The Indefatigable Mr. Reynolds of New Haven, CT

At the end of 1909, President Taft made his fateful decision under recent food labeling laws that whiskey was any distillate from grain but excluding molasses or other fermentable sources such as grapes. This meant it could be any proof before dilution for bottling. Neutral spirits distilled at 95% purity of ethanol in a column still qualified, as did whiskey distilled at much lower proofs and aged in new charred barrels in Kentucky and Pennsylvania.

The only proviso was labels must indicate when mixtures of neutral spirits and straight whiskey were offered as whiskey. In essence, this scheme exists today under the “Standards of Identity” that govern U.S. whiskey. This was a victory for the “rectifiers” and others who utilized neutral spirits (or something similar, as Canadian distillers) in their production. Earlier I reviewed the arguments deployed in particular by Canadian Club which helped achieve success.

In 1911, two years later, the decision still rankled among some who felt that neutral spirits should not be called whiskey. One was Hugh J. Reynolds, a prosperous wine and liquor merchant in New Haven, Connecticut.

Reynolds was a feisty guy, he had a long history of advertising in the local press which correlatively gave him space on issues like this. The papers covered his comings and goings, his next European tour, his support of Catholic charities (he was an Irish immigrant) and similar doings by a respected local citizen. Given National Prohibition was only a few years away, it was an anomaly to see him lionized in this way, but clearly he was a good customer and also, that part of the northeast seems to have had a more tolerant “public” attitude to alcohol even as WW I approached.

Reynolds was a carriage trade merchant, and Yale University students figured among his clientele. This “gentry” aspect perhaps put a bubble around figures like Reynolds in his community.

And so, a local paper devoted many column inches in 1911 to Reynolds’ opinions on the now-resolved whiskey labelling question. In summary, he approved of long aging of straight whiskey, not even four years (a modern industry standard), but between 10 and 12 years.

His opinions on whiskey technically seem basically correct, but requiring 10-12 years aging seems a bit of a stretch. That length of time can impart a woody character to whiskey and he himself states he doesn’t think whiskey should be woody. He was correct that chemical changes over a prolonged period lend whiskey a mild and pleasant character, but that does not require 10-12 years to achieve, at least today.

Some of the pot-distilled or other bourbon distillates of his time, coming off the still not much above 100 proof and with a high rye content, may have required longer than four years to soften down, but again 10-12 seems overly long as a general standard. Certainly today, four-to-eight year old bourbon or rye achieves most of the necessary changes while preserving essential whiskey character.

Reynolds appears to have been something of a character himself, tilting against the windmills, the zeitgeist, by devoting a large amount of space to questions that were fairly obscure and relevant to an industry on the precipice. Maybe he saw the writing on the wall and decided to go out with a beau geste. More likely, he just had the fighting spirit.

He died at 80 in 1918, no doubt shocked by the successful drive, hastened by wartime conditions, to ban alcohol everywhere. He had a good run certainly, having been in business for almost 40 years by then.

His store was located on Crown Street in New Haven, near a grand opera house. The street seems very different today. His opinions may be read here, in the Bridgeport Evening Farmer.