Saturday, June 22, 2019

The Future of Boutique Distilleries

Because of my two blogs that deal with whiskey, from time to time I am called upon by start-up distilleries for images and sometimes for thoughts.  Two years ago the Delaware Valley Fields Foundation asked me to come to a convention of boutique distillers, held at the Philadelphia “Phillies” ballpark. I was part of a panel discussing the history of rye whiskey-making in Pennsylvania.  It was a fascinating experience, allowing me to talk to a number of young people about their business plans and the first of several encounters with distilling start-ups.

Opening a distillery and expecting to make a living at it is a tricky business.  Unlike boutique breweries where the beer can be drunk almost as soon as it is produced, real bourbon and rye must be aged at least four years by law and a proprietor easily could go broke waiting.  There are interim strategies, e,g. making and selling “moonshine” —clear whiskey— or flavoring as gin the clear liquid that comes out of the tubes.  But competition is heavy in both areas. I left the convention worried about the futures of those starry-eye young people.

As in the case of Sagamore Spirits Distillery of Baltimore, Maryland, it is best to have a millionaire owner such as Kevin Plank, shown here.  He is the CEO of Under Armour Corp., high flying manufacturer of sports and casual attire, including footwear.  Sagamore’s public relations people were in touch with me for ideas on a gallery devoted to Maryland’s rich whiskey past.  For several years the distillery has been up and running at Baltimore’s Port Covington, where the cruise ships anchor. Shown below, It is the first part of a envisioned $5.5 billion development there to include a new headquarters for the Under Armour, residences, stores and recreational amenities. The distillery currently is open for tours and for tastings.

Until recently, however, the whiskey bearing the Sagamore labels was NOT made on premises, but in Indiana at a conglomerate-owned distillery that makes whiskey for a host of start-ups.  Meanwhile Sagamore’s product was aging to the desired four years.  Plank’s distillers are not trying for top shelf status, competing with quality national brands of longstanding. Theirs is not “sippin’ whiskey.” Instead they emphasize using their ryes in mixed drinks and cocktails.  It is priced accordingly, with a fifth generally available in the $35 to $50 range.  While probably losing money for Mr. Plank initially, Sagamore has a good longterm strategy for profitability.

The Jos. A. Magnus Company of Washington, D.C., is on a more worrisome track.  Having seen a post of mine about Joseph Magnus of Cincinnati (shown here) on my Pre-Pro Whiskey Men website, his great-grandson, Jimmy Turner, a former sports agent, was in touch with me several years ago about his vision of reviving the Magnus brand name on whiskey.   

Although I was cautionary, Mr. Turner has been successful in finding sufficient investment to install a distillery in a vacant warehouse in Northeast Washington, hired a young, confident looking distiller named Brian Treacy to run it, and has placed his Joseph Magnus Straight Bourbon Whiskey in liquor stores including Northern Virginia where I live.

This distillery also is making gin and, I assume, some moonshine.  But like Sagamore Spirits, while the Magnus D.C. distillation is aging the required four years to be marketed as bourbon, it has contracted with the Indiana outfit for product.  Unlike the Baltimore oufit,  Magnus has priced its whiskey as a top shelf bourbon, selling for as much as $90 a bottle.  Even after its own distillation has sufficient age, breaking into the Woodford, Wild Turkey, Pappy Van Winkle circle will be extremely difficult without the national advertising those brands can afford.  I hope the best for the Magnus Distillery but with trepidation.

My final distillery has neither a rich underwriter like Sagamore nor a distinguished pre-Prohibition pedigree like Magnus.  It is the Flying Buck Distillery of Augusta, West Virginia.  It is the brainchild of Jim Gearing, a retired federal employee and wine maker, and his partner, Jimbo, an organic farmer and barbecue griller who lives off Route 50 east of Romney, WV.  Compare their distillery building here with Sagamore’s above.

