Henry McKenna's story begins in Ireland where he was born in Draperstown, County Derry, in 1819. As a youth Henry worked for a period in an Irish distillery and later clerked in a liquor store for a relative. When he emigrated to the United States as a teenager in 1837, a period of exceedingly hard times in Ireland, he apparently had no thought of becoming a whisky maker, but was very intent on making his mark in the New World.
Upon reaching America, McKenna, shown here, appears to have headed for Kentucky in 1838. There in Lexington in 1847 he married Elizabeth "Lizzie" McGuigan, herself an Irish immigrant from County Derry. Her surname is sometimes rendered as "Goodwin," a name her family adopted apparently to seem more "American." The couple ultimately settled in Nelson County, Kentucky, where Henry worked for a time on the roads. Many Irish immigrants, including my great grandfather, found their early employment in building the transportation infrastructure for our rapidly expanding Nation.
As often as possible, however most moved on to less physical and more lucrative occupations. Henry was no exception. By 1855 he had gone into business with a partner milling flour in Fairfield, Kentucky. Together they bought a plot of land at the edge of town, built a grain elevator and mill, and set about grinding wheat into flour for their neighbors. The gristing process of those days produced considerable waste. To put that material to use, Henry bought a farm and pigs to eat the leftovers, but apparently had so much refuse that he decided to turn the rest into whisky.
Next time you are visiting our showroom take a look at our McKenna memorabilia. Our great-great grandfather was a stickler for detail in order to produce only the finest whisky, as evidenced in the articles below. We follow in his footsteps. Since 1907, Office Environment Company has built a reputation for integrity, creativity and quality. From workspace design and furniture to office supplies, we are dedicated to providing the outstanding customer service that has been our hallmark since our first day of operation.
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Plant Founded in 1855 Returns Famous Brand to Market
Courier-Journal, February 18, 1934
The distillery of H. McKenna, Incorporated, is operating under Fedral Alcoohol Control Administration Permit No. D.S. 3222.
Operations have been resumed at the distillery of H. McKenna, Incorporated, located at Fairfield, Nelson County, Kentucky. The firm again produces its famous "Old McKenna Sour Mash Whisky," which was originated by the McKenna family and marketed continuously by them from 1855 until national prohibition.
The McKenna distillery is said to be one of the finest in Nelson County which is noted for its fine Bourbon whiskies. The plant at Fairfield is eleven miles northeast of Bardstown and four miles west of Bloomfield, on State Highway No. 48.
Since prohibition, the McKenna product, through arrangement with a Louisville distillery, had kept its brand on the market for medicinal purposes.
James S. McKenna and Stafford E. McKenna, sons of the founder of the business, operated the plant successfully for twenty-five years prior to prohibition. These men have taken over active management of the plant from the time it resumed operations. Coleman Bixler, for sixteen years prior to prohibition in charge of distillation, has been re-employed as distiller for the McKenna plant.
Outstanding capitalization of H. McKenna, Incorporated, consist of $200,000 in common stock, and $25,000 in treasury stock. The firm has no funded or other debt, nor preferred stock outstanding. The plant and equipment, according to the officers of the firm, are free of all encumbrances.
Officers of the firm are president, James S. McKenna, Fairfield; vice president, Stafford McKenna, Fairfield, and secretary and treasurer, William P. Kelly, Louisville. The directors include the officers and two additional members to be selected from amongst the remaining stockholders.
The McKenna distillery is one of the few such plants in Kentucky that was not dismantled because of prohibition. It is proposed to operate the distillery at its present capacity of twenty barrels a day during the operating season.
History of the plant dates back to 1855, when it was founded by Henry McKenna, a native of County Derry, Ireland. He began to manufacture whisky on a small scale in an old shed, making less than a barrel a day. He gave more attention to the quality of his whisky, it is reported by historians, than to quantity, and soon disontinued the flour mill, in connection with which he had been running the distillery.
At the close of the War Between the States, Mr. McKenna increased the capacity of his distillery to a little more than a barrel a day. In 1883 he built a new brick distillery, increasing the capacity to three barrels a day, although retaining his former standards of quality.
The method used by this veteran distiller for making McKenna Sour Mash Whisky, was described as follows by Sam Carpenter Elliott in the 1896 issue of the Nelson County Record, and reprinted in the Kentucky Standard, Bardstown, recently:
"The corn used is first thorougly examined. The tip ends, where rotten grain is most to be found, is first examined, and these diseased grains are shelled off by hand.
"When this is done, the corn is put into a sheller, and afterwards thorougly fanned. So is the malt and rye. By this means there is nothing allowed to be put into the mash pure grain.
"Everything around the premises denotes cleanliness and clock-work management. The small, old-fashioned mash tubs are placed upon a contrivance and, after attaching a rope to it, are pulled up in position. While one man pours water into the tub through a rubber hose, another stirs the meal and draws it down into the opening, which carries the mash into a stirring machine, where it is finally conveyed through wooden channels into the fermenting tubs to undergo the required fermenting period before ready for use.
"The warehouses are built upon a rock foundation, and are well ventilated and conveniently arranged. They have a capacity of 8,000 barrels. There is one thing that can be said of the proprietors of this establishment that I doubt can be said of another in Kentucky. This is, they never sell their whisky in bond until it is more than three years old.
"They sell nothing but good old whiskies. Their trade is scattered throughout the United States, and if the reader could see the large number of letters received by H. McKenna from leading physicians throughout the country, certifying as the great purity of the McKenna whisky for medicinal purposes, he would readily understand how this brand of goods became so celebrated far and wide."
The present managers of the distillery promise to uphold the standards of quality laid down by the founder, and predict the renewed activity at the Fairfield plant will play a great part in winning back for Nelson County and Kentucky the great renown it once held as a distilling center for world-famous whiskies.
