From Peddlers To Pioneers | The Jewish Week | Food & Wine

From Peddlers To Pioneers

Glasses of bourbon (Courtesy Kentucky Bourbon Distillers Association)

The Jewish Immigrants Who Helped Build Kentucky’s Bourbon Whiskey Business

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Most anyone from Kentucky will probably tell you. “While all bourbon is whiskey, not all whiskey is bourbon.” Whiskey can be made anywhere, but ninety-five percent of bourbon whiskey is made in Kentucky, thanks to its stable climate conditions and limestone-washed water, both ideal for production. Known as Kentucky Straight Whiskey, it is part of the state’s livelihood, culture, and pride, along with bluegrass music and thoroughbred horse racing.

Bourbon-making is a time-honored tradition and carefully regulated process. Guidelines require it be made in the U.S. using a minimum of fifty-one percent corn (most distillers use 60 to 80 percent). It must be aged at minimum two years in charred new white oak barrels, stored at no more than one hundred and twenty-five hundred proof, and bottled at no less than eighty proof (proof being roughly double the alcohol-by-volume). No enhanced coloring or added flavors may be added.

Bourbon’s style depends on what flavor profile the master distiller wants to achieve. Factors include: the blend of grains, strains of yeast; the white oak barrels and their storage, and alcohol by volume (ABV). Small batch Bourbons are blended from a few select barrels; single barrel is from one. Average aging is five to twelve years but can be longer than twenty.

What many may not tell you is that a rich part of Kentucky’s whiskey heritage was shaped by some entrepreneurial Jewish immigrants from Europe. They didn’t start out as distillers; they were peddlers and shopkeepers. But making whiskey proved to be a viable and attractive business.

“Jewish families built much of the foundation for American whiskey. In the modern sense, there's no stronger bourbon family than the Shapiras, who run Heaven Hill and own the world's number two-selling bourbon, Evan Williams. Jewish families also continue to be a part of the growth, with popular events like Whisky Jewbilee breaking new grounds in the Jewish community,” notes Kentucky historian, Fred Minnick, author of spirited books such as Bourbon: The Rise, Fall & Rebirth of An American Whiskey. 

Original Heaven Hill Distillery in Bardstown, Kentucky (Courtesy)

Three stories:

Russian immigrant Max Shapira worked as a peddler before settling in Kentucky. He successfully built a chain of stores, joined over time by his five sons. After Prohibition ended in 1933, Shapira used some of the profits from his retail business to invest in a distillery. The move was timely since banks, still hurting from the Depression, were reluctant to loan money to liquor companies who were eager to rebuild. Private investors like Shapira provided the much- needed capital investment and, in return, received a foot in the door to the distilling business.

Courtesy Shapira Family Brothers

As their business thrived, the Shapiras bought out the other investors. Continuously family-owned and operated since 1935, Heaven Hill Distillery produces some of the nation’s most iconic spirit brands, including Evan Williams Bourbon, Elijah Craig Bourbons, and Rittenhouse Rye.

Isaac Wolfe Bernheim arrived in the United States from Germany in 1867 with just a few dollars and a dream for a better life. He moved to Paducah, Kentucky, and worked as a bookkeeper for a wholesale liquor company. Bernheim saved enough money to bring his brother, Bernard, to America. In 1872 the brothers joined with a friend and invested in a liquor sales business which they named Bernheim Brothers. They relocated their growing business to Louisville in 1888 and eventually purchased Pleasure Ridge Distillery. The distillery was destroyed by fire and rebuilt in 1897. Its first premium whiskey was called I.W. Harper.

During Prohibition, the manufacture, import, and sale of alcoholic beverages was banned. The only exceptions were use for either sacramental wine or medicinal purposes. All remaining whiskey stock was warehoused under the supervision of the U.S. government. Bernheim Brothers was one of only ten distilleries allowed to continue making whiskey for licensed medicinal purposes. In the years after Prohibition, Bernheim Brothers was sold to Schenley Distilling Company.

Henry Kraver’s family emigrated from Poland to the United States in 1867 and settled in New York’s Lower East Side when he was a young child. The adult Kraver headed south to Henderson, Kentucky, where for a time he worked at Mann Brothers department store. He eventually convinced the owners to help him finance a saloon, which became Kraver Tobacco House.

In 1889, Kraver purchased Worsham Distilling which has fallen on hard times after the death of its owner. He modernized the equipment and built new warehouses. He renamed the company Peerless, one of the distillery’s original labels. By 1900 Peerless Whiskey was producing two hundred barrels a day, up from eight barrels when Kraver took over.

Bourbon coming from barrel (Courtesy Kentucky Bourbon Distillers Association)

Though Peerless Whiskey was shut down during Prohibition, Kraver did well thanks to local investments in a theater, bank, and other properties. The distillery never reopened. Kraver died in 1938 following complications from a fall that required his leg to be amputated.

In 2014, two of Kraver’s descendents, Corky Taylor and son, Carson, decided to invest in a new distilling facility in Louisville under Kentucky Peerless Distilling Company. Since a premium Bourbon needs at least six to eight years the duo first decided to bring an unaged white whiskey. In March 2017, they launched their first Kentucky Peerless Rye Whiskey. The first Bourbon is scheduled to roll out of the barrel in 2019.

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