Monday, January 2, 2023

Smooth as Silk

The bottom shelf is the place frugal drunkards go to find true love. That's the place where whiskeys can be found that keep a drinker drunk without consuming an entire paycheck or draining a bank account. The bottom shelf is where "notes" and "finishes" are undesired and meaningless—it's where you go when you want nothing more than to get drunk. And the top dog of the bottom shelf is Kessler Whiskey.
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Julius Kessler was born in Budapest, Hungary on August 4, 1855. He emigrated to the United States in the early 1870's already with a firm grasp on the English language—his first job in his new country was as a journalist. One of Kessler's first assignments was to cover a ceremony at the Union Pacific railroad headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska in 1873 commemorating the four-year anniversary of the driving of the Golden Spike that opened up the Transcontinental Railroad. Kessler learned from the railroad men about the fortunes being made and the adventures being had in the newly opened up territories. The cub reporter decided right then that the American West was the place to be and quit his job as a journalist. He headed to Denver, Colorado where he acquired a barren of 40 pack mules and loaded them up with all the whiskey they could carry. Destination: Leadville.
Leadville, Colorado was a wild west mining town located a hundred miles to the southwest of Denver. Its first marshal was run out of town. Its second marshal was shot dead by one of his own deputies. It was the place where Doc Holliday had his last shootout before retiring and going off to die of tuberculosis. Miners swindled each other, geologists forged their assays, gunslingers fired, everybody drank. Coaxing his mules through the mountains, he sold his whiskey at $6 a gallon to saloon owners; a thirsty individual could buy three shots for $2. His success as a whiskey peddler was so great by 1893, he opened a sales office in Chicago, Illinois.
He never had a retail outlet, he acted as a distiller's agent and wholesaler. Kessler's reputation was such that when New York financiers formed the Distillers Securities Corporation (popularly known then as the Whiskey Trust), they handed over all their surplus stock and made him their president. Kessler featured several brands of whiskey of his own blending; Cedar Brook, Old Lewis Hunter Rye, Maryland Pure Rye among them. He ran "brain teaser" ads in magazines and even advertised on playing cards. During his trips to Cuba to procure molasses, he developed a taste for Cuban cigars that damn near bordered on fetish—he purchased them 10,000 at a time. The Whiskey Trust enjoyed enormous profitability until that odious Volstead Act was passed and Prohibition became the law of the land.
With the eighteenth amendment ratified, Kessler, along with the rest of the liquor industry, was put out of business. He took his fortune (along with 38,000 Cuban cigars) and moved to Vienna, Austria to enjoy his retirement. During his rise to the top of the whiskey business, he had shaken the hands of 40,000 liquor dealers.
At age 80, two years after Prohibition was repealed, Kessler came back to America. His Smooth as Silk whiskey had been revived by the Seagram Company. On New Year's Eve 1935, Kessler was seen eating pigs' knuckles, sauerkraut, chasing a taxi down the street, and dancing until 5 AM. He went on to become a director of the Hungarian Relief Society and occasionally took trips back west to the towns and cities of his youth. On December 10, 1940 the man who had gone saloon to saloon throughout the wild west selling his whiskey passed away peacefully in his New York Park Avenue home at age 85. His ashes were interred at the Ferncliff Mausoleum in Greenburgh, New York.
In 2000 the French wine and spirits seller Pernod Ricard acquired the Kessler Whiskey brand and five years later it became the property of Jim Beam. In 2014 the Smooth as Silk whiskey became part of the Beam Suntory family where it remains today.
Thrifty drinkers of today rushing home from the bottom shelf of their favorite liquor store might raise their glass in toast to that Hungarian immigrant who went where even marshals feared to tread to bring the world a whiskey that serves the most noble purpose of all—to get us good and drunk.

Hugh Blanton is the author of A Home to Crouch In. He has appeared in The American Journal of Poetry, The Scarlet Leaf Review, As It Ought To Be, and other places. He can be reached on Twitter @HughBlanton5