I recently attended a tasting of Flying Buck liquors, presided over by Gearing, who clearly is a master of taste when it comes to alcoholic beverages.  As can be seen from the bottles here, the partners are experimenting with various flavors of moonshine, including fruit-flavored “Apple Pie,” barreled “Naughty Oak,” and plain “Spirit Whiskey.”  The taste of each was unexceptional to me (others invited to the tasting seemed more enthusiastic).  The problem is the intense competition:  Every boutique distillery in America seems to be making moonshine and trying to market it.

The one Flying Buck product that tickled my taste was its “Raspberry Starshine,” a cordial that, as the label here shows, combines red raspberries with herbs and spices.  There may be real prospects for it.  Although Brown-Foreman, a major liquor company,  has sold the French raspberry liqueur “Chambord” in the U.S., Gearing believes it is no longer available.  As a result the marketplace may be wide open for Raspberry Starshine.  Right now Flying Buck is attempting to get the aperitif placed in the state liquor stores of Virginia.  P.S.  I bought a bottle.

If these stories have a common theme, it is that unless one has a “deep pockets” owner like Kevin Plank, the future prospects for the great majority of boutique distilleries is problematic.  The positive side is the prospect of their bringing new and desirable spiritous products to the marketplace, just as the craft breweries have broadened the taste of Americans in the matter of beer.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Mike Owens and His Revolutionary Bottle Machine

On February 26, 1895, an American glassworks employee named Michael J. “Mike” Owens, shown right, was granted a patent on his machine for blowing glass and 2,000 years of making bottles went crashing into shards.  Early next year we will celebrate the 125th anniversary of that defining moment in glass manufacturing.

Glassblowing as a technique is believed to have been invented by Syrian craftsmen in the first century B.C. somewhere along the Syro-Palestinian coast.
The rise of the Roman Empire served to spread the technology to other areas and blown glass became common for household and other uses.

Over two centuries, techniques for glassblowing were tweaked but did not change significantly.  The worker attached molten glass on the end of a blowpipe and with his breath pumped air into the blob until it reached a desired shape. After the glass had cooled it was broken away from the pipe, rough edges smooth and, voila!, a bottle.

Growing up in West Virginia, Mike Owens knew a lot about blowing glass.  Born on January 1, 1859 in West Virginia, he was the son of an Irish immigrant coal miner.  Sent early to work for the family by the age of fifteen he had become a glassblower in a Wheeling, W.V., factory.   Through intelligence and hard work he advanced to a master glass worker, leaving his native state to help organize a glass company at Martins Ferry, Ohio.

Owens’ reputation reached north to Toledo, Ohio, where rich and well-born Edward Drummond Libby, left, had taken control of a glass factory and in 1888 offered him a better paying job.  His talent evident, within three months Owens was managing the glassworks department.  Several years later he approached the owner to say that he had idea for an automatic bottle machine and asked for money, time, and assistance to bring it to reality.

Many industrialists might have scoffed and told Owens to get back to work.  Libby, for whom my aunt, Nell Sullivan, was a secretary, was an enlightened entrepreneur. (Around my Toledo home we always referred to him reverentially as MR. Libby.)  He gave full backing to Owens and on February 26, 1905, the inventor was awarded Patent No. 534,840 for a glassblowing machine, the drawing shown here.  In the paperwork accompanying his application, Owens stated:  “My invention relate to an apparatus for blowing glass and has for its object to perform mechanically, what has heretofore been done manually.”

With that announcement, two centuries of making bottles by human breath came to an end, except for artisanal purposes.  By automating the manufacture of glass containers Owens helped eliminate child labor in glassworks — a practice of which he was well aware.   Two diseases were eliminated that plagued the workers, an inflammation of the aerodigestive tract and clouding of eye lenses, both resulting from exposure to hot gases.  

On the economic front, the cost of glass bottles was reduced by 80%, leading many canners, brewers and distillers, to move rapidly to machine-made containers.  At the same time, however, it left many glassblowers and their helpers unemployed since the mechanized process needed many fewer employees.

