When one thinks of Macy’s or any large department store, perhaps certain material associations come to mind: toys, clothing, kitchenware, furnishings. One thing that probably doesn’t leap to mind: booze.
That wasn’t always the case. In the mid-20th century, a Macy’s shopper could have left with bags full of not only ties and slippers, but gin and bourbon. And not just any gin or bourbon. Macy’s brand gin and bourbon. And not just one kind, either. Macy’s once carried a full line of bourbon expressions, including Old Whaler Bourbon (five-year-old, 86 proof); Supremacy Bonded Bourbon (six-year-old, 100 proof, sourced from Nelson County, Ky.), Old Landmark Bourbon (four-year-old, 86 proof, from Illinois); and Macy’s “40” Whiskey (a blend containing 40 percent Kentucky juice, 86 proof). It also sold two brands of in-house rye, two types of Scotch, a vodka, brandy, and several cordials. Many bore the name “Red Star,” after the star-shaped asterisk that still adorns the Macy’s logo.
Macy’s was not alone. From the 1930s to the 1980s, many department stores, liquor shops, and restaurants had their own private labels of various spirits that they sold to customers. Macy’s arch rival, Gimbels, matched Macy’s bottle for bottle. (My favorite brand name of theirs was Greeley Square Vodka.) I was recently gifted a bottle of Bostonian Gin, a London Dry made for the Milwaukee-based Boston Store chain, and bottled at a Milwaukee distiller owned by the same family that brewed Schlitz. I was frankly stunned that this family-oriented store my parents often shopped at had its own brand of gin. I was also surprised that it wasn’t bad.
The Stitzel-Weller Connection
“Private labels were pretty common,” said Eric Witz, a prominent collector of vintage spirits. “Their heyday was after Prohibition through the 1960s. Liquor stores often had bottles prepared for them by distillers.”
The distillers most associated with furnished juice for private labels are Stitzel-Weller and Willett (then Kentucky Bourbon Distillers), two of today’s most revered producers of bourbon and rye. Stitzel-Weller whiskey — that same stuff that went into the now fetishized Pappy Van Winkle line — furnished innumerable private labels. Among them, according to Witz, were: Chateau Cellars Brand Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey for Chateau Liquors in Denver; Old Eastwood Bonded for the Taylor drug store chain in Louisville; the Waldorf-Astoria hotel’s in-house bourbon; Hotel Muehlebach 13-year Bourbon for the Hotel Muehlebach in Kansas City, Mo.; and the Cherry Circle Private Stock for the Chicago Athletic Association.
“With off-premise consumer demand down, producers and bottlers were looking for unique ways to grab market share. Giving a restaurant their own private bottling was a smart move in that regard.”
Marco’s, a famous liquor purveyor in Chicago, whose operators published the 1937 cocktail book “The How and When,” sold its own brand of four-year-old bourbon. Tony Sachs, the spirits writer, once acquired and drank a bottle of straight bourbon bottled exclusively for the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C. (Appropriately enough, he drained it on the 40th anniversary of Nixon’s resignation.)
Private labels were good business for some Kentucky distillers during the days of the whiskey “glut” in the late 20th century, when few American cared about or drank quality bourbon. “Julian Van Winkle was happy to clear out barrels of whiskey for them,” says writer Aaron Goldfarb, whose book on vintage spirits and the obsessive collectors who seek them out, “Dusty Booze,” will be published in March 2024.
“Stitzel-Weller was trying to make ends meet,” points out Christopher Donovan, the owner of the House of Glunz, a family-owned liquor store that has been in business since 1888. “Times were tough. Everyone worked hard and bourbon wasn’t a shoo-in like it is now.” Donovan knows of what he speaks. For many years, Glunz was a “merchant bottler,” acting as a sort of middleman between distillers and other businesses. It bought, aged, and bottled Kentucky whiskey for itself and other concerns (such at the old Italian Village restaurant in Chicago, for which it furnished a 20-year-old bourbon) and private individuals.
