advantage, i.e., an Affirmative Action pass.

I have seen this in every sphere of life, from people who aver in the most aggrieved way that they are not racists. Yet every time a non-white receives a promotion at work or is singled out for recognition in some other sphere, they grumble about Affirmative Action and Diversity.

That, too, is the bigotry of low expectations, and it is not so soft. The great irony of this flame being fanned by Clinton supporters is that high-achieving women are plagued by the exact same prejudice. About the only time you hear about this is when the speaker is arguing for the abolition of Affirmative Action programs, but it is a lot more pervasive than that. I know many people who react this way to any achievement by a non-white in any sphere.

This attitude seems to be most prevalent in people my age and older. (I’m 56.) I hope I’m right about that, which means it may die out eventually. Many see signs of this in Obama’s success.

Many American whites of my generation grew up hearing overt racism in our family and community, and consciously rejected it. By comparison with that, we’re not racist. But how can we make sure we’re not guilty of “the soft bigotry of low expectations”?

I think it begins with recognition and acceptance of racial awareness, recognizing that no one is “color blind,” either by birth or by training. We have to examine our own beliefs and reflexes with honesty. As white Americans, we have to recognize that the subject of race doesn’t arise only when a person of color enters the room. We have to recognize that all this racial “stuff” is a construct created by whites and racism is primarily a white problem.

So, the seemingly meaningful point being made so earnestly by several commentators, that Barack Obama “wouldn’t be where he is today” if he was white, is ridiculous. Why? Because he is not white. He is who he is just as every other candidate is, and there is only one sense in which that statement is true, and that is by the exact same logic that says Hillary Clinton would not be where she is today if she was black, and John McCain would not be where he is today if he was black, etc.

This is, in fact, a very handy test to determine if you are a racist or not. If you don’t see the statement about Obama and the parallel statements about Clinton and McCain as saying the exact same thing, if you see one as meaningful and the other as spurious and irrelevant, then you are a racist.

Thank you very much. So glad I could help.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Save Us From Well-Meaning Racists.

Geraldine Ferraro strikes me as one of those people who says things that sound better in her head than they do out loud. She is being condemned, correctly, for racism, but this flap is a perfect example of how racism can impair ones judgment.

Here is what she said:

If [Sen. Barack] Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman (of any color) he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept.

I have no trouble accepting her subsequent statements that she is not anti-black. That is one kind of racism, this is a different kind, the kind that causes one to process just about everything in terms of race. That kind is a little more complicated but no less racist.

As a consequence of Ms. Ferraro's excessive awareness of race, she fails to realize that her statement is incorrect and illogical. Obama isn't where he is because the media and the rest of society is "caught up in the concept" of an African-American president. Just the opposite is true. To the extent anyone is "caught up in the concept," it is because Barack Obama is an extremely attractive candidate who happens to have dark skin. For Ferraro's statement to be true, she would have to argue that the culture was ardently looking for a black man to install as president and found Barack Obama as a result of that search. Where is the evidence of that?

The important story here is the game the Clintons are playing. What they are doing, in a very clever way, is offering racists a kind of permission to let their racism influence their decision. They want to make sure that people whose racism is weak and in danger of being overwhelmed by other considerations, such as disdain for the type of politics the Clintons practice, get the kind of reinforcement that will bring their racism back to the surface. They're appealing to the person who will think, "well, although I'm not racist, there are a lot of racists out there and that will hurt the Democratic ticket in the fall, therefore I must vote for Senator Clinton."

That they got Geraldine Ferraro to carry this particular water for them is also offensive. Everyone in politics talks about their base. Senator Clinton's base appears to be elderly, alienated, disaffected white women.

Monday, March 10, 2008

George Dickel, the Boot.

I sure have been writing about George Dickel a lot lately. If you want to see all of them, that's what the labels at the bottom of each post are for. Click on the "George Dickel" label and you'll see every post in which George Dickel is mentioned.

Today I rise to add a small point. In Friday's post, I mentioned that the earliest record of George Dickel being in business in Nashville is from 1853. What I failed to mention is that he was not in the liquor business. He was a manufacturer of boots and shoes.

