Bill Wittenberg always knew that his family had some connection to St. Louis pre-Prohibition distilling history, but he never grasped the magnitude of that involvement until his curiosity led him down a rabbit hole and to the doorstep of a local historian who delivered a bombshell: Not only was his great-grandfather a prominent distiller; he operated one of the largest and most successful distilleries in the Midwest called Blue Wing.
Now, Wittenberg has made it his mission to resurrect the once thriving brand with Blue Wing Rye Whiskey, a small batch product that was officially released in 2019 and is starting to gain steam in the St. Louis market. Made under his label, C.H. Wittenberg Distilling Co., Blue Wing is not simply a nod to his family's past, but to St. Louis' once thriving distilling industry and, hopefully, its future.
"At the time my great-grandfather founded Blue Wing, St. Louis was one of the largest cities in the U.S. and was considered the last jumping off point," Wittenberg says. "People think of St. Louis' brewing history, but there were a lot of distilleries as well. Believe it or not, even at one point Jack Daniels was based in St. Louis. Once Prohibition started sweeping America, Tennessee went dry about ten years before the rest of the country, so they moved their operations here. There were several others here too. We want to revive a part of that success that was only shut down because people were holier than thou."
For Wittenberg, the path to resurrecting the long-shuttered Blue Wing has been roughly a decade in the making. After some basic internet research sparked his interest, he began working with local liquor historian Randy Huetsch, who filled in a lot of the pieces he'd been unable to find on his own. According to Huetsch, Blue Wing was a robust operation founded by Wittenberg's great-grandfather, Charles Henry Wittenberg, in the late 1880s or early 1890s on the north side of the city, not far from Scott Joplin's House. Though now just a vacant lot, the old Blue Wing was an integral piece of the neighborhood's vibrant scene, filled with hotels, restaurants, bars and honky tonks.
Blue Wing enjoyed great success under Wittenberg's great-grandfather for its rye and bourbon, and that success continued on after he passed it down to his son, Wittenberg's grandfather. However, once Prohibition hit in 1920, the distillery was shuttered and eventually lost to the past until Wittenberg started digging.
After finding several pieces of Blue Wing memorabilia online and through Huestch, Wittenberg developed a clear picture of the company's branding, including its label. Using that as inspiration, he set out to resurrect its signature product, at first experimenting in his garage, then researching partnerships with distilling companies around the country before connecting with Steve Newkomm of Square One Brewery & Distillery in Lafayette Square roughly nine years ago.
"I showed up on his doorstep and said, 'I am Bill Wittenberg, and I want to start making rye whiskey,' " Wittenberg says. "I started telling him about my family, my interest in the small batch craft movement and my interest in rye, as well as a fortuitous connection with him through a mutual distant cousin, and he agreed to help."
With Neukomm's help Wittenberg began working on recipes and crafted a few sample batches that they let sit for years because they both got busy. Then, in 2017, Neukomm reached out to Wittenberg to ask if he was still interesting in working in Blue Wing. He enthusiastically agreed, and the two set out to recreate the brand's long-lost rye to the best of their abilities, without having the original grain bill to go off of for a recipe. Instead, the two crafted their own unique grain bill, resulting in a smoky rye made from cottonwood smoked barley malt sourced from Alamosa, Colorado.
After two years of aging, Wittenberg released a very limited amount of Blue Wing's rye whisky in 2019, though he counts 2020 as the official year of the launch — one hundred years after his family's distillery was shuttered. He notes that the brand is still very small scale, having produced five hundred bottles in the past two years which are sold at nine local retailers, including the Wine & Cheese Place, Parker's Table and the Beer and Sauce Shop. With 1,000 more currently aging, he is excited to see where not only his project goes, but how much his, and other local distilleries, can help bring back a piece of St. Louis history, one glass at a time.
"We feel like we have brought back a wooly mammoth by recreating this from scratch with our own hands," Wittenberg says.
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