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Distilling in Brooklyn--Whiskey Wars and Swill Milk in the 1860s

Jan 20, 2010 2:37 PM | 2 comments

We hear a good deal about brewing in Brooklyn, but a patron's question recently made me realize that we hear little about the making of stronger stuff.  But as you would  think in a place the size of Brooklyn, there has been no shortage of local liquor, both legal and otherwise, in the City of Churches--and of stills.

One of the most venerable distilleries was that of Cunningham and Harris, at the corner of Main and Washington Streets; it was described in court proceedings as being founded as early as 1810.  A considerable number of these distilleries were located in the Eastern District not far from the breweries, with some also in Gowanus and Wallabout.  In fact there was one close to our Pacific Branch at the corner of "Flatbush Turnpike and Pacific Street"  according to Henry Stiles, author of one of the standard 19th century histories of Brooklyn. Other South Brooklyn establishments could be found at 2nd Street near Bond, 3rd Street near Gowanus and at the rear of 121 Douglass Street (these were all seized for non-payment of duties in Septmeber 1868).

The Whiskey War in Brooklyn

Court proceedings against Wilson's distillery at the corner of Flushing Ave and Skillman St in 1866 include a detailed description of the distillation process. A wash tub 16 feet wide and four feet deep with a "mash machine" in it was filled with hot water. Corn was added and left to stand, then rye was added, heated and cooled; then yeast was added and the "mass" run off into fermenting cisterns, producing alchohol.

Distilling seems to have been a risky business all around. If your distillery and equipment weren't being burned to the ground as a result of some careless accident--a workman placing an open flame too close to a barrel of whisky, for example--then the government was seizing your goods because you forgot --or more likely,  "forgot" --to pay your taxes.

From 1866 through 1868 the newspapers were full of reports of seized distilleries.  In 1867 the government collected only $21,618 from Brooklyn distillers, when in fact the volume of liquor they produced should have yielded $1,225,000 in duties. 

The conflict between the distillers and the government turned into an all out "Whiskey War" in 1869,  when troops were sent into the Fifth Ward (now the Vinegar Hill neighborhood) to enforce the revenue laws (see illustration above.).  An artist from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper  drew  the excitement at the junction of "Bourbon Avenue and Lightning Alley" where General Pleasanton, U.S. Revenue Collector  led a force of fifteen hundred  infantry and marines to destroy illicit stills and barrels of illegal whiskey.  

Swill milk trade exposure

But underreporting of production was only one of the evils associated with many of the Brooklyn distilleries. Fires and industrial accidents are reported with depressing regularity. Boilers exploded, scalding and even killing workers nearby. Neighbors complained about obstruction and other nuisances; and the distillers were implicated in the abhorrent "swill milk" trade, selling the residual mash from the distillation process to farmers who fed it to their cows. This diet caused the unfortunate animals to become "tail-less, red-eyed and dropsical" and to develop weeping sores. Their milk, unpasteurised, untested, and lacking in essential nutrients, was fed to babies who died in their thousands as a result.

Presentation watchThe Brooklyn Collection has several hundred prints from the 19th century illustrated newspapers showing scenes in Brooklyn during the time before news photography was current. Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper was instrumental in exposing the horrors of the swill milk trade in 1859.  An artist trying to illustrate conditions in the cow stables associated with the distillery at the corner of Flushing Ave and Skillman Streets was assaulted by the milkmen; and Mr Leslie himself was said to suffer "many indignities" as a result of his stand. In the end though, the publisher was presented with a  watch and chain by the "Ladies and children of New York, for his efforts in suppressing the swill milk trade."





3/17/2010 12:59:52 PM #

Thanks for pointing this link out to us. We play a song on one of our tenement tours that goes like this: "Oh mothers be careful and cautious / what milk for your children you buy / be careful 'tis not the swill poison / that's sold in some carts that drive by." It was essentially a PSA about the dangers of swill milk, aimed at a working-class crowd.

For a fictional look at the distillery business in Brooklyn, I loved Emily Barton's "Brookland."