Distilling in the Family Tree

While my husband and I were dating, the subject of distilled spirits came up now and then.  His grandfather, H.L., was very fond of high balls.  We would go to visit Rich’s grandparents in downtown Chicago once a month.  As soon as we walked in the door, H.L. would cry out to his wife, Lillian, “We need a couple of high balls out here to get started.” 

I asked Rich why he did this at the beginning of each visit.  Rich explained that Lillian did not allow H.L. to drink unless there was company and they wanted a drink.  H.L. must have known his grandson well enough to order up the drinks on our arrival.  I suspect it was more that he used Rich as an excuse to finally get a drink in the house.

Genealogy gave me an inside look at the lives of people on our family trees.  One of the best things about genealogy is collecting up the stories.  Some of these stories had to do with alcohol. 

Rich’s paternal aunt, Betty, volunteered to sit down with me to discuss the people she had known personally in that side of the family.  She had a great memory and made all of them feel very real to me.  That side of the family was also known for their love of distilled spirits and Betty had a few stories about them.

When Betty was 10 years old, the grandmothers from both sides of the family had a lady’s day in the garden at one of the family homes in downtown Chicago.  Five of the women gathered to gossip, tell tall tales about the family, and enjoy a beautiful day. 

Betty was quickly drafted to make mixed drinks for the ladies.  They instructed Betty in the amount to use, the various additives, and how to present the drink to each lady.  Apparently, they all drank something different.  Betty said she spent all afternoon making drinks and the ladies were pretty well under the influence by dinner time.

Rich’s great grandmother, Helene, came from Lithuania in 1922.  She made bathtub gin and other alcohols as needed.  I can’t say for sure that this was during Prohibition either.  From some of the stories, it sounds like she made alcohol when there was a gathering of family members where she might need a large quantity. 

Helene lived on a farm at the edge of Chicago, in an area west of Schiller Park.  In the early 1960s, O’Hare Airport was being constructed just a little further west of Helene’s farm.  The city of Chicago came in and said that her two-story farmhouse was in the way of airspace and she had to sell out and move.  Helene left kicking and screaming from the farm.  Until her dying day in 1972, she cursed Chicago and the mayor by crying out, “Goddamn, Daley!”

Sorry, I got off onto a different two-lane road there for a  minute. This takes me to my maternal family.  I know that they were distilling spirits for personal consumption as well as using it as a bargain tool.  This was common in many locations to barter for services or things that you needed.  People would specialize in a liquor or process to make it desirable by their neighbors.

My maternal grandfather produced peach brandy as his barter tool with his neighbors and friends. He grew peach trees on the south side of his garden.  They produced the most beautiful and sweetest fruit I can remember  From these, he distilled down to his final product in one of the outbuildings that lined the backyard. His operation was quite self-contained. I remember peeking into that building once to see the still, but there was no active operation at the time.

Sad to say I never had the opportunity to taste his peach brandy since I was too young. The look on my mother’s face would have been priceless, if he had been able to offer up a glass. My mom never drank, that I know about. Later, she accepted the fact that I learned to drink so long as she did not have to see it happen.

Over the years, I have come across stories and records for other family members who distilled spirits.  I image most of my early relatives distilled to have spirits at all.  Living in remote areas would mean that purchasing spirits was difficult and transporting it back home maybe impossible. 

My maternal family comes from Scottish roots.  I like to think they would have been involved in the whisky business through a family operation or for their personal use.  They might have come close to starting up one of the distilleries that survived for decades and would be well known today.  I have yet to find proof.  I guess I will continue to research and drink whiskey with hope.