The tip came from Brian McGinley, friend and drinking mate who spent a couple of careers in US Intelligence and bank security communities fighting bad guys.
"I meant to bring an article detailing an event to your attention which may merit an article for your Whisky Magazine friends. Saw that 884 cases of whiskey, Chicken Cock Whiskey - no I'm not making this up - were hijacked in a truck trailer from Charleston, SC a week or so ago on 10 June 2013. Just found the trailer yesterday in Florida - with no whiskey - distiller has put up a $10,000 reward. This story has ole "Chicken Cock Jim" written all over it." Brian wrote.
• "Chicken Cock"?
• The Cotton Club!
• A whiskey heist? • $10,000 reward!
Hell yeah, count me in!
Dating it back to 1856, Chicken Cock Whiskey was already legendary prior to Prohibition, US law banning the sale, production and transportation of alcohol (1921 to 1933). Churchill sneered at it, calling it a blight on civilization… "It is possible that the dry, bracing electrical atmosphere of North America makes the use of alcohol less necessary and more potent than the moist, humid climate of Britain. . . I must confess that on one occasion I was taken to a 'speakeasy.' I went, of course, in my capacity as a Social Investigator..."
"Speakeasies" first mentioned in an 1889 newspaper, were so named since one had to speak quietly about unlicensed clubs and saloons so not to alert the law. Already in every town and city, such colourful watering holes spread like wildfire as America went "dry", like two-finger salutes at the growing political hypocrisy, gang violence and police corruption Prohibition so rapidly spawned.
New York's flashy Cotton Club in Harlem was the jazz club for alcohol and fun. The city's top night spot where carefree couples smooched, jitterbugged and danced the Charleston and sexy blues to Louis Armstrong, Cab Callaway, Duke Ellington, and Lena Horne while tap dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson rocked the joint to sell-out crowds. But hey, those same talented black musicians and dancers who made the club, they couldn't mix with whites-only swingers or get a drink at the bar.
Smuggled from Canada, hidden in tin cans, Chicken Cock Whiskey became the preferred brand at The Cotton Club. Waiters ceremoniously opened the tins serving free-pour shots of 100 proof liquor from cute Chicken logo quart bottles.
The Cotton Club (1984) starring Richard Geere and the lovely Diane Lane presents a reasonably accurate reliving of booze, glitz, glamour, gunplay and realistic move of those vanished times.
Then a second tip sent me off in search of a 100 year old bottle of Chicken Cock Whiskey, tax seal intact, it bore the date 1912 - same year the Titanic sank. It is possible this brand, too, may have been aboard; who knows?
Convertible top down as always, I nosed my highly tuned Miata MX-5 north from Charlotte, barreling over the same zigzag back roads bootlegger Junior Johnson once ran his moonshine. At Lenoir NC I met retired school Superintendent Randy Newson who owns the last original bottle of Chicken Cock Whiskey, a Kentucky bourbon distilled through the end of Prohibition.
"We grew up in a spacious house at 114 East Walnut Street in Titusville PA, former oil capital of America," Randy explained. "Previously it was owned by a Mr. Howe, then Director of Oil Standards." Randy's parents, Howard and Norma, bought the place just after World War II. "Mom was a devout churchgoer who insisted we attend every Sunday, we even had a family pew.
"Well, one Sunday in 1971 my father failed to show up for church. So Mom, worried or irate, sent me to find him. When I opened the front door, there was dad kneeling on the hallway floor but he wasn't praying, he was busy sipping from a near empty bottle of whiskey! All around him were bottles, wall plaster, and more bottles.
"Turns out dad, fetching for his coat, accidently leaned on a closet wall. To his astonishment the wall collapsed, covering him in plaster loosening an avalanche of bottles, one hundred and fifty of them wrapped in corrugated board. He was quite merry, sitting there swigging that good old Chicken Cock Whiskey".
Randy figures the previous owner secreted the hidden stash during Prohibition. "We drank a few, sold most of it back in the 1970s to friends for $75 a bottle, keeping this very last one as a memento".
Years later, wondering if more booze might be hidden, Randy sifted through ash clean outs in three disused fireplaces and "I found a dozen more! That powerful whiskey sure spiced up our Christmas Punch 'Great Punch!' grinned my teetotaler grandma…she never knew".
Fast forward 2013. The long defunct Chicken Cock label had just been resurrected by wine and spirit entrepreneur aficionado Matti Antilla, his new range of 86 proof 43% ABV Chicken Cock whiskies are marketed in 11.5inches tall 750ml screw top aluminum cans (for quick chilling) named Southern Spiced, Cinnamon and Root Beer but not the 100% proof unflavoured original, sigh.
Well, while en route from Charleston SC to Texas, 884 cases, 10,000 bottles valued at $200,000 retail or up to $1.4 million if sold by the 1.5 ounce measure got hijacked in the biggest liquor heist since Al Capone's goons strong-armed cargoes in Chicago, where he controlled speakeasies, bookie joints, gambling houses, brothels, horse and race tracks, nightclubs, distilleries and breweries, raking in a reported income of $100,000,000 a year, so they say.
So it seems Chicken Cock's flamboyant history had come full circle. During Prohibition it was the law that confiscated truckloads. No sooner had this succulent resurrected brand clinked off bottling machines it fell victim to a diabolically daring heist. Matti was quick to note the irony.
OK, so I have not yet found Matti's missing hooch. But I did put him in touch with Randy Newson - who'd told me he might sell his, the very last original bottle of Chicken Cock Whiskey.
I'm still on the lookout for the stolen whiskey and I'll keep you posted on that $10,000 grand reward!