When the passage of the Volstead Act in 1919 ushered in Prohibition, America’s distilleries had been left with few methods to outlive. Some shuttered, by no means to reopen. A fortunate few received one of many extremely sought-after medicinal whiskey licenses. However for even fewer, the one choice was to maneuver elsewhere. And that’s how Kentucky bourbon, identified now as “America’s spirit,” got here to be distilled in Mexico for about three many years.
As soon as Prohibition began, the saloon enterprise in border cities like Juarez — the place guests to El Paso, Texas, may simply cross into the nation by trolley — would increase. This made these cities preferrred for bourbon distillers to settle in, as their clientele was virtually inbuilt. Juarez particularly took on a Las Vegas-type attraction for these seeking to indulge of their vices, fueling up on low cost cocktails and making an attempt their luck at playing. Hotspots just like the Cafe Mint Bar, El Tivoli, and the Moulin Rouge attracted fairly a crowd, as did the World Well-known Kentucky Membership. It opened in 1920 with a protracted picket bar imported from France and ornately carved rafters, and was rumored to have been visited by bootlegger Al Capone. Founder Francisco Montes named the watering gap for the American state after Kentucky bourbon distilleries moved operations to Mexico.
Considered one of these relocated distilleries — or “whiskeries,” as they had been known as — was Waterfill & Frazier, which wasn’t fortunate sufficient to be one of many six recipients of medicinal bourbon licenses in Kentucky. The corporate began distilling in 1810 and was taken over by Mary Dowling after the loss of life of her husband in 1903. After she was caught illegally storing whiskey in a 1924 sting operation, Dowling labored with distiller Joseph L. Beam — of the household behind Jim Beam — to arrange a distillery in Juarez, rigorously transporting the gear and supplies wanted south by rail. In addition they had assist from town’s future mayor, Antonio Bermúdez, and an unidentified American benefactor. They took on the identify D.W. Distillery for his or her operation, and the merchandise shortly gained a following in neighboring Texas, typically smuggled by land with assist from native authorities.
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Dowling’s operation was removed from the one one in Juarez, however was actually prolific, regardless of some elements of Mexico additionally partaking in Prohibition. A 1937 article notes that the corporate was storing 8,000 barrels, thrice as a lot as again in Kentucky. Regardless of the brand new enterprise’s success, distilling additional south wasn’t with out its challenges. Mexico has a protracted historical past of distillation that dates again lots of of years and has an abundance of corn, however the water and local weather fluctuate vastly from Kentucky. Whereas the components and course of may need been simply replicated, the product high quality wasn’t fairly the identical because it had been pre-Prohibition. However American clients weren’t precisely ready to be choosy.
Prohibition led to 1933, three years after Dowling’s loss of life. However Waterfill & Frazier continued to supply whiskey in Juarez, utilizing the identify “bourbon” on its labels till 1964 when laws was handed to guard it as an American product, making Mexican bourbon unlawful. Inside a decade, the corporate shuttered.
Bourbon has since seen a resurgence in the US, reclaiming its title of “America’s spirit,” however one which Waterfill & Frazier didn’t see. It’s nonetheless potential to search out bottles of those Prohibition-era whiskey on-line, albeit normally empty, should you’re prepared to pay a premium.
Whereas the bourbon increase in Juarez could have solely lasted a number of many years and is now largely forgotten stateside, its influence remains to be current in Mexico. The Kentucky Membership remains to be a Juarez staple, however today, it serves extra tequila than bourbon. Historic markers now denote the place town’s different well-known nightclubs as soon as lined Avenida Juarez. D.W. Distillery’s copper Vendome nonetheless was despatched again to the corporate in Louisville and is now featured on the headquarters. The Bermúdez household went on to change into one of the profitable in Mexico, recruiting American corporations to arrange factories in Juarez. And, up to now decade, the nation has developed its personal whiskey enterprise, utilizing the identical corn as soon as used to supply “Kentucky-style bourbon” almost a century earlier than.
The times of Mexican bourbon could also be over, however America’s spirit wouldn’t be the identical with out its journey south of the border.