Wednesday, June 13, 2012
New Larceny Bourbon Is A Mystery Times Two.
These are the labels for a new bourbon from Heaven Hill. The story they tell is true. It was revealed in a book published in 1999. It is about John E. Fitzgerald, the man after whom the Old Fitzgerald brand was named.
The Old Fitzgerald brand was created by Charles Herbst, a pre-Prohibition wine and spirits wholesaler, based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It was made at a distillery Herbst owned near Frankfort, Kentucky, called Old Judge (now long gone).
When Herbst created the brand he made up a story to go with it, that Fitzgerald was a distiller in Frankfort who, starting in 1870, made a fine bourbon whiskey that he sold only to railroads, steamship lines, and private clubs.
It was all fiction, but Fitzgerald was a real person, a U.S. Treasury agent. Treasury agents in those days, and up until the early 1980s, controlled access to all whiskey warehouses, the better to ensure that all taxes were paid and all whiskey was made to government standards. This made the local 'government man' very powerful and there was little a distiller or distillery owner like Herbst could do if the agent assigned to his distillery helped himself to a taste now and then.
Fitzgerald had a reputation among the Herbst folks for being a particularly good judge of whiskey. The barrels that received most of his attention almost always turned out to be exemplary, and it became an inside joke to refer to a particularly good barrel of bourbon as 'a Fitzgerald.' The joke was immortalized when they chose John E. Fitzgerald as the fictional producer of a brand they called Old Fitzgerald.
No one knew the true story until author Sally Van Winkle Campbell and her historian consultant, Sam Thomas, uncovered it. Campbell is the granddaughter of Julian 'Pappy' Van Winkle, who acquired the Old Fitzgerald brand from Herbst during Prohibition.
The label above was discovered through a different kind of sleuthing. It didn't come from Heaven Hill, which owns the Fitzgerald brand today. Instead it was discovered by a COLA troller. COLA stands for "Certificate of Label Approval." All alcoholic beverage labels have to be submitted to the Treasury Department's Alcohol Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) for approval, and when approved they become matters of public record and are posted on the TTB's web site.
COLA Trollers are enthusiasts who search the TTB web site for clues about new products. Label approval doesn't necessarily mean a product is imminent, or that it will be released at all, but they can be tantalizing, as this one is.