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From Bourbon to Bagels in Kentucky

Distilling Louisville’s Jewish history on a trip Across the JEW.S.A

Tablet Studios
March 31, 2023
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

When you think of Kentucky, you probably think of the Derby, the fried chicken, the bluegrass music, and, of course, the bourbon. What you might not think of are the Jews.

But Jews have been in Kentucky since the 1800s, and have played a pivotal role in one of the biggest local industries. We learned all about this rich Jewish history—and surprising present—when we traveled to Louisville, Kentucky, for the third installment of our monthly travel series Across The JEW.S.A.

Our journey began in the giant beaux-arts building that houses the Filson Historical Society, where we met Abigail Glogower, curator of Jewish Collections and Jewish Community Archives. She showed us documentation of the early history of Jewish organizational and communal life in Louisville, including the membership register for the Mendelssohn Lodge, which in 1860 was the city’s second B’nai Brith lodge. The organizations, Glogower explained, were founded by mostly German Jewish immigrant businessmen who wanted a place to come together to network, support each other, and establish philanthropic projects. The registrars listed a member’s name, occupation, marital status, number of children, and health information; long before the creation of the modern social safety net, these organizations would aid their members in the event of a personal loss or professional hardship.

Joseph Rothschild, Max Oppenheimer, Samuel Grabfelder: The membership list is filled with men who list their occupation as “merchant.” That term back then was a lot like what we think of today as entrepreneurs: people who made things out of nothing, launched businesses, reinvented themselves. These men were Jewish immigrants, and the trade many of them made their mark in is something the area is known for: bourbon.

Bourbon is an American whiskey made primarily from corn. According to the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, 95% of the world’s bourbon supply is crafted in Kentucky. This is due to the fortuitous confluence of abundant grain, temperate climate, and limestone-filtered water. Add to that the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, which allowed for commercial transport. Today it’s a $9 billion industry that fuels jobs, tourism, and economic growth. And it’s an industry with a history full of Kentucky Jews.

One of those early Jewish merchants was Isaac Wolfe Bernheim, who emigrated from Germany in 1867 and worked as a peddler before settling in Paducah, Kentucky, where he became an accountant in a whiskey trading operation (the big business at the time was trading barrels of whiskey, not making it). He earned enough money to bring his brother Bernard to America, and they founded their own liquor venture called Bernheim Brothers. In 1870, they established Bernheim Distillery, and in 1872 unveiled a whiskey brand they called I.W. Harper—a name believed to have been selected as a far more palatable play on I.W. Bernheim. Their distillery survived through Prohibition thanks to a rare license to produce bourbon for medicinal purposes, and in 1937 Isaac Bernheim sold the business and became a renowned local philanthropist, supporting a number of Jewish causes with his largess.

Today, Bernheim Original Wheat Whiskey is produced by Heaven Hill Distillery, itself run by a Jewish Kentucky family with major bourbon yichus. We visited the Louisville offices of Heaven Hill and met Max Shapira, executive chairman of Heaven Hill Brands, and his daughter Kate Latz, the company’s co-president. The story of Heaven Hill begins with Max’s grandfather Mendel “Max” Shapira, who emigrated from Lithuania in the late 1800s and settled in Kentucky. He started out as an enterprising door-to-door salesman before opening his own junior department store, and then sent his sons out to start their own stores. Their businesses survived the Depression and after Prohibition ended, the five brothers pooled their resources to get into the distillery business. Today the Shapira family runs the largest family-owned-and-operated distillery in America, now in its 87th year in operation, and is the sixth-largest supplier of distilled spirits in the U.S.

But our trip to Louisville wasn’t just about looking toward Louisville’s past. We looked at ways Jews there are living today, too. Cold Smoke Bagels has changed the lox scene in this Southern city; the city has a Jewish mayor, and he’s not the first; and the newly built Trager JCC is a hub for the community. For the full story—and even a Louisville connection to Seinfeld—listen to the segment.

Tablet Magazine
Across the Jew.S.A: Louisville, Kentucky
Ep. 356: The bourbon industry’s surprising Jewish history, plus a ‘Seinfeld’ connection and much more
March 31, 2023
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Across the JEW.S.A was created with support from the Jewish Federations of North America.

Tablet Studios is the premier destination for smart and entertaining Jewish audio content. Our podcasts include Unorthodox, What Really Matters, Take One, and the limited-run series Gatecrashers, Adventures with Dead Jews, Radioactive: The Father Coughlin Story, and The Franchise.

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