Austin Nichols, the parent company of Wild Turkey before it was acquired by Pernod Ricard, was a grocery wholesaler who started to sell wine and liquor, found it to be a very good business, and eventually dropped the groceries. That makes sense, I can see that happening, but how do you go from making boots and shoes to selling liquor?

Was that always his dream?

I can hear it now: "Humble shoemaker George Dickel had big dreams. He wanted to sell alcohol, because alcohol makes people happy and makes their pain go away, if only for a little while."

Or maybe he thought the whole Germans and boots thing was just a little too on the nose.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Sold For Parts.

What's worse than being sold? Being sold for parts. Maybe not. Dead is dead.

Old Crow is a brand of bourbon whiskey. The distillery where it was made from 1878 until 1987 is being demolished. You can find out how to buy some of the pieces here.

Old Crow today is a bottom-shelf product but once it was considered the finest whiskey in the land. United States Senators asked for it by name. It was one of the first whiskey brands and, as such, one of the first branded products of any kind.

Old Crow was not the first American whiskey but it was one of the first to be sold under a brand name. Before Old Crow, whiskey was a commodity. People only rarely drank the product of one distillery. Instead, distilleries sold to distributors, who combined spirits from several plants, filtered it through charcoal or bone dust, then treated and flavored it in various other ways before selling it to the public, generally by the barrel. A saloon or general store would buy a barrel. If I wanted some whiskey, I would take my own ceramic jug or other container down to the store and fill 'er up.

Sometime in the 1840s, James C. Crow, physician and distiller; and his employer, Oscar Pepper, distillery owner; began to sell their whiskey by name, either as Old Pepper or Old Crow. Pepper continued to sell Old Crow after Crow's death in 1856. Even though the distiller was dead, his whiskey only grew in popularity. When Pepper died too his son sold the distillery and the Old Crow brand. A few years later, the distillery went one way and the brand went another. A new Old Crow Distillery was built close to Frankfort--that's the one they're tearing down now. The original one is today's Woodford Reserve.

After Prohibition, Old Crow was the flagship brand of National Distillers and the #1 bourbon in a country that, in those days, didn't drink much other than bourbon. When bourbon tanked in the 1970s, no brand fell harder than Old Crow. By the time Jim Beam bought National in 1987, it had reached its present lowly condition.

Jim Beam got the Crow distillery, and several others, when it bought National. It closed them all immediately. (There was a whiskey glut.) For awhile, Beam used the warehouses at Old Crow, and at Old Taylor next door, but they didn't age very well because of their location. Whiskey warehouses in the country tend to be on hills, for air circulation. Crow and Taylor are in a narrow valley.

So when the whiskey that was put there originally aged out, they didn't put any new whiskey in. Years went by and the buildings and grounds deteriorated. Roofs caved in, brick walls collapsed. Beam sold Taylor first. It has had several owners since but no one has done anything much with it. Not long ago, Beam sold Crow to these guys.

Beam still owns the Old Crow brand. Here's what I'd love to see them do. Take one more look at the Old Crow site. Pick one cool thing. Pick two if you want, but pick at least one. I don't care what it is. Maybe it's that big limestone sign. I don't even care. Pick one cool thing and find a home for it, somewhere people can see it, like at Clermont where you have the visitors center. It wouldn't have to cost very much. I'm talking about bricks and stone, something that's already been outside for a century and can stay outside. Something that doesn't need a building. Do the same thing with Old Taylor and Old Grand-Dad. Is there anything left at Old Overholt?

These companies all say they care about the history. Show us how much you care.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Dickel Checks In.

I just got off the phone with Gene Song, Brand Manager for George Dickel at Diageo. He was very nice, but I can't say he told me anything to make me regret or take back what I wrote yesterday.

There are a few things to report on the availability story. The shortage of Dickel No. 8 really has not abated, but the younger Cascade Hollow Recipe is selling well. They haven't decided whether or not the Cascade recipe will remain after they have sufficiently resupplied No. 8, but they certainly seem to be leaning in that direction.

