Cross border bourbon

Cross border bourbon

Fred Minnick investigates the Mexican border town which supplied U.S. during prohibition

Places | 20 Jul 2012 | Issue 105 | By Fred Minnick

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As the Temperance movement gained widespread support in the early 1900s, U.S. saloon owners and distillers considered Prohibition’s inevitability. Rather than joining the ranks to debate Temperance, many just packed up and moved South.

In Mexico, they were free to serve, sell and make all the whiskey they pleased. Prohibition was a U.S. law, not a Mexican one. If a bootlegger attempted to transport hooch across the border, well, that was his problem, not the distillery’s.

The Volstead Act of 1919 created overnight liquor commerce in Juarez, Mexico, a border town that had no bridges or sense of migrant control. One could walk across the El Paso, Texas, down dusty roads into Mexico without the slightest confrontation from a border cop.

Although it only had 10,000 residents then, Juarez became Little Kentucky and New York all in one tiny town.

Mexican-Made Bourbon

When Juarez taverns opened during Prohibition, celebrities started showing up without the anxiety they felt in a Chicago speakeasy. They partied at the Kentucky Club, Lobby Café and Mint Café, where bartenders served Mint Juleps for 60 cents, Johnnie Walker for 50 cents or a shot of D.M. American Whiskey for 25 cents.

But more importantly, in the grand scheme of overall liquor production, Juarez was free to produce whiskey and even Bourbon. No laws regulated the Mexican producers from labelling their whiskey Bourbon, as it did not become a U.S.-only product until 1964.

According to a 1933 Associated Press article, Americans invested $1 million in three Juarez whiskey distilleries. Only two, however, appear to have made any historical significance.

The largest was the D.M. Distillery, owned by J.M. Gomes & Co. This company’s Straight American Whiskey was aged at least “six years in wood.” According to its ad copy, D.M.’s whiskey was a rare old Bourbon whiskey, mild, mellow and full of flavour.

Another distillery labelling its Juarez-made whiskey “Bourbon” actually had its roots in Kentucky Bourbon.

Mary Dowling moved her family’s Waterfill & Frazier distillery in Bourbon County, Kentucky, to Juarez and renamed it D.W. Distillery. They partnered with Juarez businessman Antonio J. Bermudez, who later became mayor.

“As soon as Prohibition hit, Waterfill & Frazier packed up and went down there,” says Bourbon historian Mike Veach, author of the upcoming book Kentucky Bourbon Heritage (University of Kentucky Press).

When they left Kentucky, the Dowlings operated Waterfill & Frazier with at most$100,000 in capital, using a small column still and pot still doubler, Veach says, producing about seven barrels of Bourbon a day.

“They were a respectable brand,” Veach says of Waterfill & Frazier, which had been in operation in Bourbon County since 1810. But, the Dowlings were not the Beams, Dants or Samuels. Their name carried mediocre significance until they moved to Juarez.

According to a 1937 El Paso Herald-Post article, the Juarez facility stored 8,000 barrels. That’s triple the family’s production while operating in the United States. Sheer production was not what made them significant, however. The fact is their Bourbon was sold during Prohibition and supplied speakeasies all over the U.S.

Mexican-made Bourbon also found itself in the medicinal U.S. market. How this happened remains a mystery because it was illegal to import whiskey during Prohibition. But, according to a correspondence from a Pappy Van Winkle salesman, Veach says, Waterfill & Frazier’s Mexican Bourbon was priced below other medicinal whiskeys.

The illegal importation into the government-controlled liquor supply gives an indication of how crafty the Dowlings were. Of course, their famous friends could have had something to do with it. According to Mexican newspapers of the time, both Waterfill & Frazier and Gomes maintained a trade relationship with Al Capone.

When the Waterfill & Frazier whiskey was sold in the U.S. legally or illegally, its Mexican origins were downplayed. The brand’s Kentucky origins were much more prominent than Juarez. If a consumer saw this label, there’s likely a chance he would think the whiskey was made in Kentucky.

Post Prohibition

After Prohibition, Texas banned Sunday liquor sales and did not allow consumers to buy liquor by the drink. This kept Juarez bars in business and still made it a hotspot for the likes of Marilyn Monroe.

Mexican-made whiskey continued to find solid representation in U.S. bars and even promoted its duty free status as Bourbon. In 1948 and 1949, Waterfill & Frazier’s D.W. Distillery sold 6,000 barrels legally to the United States, while its neighbour, D.M. Distillery, aggressively advertised in American newspapers.

From a 1951 Juarez Whiskey newspaper ad: “Only the finest grains of wheat and corn, carefully milled and blended, are skillfully distilled and slowly aged to bring you the finest Kentucky-type Bourbon.”

Meanwhile, U.S. whiskey makers were finally building market share after Prohibition and World War II.

In the early 1960s, Pappy Van Winkle engaged the Dowlings in a series of correspondence urging them to discontinue the use of Bourbon in their labelling.

The Dowlings signed an agreement to ceased and desist labelling Bourbon. But when D.W. Distillery announced a $1-million expansion to its Juarez operation in early 1960s, the company still referred to its whiskey as Bourbon.

Nonetheless, the Juarez whiskey enthusiasm slowly dissipated and U.S. law sought to cripple Mexican Bourbon.

In 1965, the United States decreased the amount of whiskey people could bring across the border from one gallon to one quart. Duty taxes were also imposed and in 1971, Texas legislature created a mixed beverage permit that allowed liquor sales by the drink. The Dowlings had their distillery, and its new owners, the Mascarenes family, moved from whiskey to neutral grain spirits.

Today, Juarez is known for tequila production and the once-famous bars have become victims to Drug Cartel violence.

As for the whiskey distilleries, they are shells of their former selves. D.M. and D.W. whiskeys appear on eBay from time to time, but they are largely forgotten. Mexicans want to talk tequila or Mescal, not whiskey, and the Cartel violence keeps historians from thoroughly investigating the distilleries.

But, for a solid 30 year run, Juarez whiskey supplied the United States.
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