Foreword: This is the third in a series of posts demonstrating how American whiskey distillers, rectlifiers (blenders), and wholesalers used the image of Uncle Sam prior to 1920 as the Prohibition “noose” tightened on the industry. It was a ploy to lend a patriotic aspect to their marketing. But as the cartoon shown above indicates, the force of “dry” also saw Uncle Sam abetting the liquor industry by profiting significantly from the taxes collected. Before 1920 the largest source of federal revenues were excise taxes on alcohol.
The trade card from “Wolf’s Famous Distilling Company” of Kansas City was a typical depiction of Uncle Sam in the whiskey trade. The old gentleman is pointing to a federal revenue stamp on “Wolf’s Monogram Whiskey” that indicates it has been “bottled in bond,” that is, under government mandated conditions that dictated length of aging, alcoholic strength or “proof” and other requirements in return for delayed taxation. Although the claim that the stamp guaranteed “strength” might have some validity, it had nothing to do with quality or purity.
“Freeland Sour Mash” was a whiskey brand from Henry W. Smith & Company of Cincinnati. Although this outfit has been described as operating a distillery in Covington, Kentucky, across the Ohio River from 1890 to 1901, records indicate that Smith was a rectifier, re-distilling and blending whiskeys obtained from Kentucky distilleries, particularly several in the Covington area, Federal District #2. It somewhat strange then that Uncle Sam is shown sitting whittling on the 7th District in Kentucky, some distance from Cincinnati.
The Yellowstone Whiskey ad specifically identifies Uncle Sam with “Bottled in Bond. A whiskey wholesaler, the firm of Taylor & William was established in Louisville just after the Civil War in 1865. In 1871 the sales manager, Charles Townsend, made an annual trip to the West Coast. En route he visited the newly opened Yellowstone National Park and, noting the enthusiasm over this natural wonder, decided it might be a good idea to name a whiskey after it. Viola! a
national brand was born!
This tradecard from what purports to be “Mascot Rye,” is an unusual depiction of Uncle Sam. In the first place, he is without his trademark top hat and bears a collar on which is written “honest and good as I am.” The label on the bottle bears an image of a horseman riding through a horseshoe and identifies J. Polsnek” of Akron, Ohio, as the source of the whiskey. My extensive research on Polsnek and Mascot Rye has failed to reveal any information on either.
By contrast, George Benz & Sons are well documented St. Paul, Minnesota, whiskey wholesales and eventually distillers, after buying the Blue Ribbon Distillery in Eminence, Kentucky. One of the company’s premier brands was “Uncle Sam’s Monogram Whiskey.” The image of Uncle, however, gives him dark skin, looking like a strutting performer in black face.
A second representation of this whiskey in a Benz saloon sign, finds him safely white, albeit with a pot belly. George Benz and his wife bore five sons, many of whom entered the business. In 1887, the name was changed to George Benz & Sons to reflect their role in the business. The sons continued the enterprise following George Benz's death in 1908 at age 69, switching to real estate upon the advent of Prohibition in 1918.
This ad for McCulloch’s Green River Whiskey, a major Kentucky bourbon is more subtle in its identification of Uncle Sam with the product. In the background, is one or more “guagers,” federal officials tasked with testing each barrel from the distiller to ascertain the “proof,” i.e. percentage of alcohol contained on which the tax can be levied. It may be symbolic That Uncle Sam is looking away from the testing process and busy whittling. Too often, it seems, distillers bribed the gaugers to under-report the alcoholic content and lower their tax obligations.
Theodore Netter, one of several Philadelphia brothers who were in the liquor trade, united two symbols of America for his trade card. Uncle Sam stands on one side and (Miss) Freedom, here wrapped in the flag, stand toasting each other. Netter adds in a shield to claim that his blended — and not bottled in bond — “American Famous Fine Whiskey” is “guaranteed under the National Pure Food Act.” This was yet another false claim in an effort to appear government approved. The food and drug authorities soon reacted to such claims and levied sanctions against their use.
The notion of not just one but two symbols of the United States also appealed to the Scottish makers of Haig Whiskey. A trade card for American consumers featured Miss Liberty of statue fame holding aloft a bottle of the famous pinch bottle while Uncle Sam takes an obsequious bow before this United Kingdom import. Haig distillery, now known as the Cameronbridge Distillery was founded in 1824. In 1830, it became the first distillery to produce grain whiskey using the column still method.
Each of the images above was created before 1920 and the advent of National Prohibition. After Repeal in 1934, and the effective end of the “dry” threat, the use of Uncle Sam as a symbol for whiskey merchandising largely came to and end. From time to time, however, a whiskey-maker will decide to resurrect the image in whole or in part. One of the nation’s oldest and most iconic brands not so long ago decided to advertise its longevity at Christmas time by stowing a bottle with a gift package in Uncle Sam’s top hat. The simplicity of the design can be compared with those shown earlier.
Note: The two prior treatments on this blog that featured Uncle Sam in liquor ads were “Enlisting Uncle Sam as Booze Salesman,” October 1, 2011, and “Return of Uncle Sam - Whiskey Salesman,” February 15, 2013.