As for the shortages of Dickel No. 12 that people have reported, here and elsewhere, Song isn't willing to say there is an official shortage, but supplies are tight. Basically, Dickel has been enjoying its share of the bourbon boom. The interesting part is that it is not being driven by export, as Dickel is sold only in the USA.

So, on to the history. Song said the web site hasn't been updated since it was launched, so those statements aren't based on any recent discoveries. He attributes them to "oral history" put together by Ralph Dupps, who built and ran the current distillery for its then-owner, Schenley, starting in the late 1950s. Dupps passed away last December, at the age of 90.

As I said yesterday, my telling of the Dickel story is based on a timeline put together by Nick Morgan about 15 years ago. At that time, he was the company archivist. Now he's in charge of marketing their Classic Malts portfolio. Song said they've asked him to comment on my questions, but he hasn't responded yet.

The "oral history" explanation is frequently offered by the companies. Doesn't it seem odd that there isn't more documentation for some of this stuff? We're not talking about events that occurred 2,000 years ago. We're talking about Tennessee in the post-Civil War period, so 140 years ago and less. They had typewriters then, manila folders, filing cabinets. They kept a lot of business records. Why do all of these histories (the stories they want to tell, that is) have to be based on "oral history"?

But I can't hang that one on Dickel or Diageo alone. That's everybody: Beam, Daniel's, etc. When the Dickel company (mostly the Shwabs, George was dead by then) moved to Louisville after Tennessee went dry, they brought their records with them. All of that stuff is in boxes at the old Stitzel-Weller Distillery in Shiveley. I know there is a lot there documenting the Dickel company's relationship with the A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery, which made Cascade Tennessee Whiskey until National Prohibition put everybody out of business in 1920.

Song did provide one interesting piece of documentation, the brand's trademark filing with the United States Patent and Trademark Office. The trademark was filed in 1895, but it cites 1870 as the date of first use, and the trademark is for "Cascade" Distillery Handmade Sour Mash Tennessee Whiskey Geo. A. Dickel & Co.

Does that mean, contrary to other indications, that Dickel was marketing Cascade brand whiskey, made at Tullahoma, as early as 1870? Not necessarily, but it certainly suggests that someone was using the Cascade name that early, though I think it most likely was John F. Brown and F. E. Cunningham, the distillery's founders. On the other hand, most accounts put the founding of Cascade at 1877 or 1878 and, in fact, there is some good documentation that Brown and Cunningham bought the land that year, although that doesn't mean they weren't operating as Cascade somewhere else.

There's no question Dickel himself was in business by 1870. That's the first year Dickel & Co. shows up in the tax records. Morgan puts the founding of Dickel's business as early as 1853, so the person who put down 1870 as the date of first use wasn't referring to the Dickel part of the mark. The 1870 clearly refers to the Cascade part of the mark.

So the 1870 date on the trademark filing is pretty good evidence for a first use of Cascade, by somebody, in 1870. But not necessarily by George Dickel. In fact, probably not by George Dickel, contrary to what the web site claims. The 1895 filing unquestionably proves that Dickel and Cascade were one and the same by that point, but we pretty much already knew that.

Company A buys Company B. Company A was founded in 1920. Company B was founded in 1820. Even though Company A is the entity that remains, having assimilated Company B, it can claim an 1820 origin if it wants to. In buying Company B, it buys Company B's history too.

In 1888, 70-year-old George Dickel takes a fall off his horse and withdraws from active participation in the business. His partner, Victor Shwab, is in charge. In short order he buys controlling interest in the Cascade Distillery and the Dickel Company becomes exclusive distributor for Cascade whiskey. Seven years later, when Dickel submits the trademark application, it invokes the assimilated company's history as its own. There is nothing wrong with that, but you should use the assimilated company's actual history, not a made-up history that projects Company A's principal into Company B's narrative almost 20 years before it actually took place.

The most likely history is still the timeline Nick Morgan put together in the early 90s, as it cites to actual documents, not oral history. It's unlikely that George and Augusta Dickel ever visited Tullahoma. If putting George Dickel in Tullahoma at any point is the goal, that's a problem. His business was in Nashville, not Coffee County.

