A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Our Rich History: Cleaner than water, used as money, whiskey in region started with wheat field


By Steve Preston
Special to NKyTribune

John Riddle planted Cincinnati’s first wheat field in 1791. Though only a four-acre plot, it was the beginning of whiskey making in Cincinnati. The first settlers in 1788 most certainly brought their own whiskey from places such as Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky. Cincinnati farmers would soon find themselves in the same situations as those in the previously mentioned states: how to conduct agrarian commerce.

Everyone knows that Kentucky is renowned for its bourbon, even having a “bourbon trail.” Labels such as Knob Creek, Maker’s Mark, Old Forester, Wild Turkey, and Kentucky’s oldest, Evan Williams, are well known throughout the country. Kentucky has become as noted for bourbon as it is for horse racing. What is lesser known is that Cincinnati also played a large role in early American distilling. Cincinnati’s distilling history dates back nearly to Cincinnati’s founding.

New Riff Distilling in Newport

To the settlers west of the Appalachians, whiskey was more than a good time drink. The distillation of whiskey made grains much more versatile. Surplus grains distilled into alcohol could be more easily shipped to other ports, as it would last longer, could be used as money in financial exchange, and of course, was valuable when sold for consumption.

And consume Americans did. In 1791, Cincinnati was not yet two full years settled. No more than 250 people, including soldiers garrisoned at Fort Washington, lived here. Yet there were already at least five taverns in town. Their drink of choice was not beer or ale. David Embree, the first brewer to Cincinnati, would not start his Race Street brewery until 1811. The drink most likely served was a good old “Monongahela Rye.”

Even before Riddle planted his wheat in Cincinnati, “Monongahela Rye” known for its purity and consistent alcohol volume, had arrived in the Queen City. Western Pennsylvania became well known early on for this style of whiskey. Soon, whiskey-based on this recipe would be leaving the Queen City in large quantities.

As the hostilities with Native Americans came to a close, farming on a large scale began to take place. Wheat, which could be used locally in its natural state, was much easier and valuable to ship to other markets in the form of whiskey. Twenty-four bushels of rye would sell for $6 back in eastern markets, whereas distilling the rye down to 16 gallons of whiskey would fetch $16 with the need of only one pack animal, as opposed to three used for grain.

The demand for whiskey back East was so high that what cost a quarter on the Cincinnati frontier could go as high as a dollar over the mountains. This lucrative trade would be the springboard for distillers of spirits in Southwest Ohio and Northern Kentucky.

As the nineteenth century progressed, more and more industry came to Cincinnati. The industrial growth included distilleries and rectifying plants associated with whiskey making. From small stills to large operations, by the 1890s Cincinnati was doing for the rye whiskey business what Kentucky did for corn mash made bourbon business.

The year 1815 found Cincinnati exporting 80,000 gallons annually. Whiskey production continued to increase throughout the mid-century. By 1820 Cincinnati recorded nine large distilleries in the Queen City, and by 1851 there were 188,873 barrels of whiskey produced. The zenith of 19th-century whiskey production occurred in 1881, with 10 distilleries producing over 1.8 million gallons of fermented goodness. Many stores in Cincinnati at this time offered a complimentary drink while you shopped.

Aside from the large distilleries, many individuals also had had stills for private consumption and as a result, small labels sprang up around town, each with their own “secret” ingredients.

Second Sight Spirits co-owners Rick Couch, left and Carus Waggoner (provided images)

With the enacting of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which required ingredients listed and helped ensure purity, many of the small-time whiskey labels shut down. All whiskey production, nationwide, would cease with the passage of the 18th Amendment. Prohibition began in 1919 and local plants such as Clifton Spring Distilleries, Fleischmann’s, and Klein Brothers, stopped production and watched their whiskey store be used “medicinally” under government supervision.

After passage of the 21st Amendment, prohibition was repealed in 1933. The year 1937 saw some 18 million gallons of whiskey, that had aged the minimum of four years, being released to the public. While no longer a force in whiskey making, Cincinnati did continue production on a much smaller scale. Carthage Distillery, located in Elmwood, survived to be bought out twice—first, by National Distillers Products Corporation, and then by Jim Beam in 1987. The well-known 19th-century brand, Old Overholt, used to be bottled there. Soon, it was just the flavored schnapps that one could smell while driving Interstate 75.

Now, much like micro-brewing, whiskey making is enjoying a small renaissance with small-batch makers offering their product for purchase.

New Riff Distilling of Newport, Woodstone Creek, Northside Distilling, OTR Still House, Henry Street, Second Sight, and Queen City Whiskey are all examples of carrying on the tradition of whiskey distillation in the Queen City. Many embrace the traditions of those who came before while adding a modern twist to the drink that was cleaner than water and used as money.

Steve Preston is the Education Director and a Curator of History at Heritage Village Museum. He received his MA in Public History from Northern Kentucky University.


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2 Comments

  1. Loren Wegele says:

    Nice educational article.

  2. Kim Southwood says:

    Nice article! I didn’t realize how much whiskey was actually produced in Cincinnati at that time.

    By the way, David Embree was probably the 3rd Cincinnati brewer. James Dover was the earliest documented brewer in 1806 (an early city directory mentioned 2 at the that time, but the other one hasn’t been identified).

    http://cincinnatibrewinghistory.com/first-cincinnati-brewer/

Reply to Kim Southwood Cancel Reply