The most famous of all the Stitzel-Weller private-label bottlings is doubtless the bourbon sold for decades at The Berghoff, a legendary German restaurant in the heart of downtown Chicago. Van Winkle first provided liquid for multiple whiskey brands for The Berghoff. When Norton Simon purchased the Old Fitzgerald distillery from the Van Winkle family, they carried on the tradition. Later on, in 1992, Van Winkle resumed the Berghoff business. “It was a nice piece of business for a small guy like me,” Julian Van Winkle told the Straightbourbon.com forum in 2000.
“There were short runs of bottling Stitzel-Weller for Macy’s and Hilton hotels in the 1960s.”
According to Kristopher Peterson, the general manager and spirits archivist for Mordecai, a bar in Chicago that specializes in vintage spirits, the majority of private-label bourbons debuted in the 1980s, when bourbon sales were poor. “With off-premise consumer demand down, producers and bottlers were looking for unique ways to grab market share,” Peterson says. “Giving a restaurant their own private bottling was a smart move in that regard — especially in boilermaker-friendly environments.”
Neither Witz nor Goldfarb has ever found or tasted a Berghoff bourbon. Since bourbon fanatics found out the whiskey inside was the same as went into Pappy Van Winkle, the bottles have become impossible to find. “The price has soared in recent years,” says Goldfarb.
Stitzel-Weller also once bottled the bourbons for Macy’s. “There were short runs of bottling Stitzel-Weller for Macy’s and Hilton hotels in the 1960s,” says Peterson, who has laid his hands on the Macy’s but never seen the Hilton bottles.
Bourbon may have been the most common spirit to receive the private label treatment, but it was hardly the only one. According the Witz, the Waldorf Astoria hotel also carried a Cuban rum (both white and gold varieties) in the 1940s. Hearn’s Department Stores, once prominent in New York City, had its own rum. And famed tiki bar chains like Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic’s also had their own lines of rum. (That tradition has continued in a small way with Hamilton Beachbum Berry’s Zombie Blend Rum, a spirit produced by rum importer Ed Hamilton and named after Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, the owner of the New Orleans tropical bar Latitude 29.)
From Private Label to Single Barrel
Private labels became less and less common as the 20th century gave way to the 21st. “I don’t know if it became more trouble than it was worth,” theorizes Witz, “or maybe they didn’t see a return on it.”
Still, there are some prominent modern examples. In the late aughts, Brooklyn boutique liquor store owner LeNell Smothers sourced well-aged barrels of rye whiskey from Willett and bottled them as overproof Red Hook Rye. Bottles of Red Hook Rye now sell for tens of thousands of dollars. And Danny Meyer’s Manhattan barbecue restaurant Blue Smoke carried its own Old Rip Van Winkle bourbon, sourced from Van Winkle. The Seelbach Hotel in Louisville also sourced from Willett, selling Speakeasy Select and Rathskeller Rye in the late aughts.
“They’re barrel picks and there can be some amazing things. But it’s not like the old Berghoffs. The original people were doing unique things, unique to them.”
Today, the private-label tradition is largely continued by small liquor stores and cocktail bars that source a barrel of whiskey from various Kentucky distilleries, which bottle it and label it to be sold at said shops and bars. With the rise of interest in American whiskey, this habit — first initiated by cocktail bars — has become increasingly common.
“That is a continuation of what we’re talking about,” says Witz. “But it’s more focused on single- barrel selections.”
“They’re barrel picks and there can be some amazing things,” Donovan agrees. “But it’s not like the old Berghoffs. The original people were doing unique things, unique to them.”
As for the old examples, one thing seems certain. Unlike other kinds of dusties, collectors seek out old bottles of private label solely for the quality and provenance of the liquid within. They have little or no interest in the brand’s mercantile history. In other words, they care about the bourbon, not The Berghoff.
“They are after the juice,” says Witz.