It seems that finding information on the rural Southern Indiana distilleries and distillers becomes harder the more one tries to dig into the subject. I’ll go days, weeks, and months without finding anything of any relevance and then suddenly stumble on to something. Such is the case with the following article. While digging around at the John Hay Center/Stevens Museum (Part of the Washington County Historical Society which I highly encourage you to join if you are local to the area or have relatives from here, dues start at $25 a year!) I picked up a book I had passed over many times before; A History of Campbellsburg Indiana and checked the Index for distilling family names, lo and behold there was an entire section on The Clifty Distillery. This is by far the most comprehensive information I have found on the distillery, their products, and the changes in ownership over the years. This is the most comprehensive history of a rurual Southern Indiana Distillery not associated with brands that are still in the market today or tied to big names of the past that I have ever found. Obviously that’s exciting, particularly the parts regarding production and capacity. Here I have retyped it as it appears in the book and my good friend and Washington County Historian, Jeremy Elliott, has included a photo of Mr William Reyman (a relative of Mr. Elliott) to accompany. Enjoy as I think the chances of finding anything else this detailed about Washington County distilling heritage is highly unlikely.
If, as traditions state, the Hamersley family began a distillery in connection with their mill, it was evidently only a small one, and not a commercial enterprise. Small family distilleries were common in this area at an early date.
No commercial distilleries are listed as operating in Brown Township until 1860. Even then, it was not located at Clifty, but was operated a short distance east of there by a firm known as Jacob Wesner and Son. In 1960 it had produced 70 barrels of whiskey valued at $1400. This distillery seems to have been in business but a short time and possibly quit when the government started licensing the distilleries in 1866.
Henry Robertson evidently started the first commercial distillery at Clifty in 1866 or 67. This enterprise continued long after the manufacture of corn meal, and other corn and wheat products, had ceased. The whiskies and brandies manufactured here attained a national reputation for purity and flavor.
In 1870 Robertson & Green distillery was operated by an 8 horse power steam engine and 3 male employees. During the eight months it had been in operation it used 5000 bushels of apples, out of which 12,000 gallons of liquor valued at $2400 had been produced. Apples, peaches, and corn were all hauled to the distillery from miles around. After being dumped into a chute at the top of the hill, they were distilled into brandy and whiskey. W.H. Pollard was possibly the government “store-keeper” here in 1870.
In June of 1872 Wilcox & Mitchell were reported to be shipping corn whiskey from Campbellsburg. It was also noted that the firm resumed operation of the distillery about the first of May 1873 despite the temperance law, etc. In December of 1873 it was reported that whiskey had been the cause of six or seven people becoming involved in a “general free for all” at Clifty.
When Robertrson became part owner again in 1874 the firm operated under the name of Robertson and Mitchell. During this period the whiskey kegs were made by Morgan Smedley. After 1876 Robertson was the sole owner, except for a short period, until his death. Beginning in August or September of each year hundreds of bushels of apples and peaches, enough to operate through the winter were hauled to Clifty in order to manufacture what Robertson claimed was the “purest and best of whiskies and brandies” Dr. W.P> Tucker of Campbellsburg, was the government store-keeper here until about the first of March 1879, and was followed by a Mr. Houghton who soon resigned. Ed Pitts, of New Albany, was next and began about the first of April 1879
While a Mr. Brockman, of Lanesville, was in town during the early part of January 1884 he purchased several barrels of whiskey and had them shipped to Colorado. During one week in April of 1887 Robertson & Co shipped 52 barrels of apple brandy to Louisville Kentucky. L.S. Shroyer was a helper here about this time, a period when the boiler burst one day, but caused no serious damage. Reid Marks was half owner from August 6 1866 until September 17, 1888. A.J. McIntosh was mentioned as a deputy Internal Revenue Collector in January of 1886 and in October of 1887 and probably collected taxes from the distillery during this period.
The operations of the distillery were interrupted for a period of time after the death of Robertson in 1891. Advertised as “a bonanza for somebody who would like to invest in a distillery” the property was put up for sale on May 4 1894, however, there were no bidders. William L. Ryeman purchased the property on June 8, 1897 and soon had the distillery in operation again. In May of 1899 he announced that in addition to “the usual old apple jack”, a large quantity of corn whiskey would be manufactured during the year. In August of that year E.A. Dixon was mentioned as “U.S. guager and store-keeper” at the distillery
Reyman died at Salem in October of 1899 and in March of 1900 the “old fruit distillery noted for furry apple-jack and smooth seductive peach brandy” was again for sale.
Ambrose Shrum owned the property from March 13 1900 until January 8, 1901, but it is not known if he operated the distillery or not.
Milton B Hottel, John W. Reyman, and Millard Reyman purchased the property on January 8, 1901. It was not until July 30 1902 however, that it was announced, Preparation were being made to restart “the Clifty Still House”. James Martin, of Orleans, M.B. Hottel of Salem, along with Wolf & Wolf, all met at Campbellsburg on the above date to make the announcement. In April of 1904 it was announced that the large 20,000-gallon capacity Clifty Springs Distillery had renewed its bond with the New Albany district of Internal Revenue.
The location of the last distillery here was not on the old mill site but about one fourth of a mile to the northeast. It was operated by Adam Brewer, with assistance from Charley Link until prohibition took effect in 1918/19
Brewer made news in all the area newspapers in October 1915 with the announcement that he was going to try “an entirely new departure in the distilling line” by attempting to make some paw paw brandy. The reason for this was that the quantity of apples with which to make the noted Indiana apple-jack was very small, only enough perhaps to make 10 barrels, while it was a banner year for paw paws. Brewer expected the new product to be as good for medical purposes as apple brandy. The new product was not a smashing success. Dr. L.W. Paynter, then practicing in Campbellsburg, described it as “…the most potent liquor ever made here, equaled in kick no doubt by nothing less powerful than aguardiente or tequila, of Mexican make, was the paw paw brandy which was distilled here before the World War. It has long been my contention that any single nation engaged in that war, had it been equipped with a few thousand gallons of that paw paw brandy, could have changed history and made over the map of Europe to its own liking, such was the potency of this distillate. But the memories aroused through mention of this brandy, and the ludicrous incidents attendant upon the treatment of some of my patients who had imbibed too freely of it, have caused me to wonder far afield from my subject.” Charles E. Cook, who worked on Dr. Paynter’s farm at the time for 50 cents a day, later reported that one day he took some of Doc’s apples out to Clifty. As was the custom of the times, he received his payment partly in cash and partly in brandy. This time the brandy happened to be of the new paw paw variety. According to Cook, Brewer had “gotten the proof high enough, but could not get the poison out”. As a result, Cook’s eyes, face, and tongue became badly swollen: the same results being experienced by several others who drank the brandy, according to Cook.