This spirit defines the American character: unique, bold and patriotic. Leading up to the Revolutionary War, when the Yanks wanted to show the Brits who was boss, they stopped drinking their rum and started drinking the local bevvy named Bourbon. Yessir, American to the core, but peer under the hood of this all-American and you’ll find a distinctly Irish accent. Hold yer hosses. The Irish?
The path to a new life in America was long-trod by the Irish of course, but a group with very specific skills arrived on her shores in greater numbers during the 1800s. In Ireland, a temperance movement started by Father Mathew had gained such momentum that it was said half the adult population had taken the teetotal pledge. The result was a decimation of the distillery and pub business, with 90 legal distilleries in 1837 dropping to just 40 by 1853. The whammy of teetotalism and the Great Famine sent a generation of distillers, coopers and associated trades across the ocean.
Ireland’s loss was America’s gain, with people like Richard Cummins from Carlow who started a dynasty of distillers, the Dowling brothers, originally coopers who thrived in Kentucky, and Henry McKenna who started brands that still exist today.
The Cummins family built and ran distilleries for more than 100 years, but it was Richard Cummins who started it all. Apprenticed as a yeast maker from 14, he was already deeply in the trade and arriving in 1848 he worked for five years at a distillery in New Jersey. He then followed a familiar route for Irish settlers, down to Kentucky. Cummins flits around different distilleries before founding the Coon Hollow Distillery Company in 1868. He sells up 13 years later but is involved in various distillery enterprises, including the Ballard & Lancaster distillery with his son JP Cummins, right up to his death in 1903.
His younger brother Patrick furthers the family legacy. With his sons Martin and Arthur J. Cummins Jr, who’d
trained under Richard, he founds the Willow Spring Distillery. Arthur outlives them all and runs this renowned enterprise until the Volstead Act of 1920 enacts the infamous Prohibition. The whiskey connection goes cold for a while, but burns in Arthur’s veins such that in 1933 he purchased and rebuilt the former Atherton Distillery, which is renamed the Cummins – Collins Distillery. At the time it was said to be the most modern distillery in Kentucky.
Arthur maintained the Cummins legacy until 1946 when Seagram’s purchased the distillery. It still exists, kind of, despite the Seagram’s 1990s implosion, as the site of ZAK Cooperage which supplies barrels to some of the biggest names in the business, including Buffalo Trace.
Incidentally, in the early 1940s, Arthur purchased the old Burks’ Distillery, which is sold through a few owners until eventually T. William Samuels dips his first distinctive bottle of Maker’s Mark in 1953. Arthur passed away in 1949 at just 53, and that’s where this pioneering family’s whiskey story ends.
McKenna was born in County Derry and arrived in the tiny village of Fairfield, Kentucky in 1838. He wanted to make his mark in the US but ended up a labourer on the roads.
Eventually, he gathered enough money to start a flour mill in 1855 and, oddly, it was the issue of waste that led him to distil. Beginning with wheat whiskey as a means to deal with the leftovers, his wooden still made just a barrel a day. He inevitably turns to the plentiful corn grain after a couple of years and begins experimenting with charred oak barrels to make a successful sour mash whisky (yes, I mean whisky, not whiskey – all accounts from the time omit the E, get over it).
Demand outstripped production and he moved to meet it. He was a whiskey maker now despite it all and we see on the US Census his occupation given as “distiller and miller” – note that distiller came first. His obsession for quality over quantity never waned, with Wine and Spirits Bulletin noting that, “Comparatively little of the goods made by McKenna go into wholesale channels, the reputation of the whisky having brought an individual trade from physicians and private users all over the country, all of whom are extremely cordial in their expressions of pleasure at the especially fine quality...”
Over time McKenna became widely recognised as one of the true patriarchs of Kentucky whiskey, such that in 1892 when Congress introduced a bill asking for unlimited bonding time for Bourbon it was known as the “The McKenna Bill”. He died a year later, aged 75.
The business passed to his sons James and Stafford and incredibly it survived Prohibition. The distillery is re-opened in 1933 with the brothers in charge and a significantly larger 20 barrels per day capacity. Eventually, the distillery is sold to Seagram’s, and McKenna becomes just another Seagram’s brand. In the 1980s Seagram’s sold the domestic label to Heaven Hill where they make it (occasionally) to this day.
Of the Dowlings, the Wine & Spirit Bulletin V.17 said, “Way back before the days of St. Patrick the ancestors of the Dowlings were distillers in chief to a long line of Celtic Kings, so that the manufacture of poteen and its successors, has been an element of inheritance from remote genealogical ages.” Unbelievable? Yes. The Dowling story doesn’t need ornamentation.
John Dowling from Tipperary emigrated to the states in the latter half of the 19th century. Originally, he and his brother owned a cooperage in Lawrenceburg but in 1863 they extended their business interests by buying into the Burgin Distillery. In 1875 John married Mary Murphy, 15 years his junior. She would prove to be a very capable and formidable woman.
John continued his entrepreneurial quest and bought into the Waterfill & Frazier Distillery over in Anderson County in 1885. Business for the Dowlings was booming, through both the Waterfill & Frazier brand and another arm, the Pilgrimage Distillery Co., in Ohio.
John respected the business acumen of his younger wife and involved her more and more in the running of the operation. Mary was a capable manager and when John died at the age of 61 she took the reins, facing down challenges that would have folded many. In 1903 when the distillery was destroyed by fire, Mary quickly oversaw the rebuilding of the plant within the year. The arrival of the Volstead Act was unwelcome of course but Mary was wise to it, withdrawing large stocks of whiskey from the bonded warehouses. The balance of stock was sold to the companies that had a licence to sell “medicinal whiskey”, such as Julian Van Winkle’s A. Ph. Stitzel company.
Keen to keep her eyes on the prize, Mary held her personal stocks in the basement of the family home and in two sealed warehouses next to the silent distillery. For four years it appears that there were signs of ‘leakage’ of the stocks, not the ‘angels taking their share’ kind, and so inevitably revenue officers got involved.
The court case was as lively as their own lives; first delayed due to Mary’s health and then, incredibly, due to the fact the original stenographer had died and it was impossible to read the notes: the court overturned the convictions.
Never one to be held back, Mary decided on another way of remaining in the liquor business. She hired Joseph Beam, uncle of the famous Jim, to dismantle the distillery and move it lock stock to Juarez in Mexico.
Mary died in 1930, three years prior to the end of Prohibition, and is buried next to John in Lawrenceburg cemetery. Joseph Beam returned to Kentucky to continue a legacy.
Three unique tales all entwined, highlighting the success of a few Irish folks who found their feet, but it would be remiss of me not to end on a serious note. The reason so many Irish Catholics were in Kentucky was because it was a more tolerant place to live, many of them escaping the attitudes of the east coast. For a time it was a safe haven but on election day August 6 1855 the Louisville “No Nothing Party”, egged on by a hostile press, organised a mob to restrict Irish and German catholic voters (mostly Democrat). Not satisfied with stopping them from voting they went to Catholic neighbourhoods shooting at and setting fire to homes. Sources say that up to 120 people were killed on what became known as “Bloody Monday”. Up to 10,000 Irish and Germans left Louisville for nearby states in the weeks following. Deeply sobering.