Drink History: Hoffman Distillery Company – Salt River Surprise
As bourbon continues it meteoric rise in popularity, the “bourbon chase” for long time bourbon hunters has become too frustrating and exhausting. My love of and hunger for new bourbon does not go away, only my ability to access those new release bottles for a reasonable amount of money. For this reason, I began looking for “new” bottles in “old” places: vintage whiskey (dusty).
For me the dusty hunt is rewarding for two reasons. I am obtaining something that is not in production anymore and will not be in production ever again, at least under the same conditions. Secondly, I am obtaining and drinking history. I have also found a love for the stories behind these old whiskies and decided to write stories about them. Sure, we are all hunting for Stitzel-Weller, National Distillers, and other whiskey from the good ole days but there are other stories to be told. There are stories about distilleries long gone, brands shelved forever, and this entangled bourbon web that sometimes links unlikely people and products together.
During my vintage whiskey pursuit, I ran across something that looked to be right out of a peddler’s mall. A leprechaun decanter full of vintage whiskey. Upon first look, I thought to myself that this is probably something Jim Beam did as they were at the forefront of ceramic decanters in the 1960’s and 1970’s. I actually almost browsed right past it but something told me to take 30 seconds for a closer look. Upon doing so, I saw that the front label at the bottom of the decanter stated the whiskey was 100 months old which puts it at eight years and three months. From there I started to read the rest of the label information and down the rabbit hole I went.
This vintage decanter was distilled and bottled at Hoffman Distilling Co. in Lawrenceburg, Ky. Who you may ask? Hoffman Distilling Company, you know, that bourbon industry giant everyone pines over. Exactly, I had never heard of them either which actually peaked my interest. Before going into the research I came across, let me finish with the actual whiskey specifics.
- Bottled as a 100-month straight bourbon whiskey in 1973.
- Decanter is 4/5 of quart which was common for that time period
- 90 proof
The Hoffman Distillery was built on the banks of the Salt River in 1880 by S.O. Hackley. Soon after the distillery was built, he teamed up with Ike Hoffman and from there grew two well-known brands at the time; Old Hoffman and Old Spring. By 1912, Hoffman was the sole owner and went bankrupt. In 1916 the distillery was brought by L.&E. Werthheimer. The distillery was closed and torn down during prohibition. After repeal, the distillery was re-built and the new owners hired Robert and Ezra Ripy to run the distillery. Robert and Ezra were two of the sons of Thomas Ripy who was one of the most famous distillers in the late 1800’s. Thomas’s other two sons founded the Ripy distillery that would eventually become Wild Turkey as we know it today.
During the subsequent years at the Hoffman Distillery, Robert and Ezra, along with the Wertheimers and Frank Silverman created a new brand of bourbon; Ezra Brooks. Rumor has it that the team liked the Ezra portion of the name but didn’t want the Ripy name on the label so they created Ezra Brooks. By this time, the distillery was producing Ezra Brooks, Old Hoffman, and Old Spring at the rate of 300 bushels per day. With the rise of the Ezra Brooks brand, the distillery was renamed in 1968 to the Ezra Brooks Distillery.
Along the journey and rise of Ezra Brooks as a popular brand of bourbon, there was a large bump in the road. That bump was named Jack Daniels. In 1960, Jack Daniels brings a lawsuit against Hoffman Distilling Company for trademark infringement for the packaging and advertising methods that, in their terms, mimicked Jack Daniels Black label. Ultimately, the court decided that there was no evidence of trademark infringement by Hoffman and that both brands have such a clearly defined and different labeling that there is no likelihood of confusion by the consumer and therefore the consumer could not be deceived. Considering the size and stature of the two companies, this had to be considered one of the great underdog legal wins in the history of whiskey and sprits lawsuits.
Like much of the entirety of the bourbon industry, the 70’s and 80’s presented hard times for most. It was during this time frame that the Ezra Brooks distillery was purchased by Medley, who was then acquired by Glenmore. The Ezra Brooks brand was eventually sold around and ended up with Luxco, although it has never regained the type of recognition and popularity as it had in the mid 1900’s.
In 1979, the Hoffman Distillery was shut down and with the shutdown was the end of the Hoffman Bourbon brand. The distillery sat for four years until a gentleman by the name of Julian Van Winkle III purchased the distillery and transformed it into a bottling facility for his Old Rip Van Winkle product. In 1981, the Van Winkle family cut ties with Stitzel-Weller and needed a place to bottle their aging whiskey. From 1983 until 2002 the Van Winkle’s bottled their famous product out of this old Hoffman Distillery. In 2002, the Van Winkle’s went into a partnership with Buffalo Trace and the Hoffman Distillery was left abandoned.
Stories like these are why my interest is always peaked when I see a vintage whiskey. Not only dothey allow you to drink history, you get a chance to take another trip down the rabbit hole to see what history has to offer. The whiskey inside this decanter is delicious and was quite a surprise but the story that comes along makes it worthwhile.