America's Chosen Spirit: Field Report

Aug. 12, 2015

By Janice W. Fernheimer and JT Waldman

Boozy Balabustas and Bourbon's Zaftig Bootleggers?

In the summer of 2013, JT Waldman and I made some curious observations taking in the sites on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. JT noticed a lot of Jewish-sounding names, like Shapira and Boehm, while touring the Heaven Hill Bourbon Heritage Center and the Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest. When I went back to follow up, I discovered two Magen Davids in the gleaming silver planks of the Heaven Hill Bourbon Heritage Center's tasting room as I sipped Kentucky's favorite spirit. We began to wonder, just how deep are the Jewish roots of Kentucky's bourbon industry? Could America's "native" spirit, really be its chosen one? And, were there any mysterious mavens in the mix? The hunt was on to find out…

Sure enough, Heaven Hill, the largest, independent family-owned and operated bourbon makers in the spirits business was founded by the five Shapira brothers (David M., Gary, Ed, George, and Mose) in 1935 and has since been led by three generations of Shapira family. Even that famous relative of Jim Beam, Jacob Boehm, may very well have been in the "tribe." Jacob Boehm, who later changed his name to Beam (after immigrating to the U.S.), founded Jim Beam. While "Jacob Boehm" sounds potentially Jewish, and London and Marmon recount the family history in their Jan. 12, 2012. weekly L’Chaim column of the Washington Jewish Week, they, offer no explicit reference to Boehm's Jewish heritage. A July 12, 2009, Fine Books and Collections (FBC) blog post highlights the transformation of Jim to what they term "Judah" Beam in the 1920s, when the National Brokerage Company of Chicago became its "financial angel" and took over " control of the distillery's plants and products and handled all sales and marketing," leaving the Beams in control of daily operations and bourbon (as well as other alcohol) manufacturing. As the FBC post points out, curiously, the Jim Beam official website mentions none of this history.

Inspired by our early discoveries and questions concerning bourbon's Jewish roots, we set out to research and create an historical fiction-based graphic novel that highlights the role of Jewish women and minorities in the rise of the bourbon industry. Our imaginations began to conjure a zaftig bootlegger, toughing it out in the Kentucky hills, concocting some of the tastiest bourbon in her stills. But first, we had more research to do. Admitting the limits of what you already know is an important first step. It allows you to get more and more excited as you scratch beneath the surface, and fall into the seductive rabbit hole a new research question creates. It also shows how the research process is both inspirational and necessary. It is one of our favorite parts of any new project.

Our first goal was to mine extant archives for textual and visual references while gathering primary sources that would help inform the shape of a narrative. Then, try something new for our collaborative team — layering real-life oral histories into a graphic multimedia storyline to create a historically based graphic narrative. And in the process, drink a lot of bourbon.

This blog post shares some findings from our first research trip to dig up the scoop on boozy balabustas. In March 2014, we entered the Filson Historical Society. It was our second day on the prowl, after a successful kickoff at the University of Louisville Archives and Special Collections, home to the I.W. Bernheim files, among other high proof treasures, such as a wonderful cache of photographs documenting historic bars and saloons. The Filson, situated in a tree-lined Louisville neighborhood made of beautiful 18th-century mansions, is home to one of the most comprehensive local history archives in Kentucky. There, we met bourbon historian, Mike Veach, author of "Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American Heritage," who shared stories that underscored the old boys' club vibe that permeates bourbon culture. Polite and informative, he was cautious and curious about our intentions and questions about Jewish involvement in bourbon's big history. His allusions to anti-Semitism in the industry justified our mission to find out more about what the Jewish Daily Forward has recently termed "Kentucky Bourbon’s Bluegrass Mishpocheh."

