L’Chaim

The Jews Who Made American Whisky

Many of the iconic bourbon and rye brands on store shelves are or were once owned and operated by Jews, including Jim Beam, I.W. Harper, Rittenhouse, Elijah Craig, Four Roses and Dickel.

12.19.15 5:01 AM ET

From ubiquitous bagels and cream cheese to restorative matzo ball soup to decadently rich pastrami, Jews are famous for contributing a number of delicious dishes to the menu of American food favorites. But when it comes to drinks, the item that usually pops into people’s minds first is, sadly, the sickly sweet kosher wine Manischewitz.

That is a real shanda (shame), since Jews have actually played an important role in the history of American whisky.

Many of the iconic bourbon and rye brands on store shelves are currently (or were once) owned and operated by Jews, including Jim Beam, I.W. Harper, Rittenhouse, Elijah Craig, Four Roses and Dickel.

It makes sense. According to Marni Davis, author of the aptly named Jews and Booze: Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition and associate professor of history at Georgia State University, Jews have had plenty of experience making liquor before arriving in this country.

“The production of alcohol is built into Jewish culture dating all the way back to the rabbinic period,” she says. And thanks to the religion’s dietary laws, “Jews had to always have access to wine of their own making. It pushes Jews to the home production of alcohol and kosher wine.”

As far back as the late 1400s, anti-Semitism in Europe “had economically marginalized Jews and pushed them into occupations that other people found distasteful, or were even illegal, like money lending and the running of pawn shop operations and things like that,” she continues. “The same was true of alcohol, especially because, in Eastern Europe, it was related to tax collection.”

But these distilling and wine-making skills were appreciated when they began immigrating to America, since, “when [Jews] show up in the United States, they arrive to a heavy drinking culture,” says Davis.

Isaac Wolfe Bernheim certainly benefited from living in a thirsty America. He came over from Germany when he was a teenager with very little money and became extremely rich.

When he first arrived, he spent some time in New York and then failed as a peddler in Pennsylvania (his horse supposedly got sick and died) before heading to Paducah, Kentucky, where he had family.

He soon found work as a bookkeeper at a whisky wholesaler. While a huge number of Jews didn’t immigrate to the Midwest and the south, according to Davis, a large percentage of those that did were employed in the liquor business, since there were ethnic entrepreneurial networks that helped them find work and get settled. (By the late 1800s, according to Reid Mitenbuler’s exhaustive book Bourbon Empire, about a quarter of the whisky business in Louisville was Jewish despite the group making up just three percent of the city’s population.)

It is no surprise, then, that Bernheim’s younger brother, Bernard, soon joined him in Kentucky. The two started Bernheim Brothers in 1872, and seven years later they introduced I.W. Harper, which became one of the country’s biggest brands and is still sold today.

While Bernheim used his first two initials for the brand name, he combined them with the more gentile surname of Harper. (According to one of the brand’s origin legends, he might have gotten the name from his favorite horse trainer.)

While Bernheim’s contributions to the history of whisky may not be widely known, there is a 13,000-acre nature preserve in Kentucky that he endowed (and where his is buried), which bears his name: Bernheim Forest.

Just down the road are his landsman (countrymen) Heaven Hill, which produces a number of whisky stalwarts, including Evan Williams Bourbon, Elijah Craig Bourbon, Rittenhouse Rye and Pikesville Rye. The Shapira family helped start the business 80 years ago and still proudly owns it.

The family traces its modern history back to Max Shapira, who came over from Lithuania in the late 1800s. He was an itinerant peddler who sold a range of notions across the state—first from a backpack and then from a horse-drawn carriage.

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Later, he was able to open a store, which lead to a small chain of stores across Kentucky. His five sons helped him run the business, which, even during the Depression, turned a profit.

When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, the family was approached by a group of investors looking to open a new distillery.

While the Shapiras weren’t distillers, money was an even more important asset at the time and they had the $15,000 to buy into the project. (To make the whisky, the company hired Harry Beam and later his cousin, Earl Beam. To this day, members of the Beam family, Craig and Parker Beam, are Heaven Hill’s master distillers.)

Many of the country’s distilleries fell into disrepair during Prohibition and had to be rebuilt from the ground up. But since the Depression continued on and banks were afraid of giving liquor companies loans, most distillers had to find another source of capital. That allowed opportunities for investors like the Shapiras to get into the whisky business. 

However, it was far from a sure thing, considering that nobody knew if Prohibition would come back or how much people would drink without the allure of speakeasies.

But the Shapiras were confident enough that after several years they bought out their other partners.

The family has not only helped slate the thirst of countless drinkers, but helped preserve America’s distilling history and heritage during the dark ages of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, when few people were drinking the liquor. They kept producing their own whisky brands and also bought and kept in production other ones.

Another brand that has a very similar history to Heaven Hill’s is, actually, Jim Beam. Jim Beam and his family, who were forced to abandon the distilling business during Prohibition, turned to a trio of Chicago, Illinois, investors to rebuild after Repeal.

The family, according to F. Paul Pacult’s book, American Still Life, needed to construct a completely new distillery and introduce to the world Colonel James B. Beam Bourbon, since they had lost the intellectual property rights to their original brand Old Tub.

Their Chicago partners each put up $5,000 to create the company, which the Beams would run, but not own.

One of the investors was the Jewish Phillip Blum and his son, Harry Blum, who, according to Pacult, was able to buy out the other investors during World War II for about $1 million after they tried to sell the distillery to rival Lewis Rosenstiel (more on Rosenstiel in a bit).

The Blum family owned the brand until 1967, when it was sold to American Brands. It proved to be a very shrewd move, given that bourbon sales reached an all-time high in 1970 and began a steep decline until the recent surge in popularity.

While the Blums and the Shapiras were hard at work building their brands from scratch, the whisky industry was dominated by two Jewish liquor titans: Lewis Rosenstiel and Sam Bronfman.

Rosenstiel was born in Cincinnati in 1891 and founded and ran Schenley. After Prohibition, he bought up as many American whisky brands as he possibly could, including Bernheim’s I.W. Harper.

He turned his company into a major powerhouse, making many of his spirits famous around the world. When Rosenstiel retired in 1968, according to his New York Times obituary, the company had yearly sales of nearly $500 million.

Following in his footsteps, his son-in-law, Sidney Frank, built the unheard of bitter German liqueur Jägermeister into a best seller and created the wildly successful brand Grey Goose Vodka, which he then sold to Bacardi for several billion dollars.

Schenley’s chief rival was the legendary Sam Bronfman, who turned his success supplying bootleggers with Canadian whisky during Prohibition into the giant international corporation, Seagram’s.

Despite his vast wealth, his background was quite modest. “In 1889, Yechiel and Mindel Bronfman, fleeing anti-Semitic pogroms in Bessarabia, arrived in Canada with their four young children in tow,” wrote Davin de Kergommeaux in his excellent book, Canadian Whisky.

The Bronfmans moved around Canada trying their hand at different businesses, but found their niche supplying and then making alcohol for a dry America.

Ultimately, the family would merge with Joseph E. Seagram and Sons and, according to de Kergommeaux, starting in 1933 acquired 13 American distilleries. His purchases included the beloved Four Roses.

After decades of selling booze, in 2000 the family’s liquor empire was disassembled by Sam’s grandson, Edgar Bronfman, Jr. Now most of the Seagram’s brands are owned by Pernod Ricard and Diageo.

So pour yourself a few fingers of delicious bourbon or rye and toast the Jewish pioneers who helped create America's wonderful whiskies. L'Chaim!