One of my long favorite areas of collecting has been the taxation of legal alcohol during National Prohibition (1920-1933). Most readers will know that this was an era in which makers of illegal beverage alcohol, usually called moonshiners, and smugglers of alcohol from abroad, usually called bootleggers, flourished. Remnants from the moonshiners are a wonderful addition to a collecting interest in the Prohibition era.
A property on Cold Spring Lane in the Jones Falls area north of Baltimore originally contained a building that operated as a flour mill as early as 1806. The Gambrill family acquired the property around 1830 and expanded the location to include a sawmill. The property included a railroad station. In 1861 Union troops came in and were garrisoned on the property. The Gambrills, who were Southern sympathizers, were unhappy and sold the property in 1862 to William Denmead. It was during this period that the name “Melvale” became associated with this area. Sometime between 1862 and 1872, the Denmeads built the stone building shown in Figure 1 and operated it as a distillery. The building, with its segmentally arched window openings, was architecturally distinguished by the cupola centrally located on the roof. Two warehouses and a boiler shed were added by 1880.
Figure 1. The stone building with distinctive cupola that became the Melvale Distillery.
Figure 2. Moonshiner’s counterfeit front bottle label for “Mellvale” Pure Rye Whiskey from the early 1920s.
Figure 3: Back of Figure 2 counterfeit bottle label.
Shortly thereafter, the distillery and two acres of the grounds were sold to a group of locals led by John Cummings, a Baltimore commission merchant. Under the Cummings leadership, Melvale Rye Whiskey became one of the most premium of the pre-prohibition Maryland Ryes. Following the death of John Cummings in 1900, the leadership passed to William Cummings and his younger brother Alexander, two of John Cummings’ sons. Continued expansion with excellent railroad access led the Melvale Distillery to become the largest whiskey producer in Maryland. A 1914 ad described Melvale Pure Rye Whiskey as: Manufactured whiskey distilled from the highest grade rye. Its pronounced high flavor, character and bouquet make it most desirable for medicinal and other purposes.
In January 1920, the 18th Amendment ushered in National Prohibition. Although the state of Maryland itself did not ban alcohol production and sales, the national ban affected the Melvale Distillery. The distillery was designated a “bonded warehouse” and the Cummings brothers managed to stay open for several years to produce grain alcohol for industrial purposes. The family sold the distillery in 1925. By 1928 the facility was converted to vinegar production.
Interestingly, during the early years of National Prohibition, a moonshiner decided to try to trade on the popularity of Melvale Pure Rye Whiskey. To convince the public of the authenticity of the product, the moonshiner printed bottle labels (Figures 2 and 3). They did a very nice job of copying the black part of the front bottle label. But alas, the red portion of the bottle label in Figure 2 has an extra letter “L” in the distillery name, MELLVALE.
To further impress the potential purchaser of the whiskey, the moonshiner also had counterfeits of the federally required green bottled in bond strip stamps printed (Figure 4). These are in the style of the Series of 1911 offset bottled in bond strip stamps (intended to seal over the bottle cap) that Internal Revenue was still using until mid-1922 (Figure 5), when the design was altered to reflect the changes of National Prohibition. The term “in bond” refers to alcohol that was aged in a bonded warehouse and bottled there without paying the federal tax on alcohol. Only when the alcohol was to be removed for sale did the distillery have to pay the federal tax on alcohol. The appearance of these counterfeit bottle strips is enhanced by imitating the orange change-of-date obliteration for production and bottling (produced Spring 1918 and bottled Fall 1922). But these strip stamps are clearly a very crude imitation of the Bureau of Engraving & Printing stamps produced for Internal Revenue. It would also appear that whoever introduced the extra L in Mellvale on the red part of the bottle label must also have done the same on the green bottled in bond strip stamps.
These productions of the moonshiners enhance our collections of the genuine stamps used during the Prohibition era, when it was only possible to purchase legally alcohol that was prescribed by physicians. Yes, this was called medicinal alcohol and not beverage alcohol!
Figure 4. Moonshiner’s counterfeit bottled in bond strip stamp to accompany the bottle labels used in the early 1920s.
Figure 5. A genuine Series of 1911 bottled in bond strip stamp.