Within three years of the invention, the early Owens machine produced an estimated 105 million bottles.  As he gained experience with the process, the Irishman continued to improve on his invention, ultimately producing the “Owens
Automatic Bottle Machine.”  It is shown here, one of the rare views of the inventor with his brainchild.  This machine increased production numbers by 1915 to over one and one half BILLION bottles manufactured annually.

Owens was fortunate that Edward Drummond Libby was a man of integrity and high character.  A lesser man might have tried to marginalize the unlettered inventor and “stolen” his invention.  Libby, on the other hand, continued to encourage Owens to continue inventing, financed his efforts and advanced his name to the forefront of American industrialists.   Note Owens Bottle Machine Co. (now Owens-Illinois), Libbey-Owens Sheet Glass Co. (Libby-Owens-Ford), and Owens-Corning Fiberglass.

In 1915 the Franklin Institute of Pennsylvania awarded its coveted Elliott Cresson Metal to Owens.  Established by philanthropist Cresson in 1848, the medal was awarded annually  “for discovery or original research adding to the sum of human knowledge, irrespective of commercial value.”  Because of its “novelty and utility” the automatic bottle machine earned Owens the honor.  Seen here front and reverse is the Cresson Medal.  

As additional evidence of the importance of Owens's machine to the industry, within 20 years nearly all bottles manufactured in the United States were produced automatically.  Standardization of bottle sizes and quality led to high-speed filling capabilities by those who used the bottles.  As a result, the bottle machine had a huge impact on food, soft drink, pharmaceutical product, and alcoholic beverage producers.  Shown below are glass paperweights issued by the Owens Bottle Machine Co., depicting early glass container mechanisms.

In the summer of 1956, I worked as an intern at Owens-Illinois in Toledo, writing items for plant newspapers.  As a result I was allowed on the factory floor to see the contemporary version of the Owens machine in action.  It was an unforgettable experience.  The heat and glare of the molten glass, the long mechanical arms reaching into the inferno and scooping up an orange glob, straightening out while blowing air into the glass, dislodging it as it cooled, and ducking back for more — totally spectacular.

Mike Owens died in Toledo on December 23, 1923, at the age of 64, having revolutionized an industry.  His passing came unexpectedly. He was attending a meeting of Owens Bottle Company directors when he got up, walked a few steps, sat down in a chair, complained of feeling ill and died within 20 minutes.  He was buried in Toledo’s Catholic Calvary Cemetery, his gravesite shown here.

In a memorial booklet to Owens, Libby had this tribute:  "Self-educated as he was, a student in the process of inventions with an unusual logical ability, endowed with a keen sense of far-sightedness and vision, Mr. Owens is to be classed as one of the greatest inventors this country has ever known.”   Libby commissioned a pressed glass bust, shown below, that was given to a limited number of Owen’s relatives, colleagues and friends.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Giorgio Morandi and Simplicity of Form

In keeping with the name of this blog in past posts I have featured art works that involve images of bottles by well-known artists, including Braque, Vlaminck, Tom Wesselman, and Andy Warhol.  See the references below in “Note.”  In this post I am recognizing an artist whose reputation in large part is based on his representations of bottles and other glass, ceramic and metal vessels gathered in  his studio.  His name is Giorgio Morandi, shown here with some of the items.  Look carefully since you will see them again in some of the paintings to follow.

Morandi was born in Bologna, Italy, on July 20, 1890, the son of Andrea and Maria (Maccaferri) Morandi. The eldest of five children, Giorgio exhibited an artistic talent from an early age and in 1907 was sent to Bologna’s Academy of Find Arts where he excelled in his studies.  Tragedy was to strike twice during his youth. In 1903 his brother Guiseppe died and in 1909 his father as well, leaving a family in which the youngest child was only three.  At 19 years old Giorgio became the head of the family.

Despite these setbacks Morandi pressed ahead with his art, obtaining a position as instructor of drawing for elementary schools in Bologna, a city in which he would spend his entire life.  With 20th Century improvements in communication he early was exposed to and influenced by the art of Cezanne, Derain, Douanier Rousseau, and later Picasso. 