When I have these conversations with brand managers, they always tell me how much they care about the industry's history. Well, talk is cheap. Where is the company that will step up, fund some real research, publish the results, and let the chips fall where they may? It won't make the whiskey taste any different either way.

Finally, if you're still reading this, welcome to my world. I don't know why I concern myself with this stuff, but I do, and if you're curious enough to read it, well, then you're probably not much better. It can be fun, it can be frustrating, but most of all it's mighty thirsty work.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Who Can You Trust? Chuck Todd.

This year, everyone is a political commentator, even fictional characters from 1980s sitcoms.

With all the blather out there, who can you trust for the straight scoop? My choice is MSNBC's Chuck Todd. His title is Political Director, but he is the numbers guy and, as a friend of mine likes to say, "without good data, you're just another asshole with an opinion."

As Todd points out, behind all the hysteria about Tuesday's Clinton comeback are some hard numbers. Hard, that is, for Senator Clinton to overcome.

Delegate totals have to be estimated because it's unclear which super delegates are committed to whom and because the final delegate allocation from Texas isn't known yet, due to the caucus system. But Todd estimates that the net gain for Senator Clinton from Tuesday is about eight delegates, which leaves her about 140 delegates behind Senator Obama. For her to overtake him, she not only has to win in the remaining primaries, she has to beat him like a drum. Unless his campaign collapses, that seems unlikely.

Which explains all of the spinning, especially in the Clinton camp. About all she can do at this point is prevent Obama from getting to the convention with 2,024 delegates (the magic number) already in his pocket. He most likely will finish the primary campaign with the lead in delegates, votes cast and states won. Which is why she is furiously selling the idea that she has done best in the key states Democrats have to win to prevail in November. True enough, but that argument depends on the assumption that large numbers of her supporters in those states won't support the Democratic nominee in the fall. That proposition is debatable, but it's all she has.

We'll Get Back To You, Not.

A month ago, I wrote here about likely bullshit in the marketing of George Dickel Tennessee Whiskey. Though perhaps my process is backwards, the next day, better late than never, I sent my questions to the Manager of Public Relations at Diageo, Dickel's parent company. Two days after that, I received a call from one of the minions in Diageo's PR Department, wanting to know why I was asking so many questions. We had a pleasant conversation and she said she would get back to me.

Since then, squat.

Today, I sent an email to the original contact, laying out the chronology above. However, since it has been a month since my original inquiry, I now feel confident in saying that the new story Diageo is telling about Dickel, about how George and his young bride, Augusta, visited Tullahoma in 1867, where he dreamt about "creating the finest, smoothest sippin’ whisky," and then started a business there in 1870, is pure fiction.

Why does is matter?

The Keebler Elves were created in 1968 by the Chicago-based advertising agency, Leo Burnett Co. One of Burnett's trademarks was the use of mascots, fictional and, usually, illustrated characters who personified the brand's advertising proposition. The difference between Ernie Keebler and George Dickel is that George Dickel was a real person. So was Agusta Banzer Dickel, who had a younger sister, named Emma, who married George Dickel's business partner, Victor Shwab. All real people.

Not only were all of those people real, with real histories, but the things they did matter. The history of commercial enterprises may not be as significant as the history of governments, but they are part of the overall story of how we developed as a nation and people. The history of America's alcoholic beverage industries may be more important than most because they contributed so much to the nation's development in terms of taxes, and alcohol is the only industry that has prompted two constitutional amendments.

Part of what stimulated me to start taking a hard look at Dickel was the Associated Press report in December about a shortage at retail of George Dickel No. 8. Diageo spokespeople at that time cited the distillery shutdown between 1999 and 2003 as the cause of the shortage, and further stated that the shutdown was a result of overproduction in the early 1990s.

What caused that overproduction was an ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to make George Dickel a one-million case brand. One-million cases is the traditional threshold in the distilled spirits business for a major brand. One of the things they did at that time was try to put together a real history of Dickel. The person who spearheaded that effort was Dr. Nicholas Morgan, who was archivist at that time for Dickel's parent company in Great Britain. He had some research done and put together a timeline of key event's in Dickel's history. I have a copy of that timeline and it is through comparing that to what the company is saying now that the pattern of historical falsification (aka, bullshit) is revealed.