15,000 Barrels of Liquor Lost In Early Morning Blaze At Lexington.
MAN BURNED, MAY DIE
J. E. Pepper Plant Gone, Firemen Fight to Save New $400,000 Still House.
Courier-Journal: April 28, 1934
Lexington, Ky., April 28 (Saturday) (AP) - the Old Pepper Distillery, located at the city limits on Old Frankfort Pike, was practically destroyed by fire at an early hour this morning.
Fifteen thousand barrels of whisky valued at $4,500,000 (wholesale price) has been destroyed.
The distillery is the property of the Schenley Distillers' Corporation of New York.
Stanley Travis, 24 years old, was trapped between two burning warehouses and burned, perhaps fatally. Cause of fire was undetermined.
The fire started at 1:15 a.m. A Short time later two warehouses had been destroyed, a third was burning and the fourth warehouse seemed doomed.
With the warehouses doomed, firemen turned their attention toward saving the $400,000 recently completed still house nearby. It is of brick construction, and it was believed could be saved.
Lexington Herald, May 1, 1934
Plans for rehabilitating the James C. Pepper distillery on the Old Frankfort pike, destroyed by fire early Saturday morning, are being held up pending decision on the amount of tax to be imposed on whisky by the state legislature, The Herald was advised yesterday in a telegram from Henry E. Pogue, supervisor of plats for Schenley Products Company, owners of the property.
Mr. Pogue is in New York, where he went Sunday to attend a meeting of the board of directors of the Schenley company, scheduled to have been held yesterday morning. The meeting was not held, however, according to a Associated Press message received by The Herald last night.
The Pepper distillery property was swept by a $5,000,000 fire Saturday morning that razed every building on the property except the office and a $400,000 distillery plant still in the process of construction. Four warehouses, a bottling plant and gauging room and more than 15,000 barrels of whisky, some of it 20 years old, were destroyed.
Since the fire, whisky -- or rather a blend of whisky, water, mud, and ashes -- has been plentiful among
Courier Journal, September 23, 1941
By Donald McWain, The Courier-Journal Financial Editor
The sale of the H. McKenna, Incorporated, distillery at Fairfield in Nelson County to Distillers Corporation-Seagrams for $950,000 was announced Monday by the McKenna interest.
This was believed to top by approximately $120,000 the price of the Jacobson interests in Chicago, which was refused September 10, after a branch of the family headed by the late Stafford McKenna bought the 101,119 shares of stock held by the James McKenna branch of the family.
Stockholders were notified Monday of a special meeting to be held Friday in Fairfield to ratify the contract with Distillers Corporation-Seagrams made last Friday. The plan, in effect, is to vote for dissolution of the McKenna company, change the comapny's name, empower a committee to receive Seagrams purchase price, settle debts, distribute proceeds among stockholders and to take such other action as may be necessary to complete dissolution of the corporation.
Under the first offer, which stockholders declined, officials of the company said a sotck distribution of $1.75 a share would be possible to shareholders. Application of taxes in such a sale is difficult to compute and is dependent on what tax rulings may eventuate. Stockholders Monday were confident, however, that the sale will mean a distribution approximating $2.25 a share.
Prior to the first purchase offer, McKenna stock was selling in the over-the-counter market at appreciably less than $1 a share. After this offer was declined, one block of 1,000 shares sold last week in Louisville for $1.65 a share.
Thomas F. Mooney, Fairfield, elected president when James McKenna, former prresident, and Dr. Henry J. McKenna, former executive vice president, and associates sold their stock, told shareholders:
"The plan upon which we relied at the recent stockholder' meetings for obtaining a substantial fund for operating capital did not materialize. . .We feel that an effort to operate without definite arrangements for capital would hazard the investment of all stockholders. This we are unwilling to do.
"...We have not had the opportunity to consult every stockholder, during these (sale) negotiations, but the holders of more than two-thirds of the stock have given their hearty approval and co-operation to the end that this sale may be consummated. This number of stockholders is sufficient. . .to bring about the corporation's dissolution, but. . .we want every other stockholder to know the facts and to give the plan indorsement by signing the proxy and consent."
On the management's proxy committee are Mr. Mooney and William P. Kelly, 550 Primrose Way, director of McKenna and head of the Office Equipment Company.
Sale of McKenna marks continuance of a trend, in which the larger units of the industry are purchasing smaller distilleries. The large companies have shown a disposition to acquire increasing amounts of bulk whisky in the present rising market, McKenna, for instance, having approximately 20,000 barrels in warehouses.
The small distilleries have found it increasingly difficult to finance the making of whisky, including the cost of materials and the long wait before the product can be turned into cash while it is aging. At the same time, the unit cost of advertising sales and distribution for a small distillery has added another almost prohibitive cost. As a result, it has been an increasing temptation for small distilleries to take advantage of the present situation and to evade any future hazards of the business by getting stockholders out with whole hides through sale of assets.
In the last few months many Kentucky sales have been announced. Oldetyme, Bardstown Distillery, Tom Moore, John A. Wathen, Woodford County Distillery, Buffalo Srping and others have disposed of assets. Most of these sales have been to the large distillery organizations, Schenley, Seagrams and National Distillers. Here and there a distributing organization, such as Park and Tilford and William Jameson Company have acquired properties. Brown-Forman Distillers Corporation, among the larger independents, also has purchased distilleries. In most instances, the purchase was made for the inventories of aging whisky rather than production capacity. G.Handren, said, has a production capacity of 3,500 gallons daily, increasing to 37,000 gallons the combined daily output of the company's distilleries. The new plants add a total of 1,800,000 gallons to the Park & Tilford storage capacity.
Mr. Handren also announced that the company is negotiating for the purchase of two more distilleries.