Although the Jewish origins of Kentucky Bourbon are unveiled matter-of-factly rather than in whispered hunches in Noah Rothbaum's Forward article and Reid Mitenbuler's piece in the digital Atlantic Monthly, "The Jewish Origins of Kentucky Bourbon," we want to highlight the important but still under-recognized role of women, specifically Jewish women and other minorities such as Native and African Americans play in the industry. For example, did you know that the stills used by Kentucky moonshiners date back to an early but an important Jewish female chemist, Maria Hebraea, otherwise known as Maria the Jewess? Among other things, Hebraea is famous for inventing a "still consisting of two gourd-shaped vessels connected by an alembic," and since "Maria's alembic carried a tube leading to the receiver" and was "the most important piece to her still designs," it "became the common term for the still," according to Fred Minnick.

Minnick's witty and well-written history, "Whiskey Women: The Untold Story of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch and Irish Whiskey" led us to this exciting discovery while also pointing out the important role women have historically played in coopering (making bourbon barrels), bottling and marketing. I had the opportunity to pick Fred's brain about our project, and he pointed us to Kate Shapira Latts, VP of marketing for Heaven Hill Distillery. According to Minnick, her "team developed the branding, packaging and marketing for Larceny." When we go back to Bardstown this fall to start collecting oral histories, she is at the top of our list to interview.

In the Louisville archives, we were sniffing around for specifically Jewish bourbon history, and the Filson did not let us down. In two delightful gems, a 1905 publication called "Kentuckians as We See Them," which featured Louisville cartoonist's representations and a 1912 publication by R.C. Ballard Thurston, entitled "Club Men of Louisville in Caricature and Verse," we began to find visual ties linking Jewish bourbon big shots to major events in Louisville's and Reform Judaism's histories. For example, Samuel Grabfelder who emigrated to the U.S. in 1856 and made his way to Louisville in 1857, worked his way up from traveling salesman for a large wholesale liquor business to eventually founding his own firm of S. Grabfelder and Company. Not only was he president of Louisville's Temple Adath Israel for many years, but he also helped found Jewish Hospital.

Though the bourbon influence of I.W. and his brother Bernard Bernheim are well-documented in Marni Davis's "Jews and Booze" and I.W. Bernheim's prolific writings, the archival materials at the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati and the Bernheim collection at University of Louisville Archives and Special Collections, underscore the strong connection between bourbon profits and the formation of Jewish Hospital in Louisville and Reform Judaism's growth in the U.S. Through philanthropic giving, the Bernheim brothers were able to use their bourbon success to put their stamp on important institutions throughout the Ohio River Valley. Like Grabfelder, they helped make possible the success of Jewish Hospital, contributing funds to support nurses' on-site quarters — what became known as the Bernheim Nurses' Home.

And I.W. Bernheim also gave generously to Hebrew Union College, donating to support the creation of its library. Now the space that once contained the original library is home to the Barrows-Loebelson Family Reading Room and Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the the American Jewish Archives.

At the end of our trip, we were still scratching our heads searching for the proverbial smoking gun — archival evidence of Jewish women's historic involvement in the industry. But this fall we will begin the process of gathering oral histories and tracking the traces of bourbon's Jewish women.

Janice W. Fernheimer is Associate Professor of Writing, Rhetoric, and Digital Studies and director of Jewish Studies at the University of Kentucky. She is the author of "Stepping Into Zion: Hatzaad Harishon, Black Jews, and the Remaking of Jewish Identity" (University of Alabama Press 2014) and the co-editor of "Jewish Rhetorics: History, Theory, Practice" (Brandeis University Press 2014).

JT Waldman is a comic book creator and digital designer based in Philadelphia. He is best known for his graphic novel, "Megillat Esther," published in 2005 by the Jewish Publication Society. In 2012, he produced the New York Times best-selling graphic novel with the late Harvey Pekar, "Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me (Hill & Wang)." He has contributed to two books that detail the intersection of comic books and Judaism, "From Krakow to Krypton" and "The Jewish Graphic Novel." as well as the anthologies, "Colonial Comics" and "The Graphic Canon Vol. I."