Nick Morgan is still at Diageo and is a big marketing honcho for their single malt scotch portfolio.

The practice of playing fast and loose with history is not unique to Diageo. Far from it. Virtually every company that sells American whiskey is guilty of at least some fudging with history. To some extent, it depends on how it is handled. Many of the things Brown-Forman says about Jack Daniel's are unproven and probably unprovable, but they call them "Legends and Lore." Jim Beam has no real evidence that, as they say, Jacob Beam sold his first barrel of whiskey in Kentucky in 1795, but the family has been saying that for a very long time so it's probably at least as good as some of the Daniel's claims. On the other hand, more recent fudging such as writing out of their history the contributions of Jim Beam's brother, Park, and his descendants, is of more recent vintage and, in my opinion, deplorable.

In one sense, at least, I can't complain too much about any of this because it gives me something to do. If you want the real history of the American whiskey industry, you pretty much have to come to people like me, because you're sure not going to get it from the companies.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Why Anonymity?

It's probably another sign of my advancing age, but there seem to be more and more things these days that I just don't get. One of them is the penchant for anonymity on the net.

I find it hard to take seriously opinions offered by people who won't own them.

I have a vague understanding that the use of handles grew up with the net in its early days and never quite left. I also understand that true anonymity is largely an illusion and often not maintained with any vigor. So what's the point? I genuinely don't get it.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Terrorists on Two Wheels.

Last Sunday morning, a 29-year-old Chicago man rode his bicycle through a busy intersection in my neighborhood, against the traffic light, and was struck and killed by an SUV.

Since the only person who died was the bicycle rider, it will seem very odd that I'm going to call him a terrorist. Stay with me on this.

"Terrorism" is defined as "the unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence by a person or an organized group against people or property with the intention of intimidating or coercing societies or governments, often for ideological or political reasons."

The crash last Sunday happened because about 40 bicyclists were participating in an unsanctioned race called "Tour Da Chicago." In such races, participants ride against traffic, deliberately defy traffic laws, and use their numbers to intimidate drivers into stopping or getting out of the way.

Here is what one of the organizers told a local TV station after the death:

"To blame the victim for dying such a tragic death I think is an injustice. It's an injustice that our culture is so embedded in auto use and the convenience of autos that we're willing to let our friends and loved ones be killed."

There you go.

Races such as "Tour Da Chicago" are related to a movement called Critical Mass, the only difference being that the Critical Mass riders aren't racing. The belief system behind them is the same. Cars are bad. Saving the earth is good. The ends justify the means. Have you heard of Earth First? They're an underground environmentalist group that sets fire to buildings that offend them, such as ski lodges in Colorado. Same mind-set.

I encountered a Critical Mass ride once here in Chicago, or maybe it was another one of these races, about a year ago. It was at night, on Montrose I think. I was driving, the car in front of me stopped suddenly, seemingly for no reason, and bikes appeared out of nowhere, just a few at first, then dozens more, riding against traffic. There were no accidents that I saw, but there certainly could have been. As others have reported, there was a lot of taunting and berating of motorists, some of it good natured, a lot of it not, which might easily have provoked violence.

Like a lot of people, I use both kinds of vehicle, so I had mixed feelings. The bicycle rider in me thought it looked like fun but I was in a car that night, so I became one of the bad guys.

All of us who survived our own youth know young people wouldn't do 90 percent of the things they do if they thought about the consequences. Reckless. Thoughtless. Endangering themselves and others. The risky behaviors usually involve alcohol, drugs, cars, sex. Why not bicycles?

Because kids do crazy things, most of the riders probably had only a vague understanding of the movement's ideological underpinnings, although the guy who died last week wasn't a kid, he was 29.

The ideology at work is a form of nihilist extremism. The only real difference between this and flying hijacked airplanes into buildings is one of degree. It comes from the same place. Now this extreme political movement has a new martyr.