Sunday, April 10, 2011

Who Was John E. Fitzgerald?

Old Fitzgerald Bourbon is an old brand with genuine 19th century roots. Today it is made by Heaven Hill. The whiskey itself is unusual because it is one of a handful of bourbons that use wheat instead of rye as the flavor grain. The best known 'wheater' is Maker's Mark. W. L. Weller is another.

I like wheaters and Old Fitz is good bourbon. This isn't about that. This is about the name and the man behind it.

The Old Fitzgerald brand originated with Charles Herbst, an international wine and spirits dealer based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Among his various holdings was a Kentucky bourbon distillery which to locals was known by the name Old Judge, on Benson Creek near Frankfort, Kentucky. Members of the Bixler family were distillers there.

That is where Herbst made all of his bourbons and ryes, including Old Fitzgerald. It closed with Prohibition and never re-opened.

Herbst, in his marketing of Old Fitzgerald Bourbon, claimed the distillery was built by John E. Fitzgerald who, after selling it to Herbst in about 1900, moved to Hammond, Indiana (a suburb of Chicago) to run a distillery there. Under Herbst, Old Fitzgerald became a successful brand. During Prohibition, Herbst sold it to Julian P. 'Pappy' Van Winkle. After repeal, Old Fitzgerald became the flagship brand of Van Winkle's Stitzel-Weller Distillery.

Back when the Old Fitzgerald brand was created, just like today, producers thought nothing of creating completely fictitious origin stories for their products. Evidence that only emerged about ten years ago reveals the true story of John Fitzgerald. I shan't go into every twist and turn here. Suffice it to say that based on the evidence I've seen, this is the most likely story.

John E. Fitzgerald was neither a distiller nor a distillery owner. He was a Treasury agent with a powerful thirst who also happened to be a good judge of whiskey. Not only was he known to help himself to a sample now and then, he supposedly only poached from honey barrels. As a result, Herbst and his associates got into the habit of calling any particularly good barrel of whiskey 'a Fitzgerald.' Naming a brand in his honor was for them a wonderful inside joke, which Herbst revealed many years later.

Some people, in telling this 'new' story, have taken to referring to Fitzgerald as a ‘security guard.’  Perhaps they are doing this to avoid offending the Feds. The story is that Fitzgerald had the ‘keys to the warehouse,’ which they interpret as 'security guard.'

The problem with that interpretation is that this was a bonded warehouse and in that era the only person who had ‘keys to the warehouse’ was the assigned Treasury agent. Even the distillery owner didn’t have keys. This was true from passage of the Bottled in Bond Act of 1897 until the system was changed in the early 1980s. Every distillery had a 'government man' on the premises who controlled all access to the warehouses. If Fitzgerald had keys to the warehouse, he had to be a Treasury agent. That's all there is to it.

1 comment:

sku said...

That is a great story, so much more interesting than some ancient distillery founder. Is this the only bourbon named after a corrupt fed?