From Cezanne in particular Morandi understood the drama that everyday objects — vases, bottles, cup, bowls, fruit — could bring to a painting.  An early effort shown above bears distinct relationship to the French post-Impressionist master.  This effort appears classical and stiff, however, when compared to Morandi’s later efforts.  He began increasingly to focus on the subtle changes of color, of atmosphere and arrangement of objects. 

In Italian this kind of art is called “natura morta” or still life.  Morandi proved to be a master of the genre, gathering items into his studio that would be painted over and over again.  Note, for example, the tin cans in the photo of the artist.  They would appear repeatedly in his art in tandem with vases, cups and other shapes. 

As shown here, glass bottles were also objects of Morandi’s attention.  The painting below appears to have two tall wine bottles in the background, as well as a milk glass bottle that might have held a liqueur like absinthe.  Note too the carafe at the left.  The wine it contains can clearly be seen through the glass.

Morandi also was enamored of the shapes of ceramic objects, particularly the bottle or jug shape.  Shown here is a grouping of several such objects, two of them very similar in shape, usually termed by bottle collectors as “lady’s leg.”
The artist has emphasized them by backing each with an unidentifiable dark object.  Note his faint signature at the bottom of the work.

As he continued painting for more than a half century, Morandi continually refined and simplified his approach to his still life paintings.  Shown here is a artwork from the 1950s in which he has reduced his objects to five with the only curves are seen on a bottle and cup largely covered by three boxlike objects of varying colors.  Simple, but to my eye at least, one of the most sophisticated and elegant of his “natura morta.”

A prolific worker, Morandi completed an estimated 1,350 paintings during his lifetime.  Providing that he was not just “a one trick pony” with his still life output he also was a superb landscape artist, as demonstrated by the picture below.  Even then, however, the buildings shown are reminiscent of the boxes above.

As a lifelong resident of Bologna, Morandi was a well recognized figure in his home town.  He never married, living on Via Fordazza all his life with his three sisters.   He died on June 18, 1964 and is buried in a family tomb at Bologna’s Certosa Cemetery.   His reputation in the art world has continued to be strong, with major exhibitions this century at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brussels Center for Fine Arts.  His work is on continuous display at the Giorgio Morandi Museum in Bologna. 

Note:  Other posts on this blog that have featured bottles in art are the following:  Andy Warhol, January 28, 2011; George Braque, July 20, 2013; Tom Wesselman, December 7, 2013, and Maurice de Vlaminck, January 18, 2014.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Looking into Beer Pocket Mirrors

The invention of celluloid in 1872, the first commercial plastic, opened up new avenues for advertising.  One was the pocket mirror, a small device with a shiny metal surface on one side and a multicolored ad on the back.   The American brewing industry was quick to see the advantages of giving these to customers as a means of keeping their brands in mind.  The vast majority of these were issued pre-National Prohibition and thus have entered — or soon will — the definition of “antiques.”

An example of the artistry pocket mirrors display is the Native American in a feathered headdress that graces an artifact advertising Ryan’s Pure Beers.  This brewery was founded in 1865 at the end of the Civil War.  In 1887 Thomas Ryan, the former mayor of Syracuse, New York, became the sole owner of the brewery and changed its name to his own, operating it until 1900 when he sold out to local brewer Charles Hoffmann.  Hoffman kept the Ryan name on the facility until closed down by Prohibition. 

Equally impressive art work adorned a mirror issued by the Olt Brewing Company of Dayton, Ohio.  It is an angel surrounded by hops and wheat holding aloft a wand in one hand and a stein of beer in the other.  John Olt and his four sons, Charles, Frederick, Edward and Oscar, incorporated the Olt Brewing company in 1907.  By 1912 Olt Brewing employed seventy people and annually produced about 35,000 barrels of beer and ale.  Originally incorporated for $50,000 in 1907, the value had increased to over $180,000 before Prohibition closed it.

