A Story Over 100 Years In The Making
“Prohibition destroyed the whiskey industry. Along with a few others, we’re bringing it back.”
Every story begins somewhere. This one starts back when the world was on fire.
In 1914, a disgruntled 19-year old student was standing on a sidewalk in Sarajevo when the royal motorcade slowed in front of him. Inside was Archduke Franz Ferdinand—heir to the throne of the Austria-Hungarian Empire—and his wife Sophie. With hate in his heart and a .380 FN-Browning M1910 pistol in his hand, the stillness of that Sunday morning was shattered as the young man fired two rounds into the car. The first bullet struck Sophie in the abdomen. The second struck the Archduke in the chest. Both died, plunging Europe into chaos and the world into a war virtually unprecedented in its slaughter, carnage and destruction.
On April 6, 1917, American President Woodrow Wilson’s policy of impartial neutrality keeping the United States out of European trenches was replaced by a declaration of war. In the coming months, over four million Americans of all backgrounds would enter military service and the country geared herself for armed conflict.
By August of that year, President Wilson instituted a temporary liquor prohibition to save grain for producing food. This emergency measure was set to expire at the end of the war, but changing political winds soon gave rise to something much more permanent.
In an honest but misguided attempt to elevate American morality through national legislation, the U.S. Congress passed the 18th Amendment on (of all things) December 18, 1917. This addition to the Constitution prohibited the “manufacture, sale or transportation of intoxicating liquors for beverage purposes”. By January 1919, the amendment had been ratified by a needed three-fourths majority of the states making Prohibition the law of the land.
The Volstead Act, passed nine months later, provided for the enforcement of the 18th Amendment. And with it, the wholesale destruction of the entire whiskey industry. Companies shut their doors. Distilleries crashed overnight. And the restaurants, theaters and entertainment districts they supported collapsed just as quickly.
But one group, hidden deep in the shadows of American society, saw opportunity.
Small-time crooks, thugs and bootleggers soon began filling the liquor void. Often using small homemade stills, they’d ferment a “mash” from corn sugar, fruit, beets, even potato peels to produce 200-proof alcohol. Then they’d mix it with glycerin and cut it with water from a bathtub (hence the term bathtub gin). Racketeers were even known to steal millions of gallons of industrial grain alcohol, redistill it for sale in underground speakeasies around the country and turn a huge profit.
That’s when the mob took notice.
In fact, some believe Prohibition practically created organized crime in America. The Piranio Brothers in Dallas, the Sicilian Mafia in Kansas City, Al Capone in Chicago and the Five Families of New York began producing and transporting large amounts of illegal alcohol through complex bootlegging operations. Territorial disputes soon transformed many American cities into violent battlegrounds. Homicides, burglaries and assaults skyrocketed around the country.
"Prohibition changed everything. We lost that knowledge about the craft in America. That's why we've tried to bring back that original process as much as possible." Herman Beckley—scientist, historian, distiller and founding partner
When Herman and his partner Marshall Louis decided to turn their passion for honest whiskey into a business making it, they both knew where they needed to start. After researching old bourbon recipes from the 1800s, over time and with a lot of trial + error they found the perfect ingredients and techniques to suit their tastes.
“Whiskey from the grain up” is more than just an expression. For us, it’s the fundamental philosophy of our distilling approach. We start with the best grains possible and the corn we use is AAA-rated from the Texas Panhandle. After sourcing it, we grind the grain using our state-of-the-art roller mill. Then we lean into a little more history.
We hand-built two open-top 500-gallon cypress tanks to ferment the mash. Why cypress? Because our whiskey forefathers knew this wood to be very resistant to rot and lasts a long time before needing to be replaced. Not only does it hold and ferment whiskey well, but it doesn’t leach any flavors into the liquid, either.
Along with the cypress tanks where the mash comes alive in a soft bubble, we also heat our custom, handcrafted 400-gallon copper pot still with steam (another nod to the past). Our all-important yeast strain is proprietary and we source our water from a small spring in East Texas—a secret spot we keep between us and the whiskey.
The newly distilled bourbon is then patiently aged in new charred American white oak barrels, but it’s ultimately the local weather that makes us different than other distillers. We store our whiskey barrels in a single-floor, enclosed rickhouse that’s not temperature-controlled. Spend any time here in Texas and you know temps can easily reach 100˚ in the summer (and get even hotter in indoors). The intense heat and huge temperature swings cause incredible expansion and contraction in the wooden barrels.
That pressure pushes our whiskey into and out of the charred wood more often. It not only delivers our signature nose, palate and finish but also a depth and richness that you don’t expect from just a few years of aging.
“Our goal,” says Herman, “is to be very authentic in our technique and deliver a smooth whiskey with lots of flavor. Smoothness is the most important thing, though, and the most difficult thing to create. It takes know-how and a lot of practice.”
That know-how and practice has paid off in ways few distillers can ever appreciate. In 2013, Herman Marshall took the national spirits scene by storm. That year we won a coveted Silver Medal and scored an astounding 93 points for our Texas Bourbon in the American Distilling Institute’s Annual Spirits competition. Not only were we honored by Master Distiller judges from across the United States but we were humbled to place second among almost four hundred other submissions.
Since then, we’ve gained even more recognition for our craft. We’ve been voted “Best Small Batch Bourbon” in the International Whiskey Competition (considered to be the Olympics of whiskey competition) and won a Bronze Medal for our rye whiskey from the ADI.
In November 2021, Herman Marshall was acquired by Dry County Distilleries. Herman, the Chairman Emeritus of Herman Marshall Whiskey, is serving as our Distilling Consultant and several other employees have graciously agreed to stay on board to help us preserve as well as modernize our operation.
“I am proud of the legacy Herman Marshall created and the role we have played in the renaissance of Texas whiskey,” Herman says. “This change marks a bold new era for HM and I am thrilled to help the new ownership team take it to the next level and continue to produce award-winning whiskey.”