Sunday, August 25, 2013
Whatever Happened to Old Judge?
Old Judge is a distillery, fairly important in its day, that seems to disappear from history almost as soon as it appears. Was it revived in some form after Prohibition? Not with that name, nor with its #1 brand. The distillery's pre-Prohibition best-seller, Old Fitzgerald, was owned by Louisville's Stitzel-Weller Distillery when Prohibition ended.
This picture, taken in 1961, may have been taken at the distillery once known as Old Judge. The man in the suit, on the right, is Otis Beam, one of the seven distiller sons of Joseph L. Beam. The distillery where this was taken was called 21 Brands. The picture comes from a neat little collection of 16 photos at the University of Louisville Library that can be found here.
21 Brands was owned by Francis T. Hunter, the gold medal winner in tennis at the 1924 Paris Olympics, who in 1933 founded 21 Brands, an importer and distributor of wine and liquor. In 1956, he bought what was then the Rocky Ford Distillery. According to the Dow Jones News Service, it had a production capacity of 40,000 barrels a year, about 2 million gallons. The purchase price was a little more than $1 million. Hunter sold it in the late 1960s to Sid Flashman, who changed the name to Double Springs. The final owner was Abe Schecter, formerly of Barton, who closed it for good in about 1978.
After consulting Sam Cecil's book as well as Trey Zoeller's, it would appear that 21 Brands was Old Judge, refurbished into a modern plant. According to Zoeller, it was also called Old Kennebec, whereas Cecil has those as two separate distilleries.
No one knows who established the original distillery on Benson Creek but it was owned by Charles Herbst, a major international wine and spirits dealer based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Herbst always claimed it was established by John Fitzgerald, after whom Old Fitzgerald was named, but that turns out to be fiction. Herbst's Old Fitzgerald was, however, a very successful pre-Prohibition brand. A photo of the Old Judge Distillery, taken in 1906, was altered to serve as the Jno. E. Fitzgerald Distillery in advertising. Herbst's distillers at Old Judge were members of the Bixler family.
During Prohibition, Herbst sold the Old Fitzgerald brand but not the distillery to Pappy Van Winkle's Stitzel-Weller Distillery. What had been Old Judge was revived and modernized after Prohibition and went through a number of different owners and names, including Sam Clay and Benson Creek, before becoming Rocky Ford and then 21 Brands.
Distilleries like 21 Brands struggled to survive, even though bourbon was booming, because although they had a few small, regional brands they mostly sold bulk whiskey to non-distiller producers, a very competitive, low margin business. When sales began to trend downward at the end of the 1960s, everyone found themselves with too much inventory. Producers that had strong brands in their stables were able to continue but most commodity producers went out of business.