The Falstaff Brewing Corporation was a major American brewery located in St. Louis, Missouri.  With roots in the 1838 Lemp Brewery, the company was renamed after the Shakespearan character Sir John Falstaff in 1903.  The figure of the fat knight came to dominate the advertising for the brewery.  The brewing company closed in 1921, and sold its Falstaff brand to a firm that survived Prohibition by selling near beer and hams under the Falstaff name.  

In the fall of 1897, J. Henry Zitt of Chicago traveled to Lexington to investigate the possibility of establishing a brewery.  He liked what he saw in economic prosperity and population growth and by 1898 had erected a splendid new brewery.  The cost of the brewery was $150,000 (equiv. today to $3.3 million.) In excess of one million bricks were used in its construction.  The Lexington Brewing Company annual capacity was 40,000 barrels or roughly 600,000 cases.   Given the identification of Lexington with horse racing, the image on the mirror seems highly appropriate.

Occasionally, a brewer would provide a mirror that was a “tie-in” to a larger ad campaign, as demonstrated by this Utica Club brew from the West End Brewing Company in the New York city.  Utica Club's most famous campaign icons were a pair of character beer steins  "Schultz and Dooley.”
The mirror depicts only Schultz, a German, with a mustache and Prussian spiked helmet.  Beer steins with these two characters regularly sell for more than $1,000 at auction.

It was common for brewers to display a bottle of their flagship brand on the mirror back, as shown in the next four examples.  The Adam Scheidt Brewing Company originated in a Norristown, Pennsylvania, facility about 1866.  After a series of ownerships.  Scheidt would go on to become one of the largest brewers in the region, producing 60,000 barrels of beer a year, and had a branch location in Baltimore.  Its flagship, appropriately, was the Valley Forge Special. 

While Scheidt’s beer boasted of “unsurpassed quality,”  the Mathie Brewing Company touted its flagship “Red Ribbon” brew as:  “The beer that costs no more but tastes like more.”  Founded in 1903, this organization was located on East Main Street in Los Angeles said to be a “mammoth establishment.”  The beer sold throughout California and adjoining states until the brewery was shut down by Prohibition in 1920.  After Repeal it re-opened briefly before closing for good.

George Muehlebach immigrated to Kansas City, Missouri, in 1859.  A decade later he bought an existing brewery, razed it and and replaced it with a "Beer Castle" built in Romanesque style with a mansard roof  tower.  Muehlebach’s beer proved very popular and the company survived during Prohibition by selling non-alcoholic beverages.  During World War II, the brewery more than doubled production from 66,000 barrels a year to 161,000, before eventually being sold to Schlitz.

Although King’s Pure Malt was sold as a tonic for “to assist the stomach to retain and digest food” and “enrich the blood and strengthen the system,” it was, in fact, a variety of beer, containing six percent alcohol.  Founded in 1908 in Boston,  King added hydrophosphates of iron and lime to the brew to lend it a medicinal character.  It too may have fallen victim to Prohibition, closing about 1918.

The final pocket mirror here is from a drinking establishment not a brewery.  It is included here not just because of its interesting picture of St. Paul’s Budweiser Tavern, indicating a saloon tied to the St. Louis brewery.  This item sold at auction in December 2018 for $127.27, signaling the value that some pocket mirrors have accrued over time.  Every indication is that as th years pass prices will continue to advance, especially for those issued pre-Prohibition and still in good condition.  For example, the mirror with the Indian image that opens this post was valued at $550 in a 2002 catalogue.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Artifacts from a Traveling Life

The much of my working life involved traveling abroad — by actual account 80 trips overseas and work in 65 countries in every part of the globe.   At least for my early travels, I was keen on bringing back artifacts that reflected something of the culture and art of the countries.  As the house filled up, however, the collecting desire diminished.   Here is a selection from my holdings, several featured because of a story behind their acquisition.

