How Jews & Catholics Saved American Whiskey

By Charles K. Cowdery

(An excerpt from the upcoming book, Bourbon, Strange, by Charles K. Cowdery)

If you’re glad America still makes good whiskey, thank a Catholic, thank a Jew.

It is said that the history and science of the ancient world was preserved through the Dark Ages thanks to the diligence of Roman Catholic monks, primarily in Ireland. Not just Roman and Greek learning, but that of the Arabs, Persians, and others.

So it is that the history and science of American whiskey-making was preserved through the dark years of Prohibition and the decades preceding it largely by American Catholics and Jews, who were unfettered by the prevalent anti-alcohol theology of the times, and as religious minorities and recent immigrants, they were often reviled for it in the politics of that religiously-charged issue.

Why were Catholics and Jews so prominent in the alcohol business? It had nothing to do with either Catholicism or Judaism but rather with the anti-alcohol obsession of much of America’s Protestant Christian majority during the late 19th and early 20th century. During the 50 or so years it took to finally get alcohol banned, it was a legal but increasingly stigmatized business. As more and more Protestants eschewed it, Catholics and Jews—unburdened by anti-alcohol beliefs—filled the gap.

Why did these two often-persecuted religious minorities gravitate to such a controversial business? Isaac Wolfe Bernheim, a Jewish immigrant and distiller, once wrote that “wealth, in my humble opinion, is not a thing of luck, or the result of a deliberate and carefully fought campaign of industry, but rather the good judgment to take advantage, at the right time, of opportunities when they present themselves.”

It just so happened that the main years of Jewish and Catholic immigration to America, roughly between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of World War I, coincided with the growth of an anti-alcohol movement led by Protestants. At a time when thousands of ambitious, young Jews and Catholics were arriving on our shores, looking to make their fortunes, U.S.-born Protestants were being discouraged from pursuing careers in the alcohol business. Although some Protestants continued to make and sell alcohol, and many more consumed it, the pressure was greatest in that community to forgo the wages of that particular sin.

The whiskey-making Catholic families came to Kentucky early, almost all as refugees from Maryland, which had been founded as a haven for English Catholics, but turned against them in the 1700s with the passage of oppressive ‘anti-popery’ laws. The largest migration from Maryland to Kentucky occurred between 1790 and 1810. Some of the families who came then, and whose names are familiar to whiskey enthusiasts, are the Boones, Cecils, Dants, Haydens, Mattinglys, Medleys, Pottingers, Wathens, Wheatleys, and Willetts. They mostly settled in Nelson, Marion, and Washington County.

One of the migration’s leaders was Basil Hayden. In 1882 his grandson, Raymond Hayden, opened a commercial-scale distillery in Nelson County and started a whiskey brand he called Old Grand-Dad, in Basil’s honor. Today, Beam sells Old Grand-Dad as well as a bourbon named after Basil.

The Maryland co-religionists remained close even after they became settled and often intermarried. Raymond Hayden’s mother was a Dant. After Raymond’s death, Old Grand-Dad was acquired by scions of another Maryland family, the Wathens. The oldest brother, John Bernard (J. B.), had transitioned the family from part-time to full-time distillers during the Civil War. He was eventually joined in the business by his younger brothers, Nick and Nace, and his three sons.

Timing couldn’t have been better for the Bernheims, Wathens, and everyone else who converted from farm-based distilling to commercial scale in the 1870s and ‘80s. Steamboats, railroads, and national media were making whiskey a major business. Suddenly, you could make whiskey in Kentucky and sell it everywhere. For the best of them, their biggest challenge was keeping up with growing demand.

J. B. Wathen’s whiskey business was very successful. He married into one of America’s founding families and his three sons were educated at Georgetown and Notre Dame, America’s great Catholic universities.

When National Prohibition went into effect in 1920, millions of gallons of whiskey were still aging in warehouses throughout the country. The government didn’t buy it (that was discussed) or order it destroyed (that was too). What happened to it? It became medicinal whiskey. Doctors still considered whiskey a useful tonic and the law allowed a limited amount of it to be sold by prescription.

Because rural warehouses were too easy to rob, the government ordered all whiskey to be secured in consolidation warehouses in major cities. In Louisville, the three sons of J. B. Wathen formed the American Medicinal Spirits Company (AMS) for that purpose. It became the nation’s largest medicinal whiskey supplier. As Prohibition was ending, Seton Porter acquired AMS and it became the single largest piece of Porter’s National Distillers, one of the ‘Big 4’ post-repeal distilled spirits companies. One of J.B.’s sons, Richard Wathen, became a senior executive with National, where he stayed for the rest of his career.