Memorable as my first piece, the Indonesian statue of the elephant god, Ganesha, is an outstanding piece of Balinese wood sculpture.  Meticulous carved completely by hand on a dark hardwood, it reflects a craftsmanship virtually lost during ensuing years.  In 1969 I had wandered down the beach from my Denpasar hotel when approached by a young man in ragged clothing.  He offered me this marvelous statue in exchange for my shirt — a shock.   Because I had packed lightly for the side trip to Bali and had no spare, I gave him as much money as I had in my pocket.

In 1970, now employed by the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, I made a solo study mission to Asia to review U.S. military training programs.  While in South Korea I was attracted to this pitcher and chalice.  To me their graceful lines bespoke the artistic genius of the people.  Told that the pair had been handcrafted from copper shell casings left from the Korean War, the Biblical prophet Isaiah’s dictum about “beating swords into plowshares” came to mind and I bought them.

During the Indochina War, I made three trips to the countries embroiled in the conflict.  A souvenir sought by many, military and civilian, who came to Vietnam was a large ceramic pachyderm known to the illuminati as a “buf-e” — “big ugly f…… elephant.”  I resisted their attractions until 1974 when a Saigon “buf-e flogger” (merchant) displayed a new design fashioned after the three headed elephant symbol of Laos.  I bought two that since have graced our dining room.

In 1974 as a way of assessing how well the Agency for International Development (USAID) was implementing important changes the Congress had made in assistance policies, I was part of a investigative team that visited Central and South America.  At that time concentrating on wood carvings, a head of Don Quixote, well conceived and executed, caught my eye in a shop in Colombia.  It too has a permanent place in our dining room.

The next artifact, a Cambodian silver box, carries a tragic story with it.  In 1975 just a matter of days before the Communist Khmer Rouge stormed into the capitol of Phnom Penh,  Sisowath Sirik Matak, a royal prince and assistant prime minister, gave it to me when solo I went to meet with him about the crisis.  He was realistically pessimistic about the future but refused to leave Cambodia ahead of the enemy, writing the U.S. Ambassador:  “But mark it well that, if I shall die here on the spot and in my country that I love, it is too bad because we are all born and must die one day. I have only committed the mistake of believing in you, the Americans.”  Just days later he was shot with other officials in front of the National Postal Building.  I never look at the box without thinking of his bravery.

That example might be contrasted with the fate of Nguyen Van Thieu, the last president of South Vietnam.  I was attached to a 1975 delegation of House and Senate members asked by the White House to go to Indochina in an attempt to spark an emergency appropriation for the war effort.  While in Saigon the delegation met with Thieu in the Presidential Palace where he presented each of us with the lacquered, inlaid vase shown here.  When new funding failed and Communist forces were at the gates of Saigon, Thieu was whisked away to Taiwan by the CIA and later moved to Massachusetts.  He died of natural causes in Boston in 2001.

Later in 1975 I led a Congressional staff mission to Africa reviewing USAID and Peace Corp programs.  One high point was our visit to Ghana where we met with the U.S. Ambassador, Shirley Temple, the former child film star and a charming, bright personality.  She was very forthright with us on problems of the Peace Corp in Ghana.  While in Accra my eye caught an “Ashante stool,” a seat carved from a single piece of wood upon which Ghanian gentry are said to sit.  For the past 43 years this stool has graced our foyer where it has proved handy for pulling on boots or, more commonly, depositing the days’ mail.

The final artifact is a blue and white pen holder from China.  I bought it in Beijing as  part of the first delegation of House and Senate staff members invited to the People’s Republic.  We arrived just in time to be part of the deadliest earthquake of the 20th Century at Tangshan on July 26, 1976, one that killed anywhere from 240,000 to half a million Chinese.  As a result of damage in Beijing 100 miles away, our itinerary was drastically altered and we saw parts of China no American officials had yet visited.  As I look at the pen holder the memories return of that tremendous shaking.

Eight items, eight memories of travels taken.  Each piece has earned a place in our home where they make a presence and bring the past into the present.

Note:  I have provided a more complete description of the Great Tangshan Earthquake and its effects recorded on this blog, March 24, 2017.