Established in 1901, the Hammond Distilling Co. in Hammond, Indiana, quickly earned a reputation as one of the largest producers of whiskey in the country. At its peak, the distillery produced 50,000 gallons of alcohol each day. The company was also one of the leading industries in the Northwest Indiana city before it was forced to close in 1918 due to the passage of Prohibition legislation.
The Hammond Distilling Co. wasn’t the first of its kind in the area. In 1883, Hammond’s first whiskey distillery, the M. M. Towle Distilling Co., opened in the city. The distillery was founded by Marcus Towle, who served as the first mayor and postmaster of Hammond and was a prominent local businessman. In addition to his interest in the distillery, Mr. Towle was also influential in the founding of the beef packing industry and banking in the Calumet Region.
The M. M. Towle Distilling Co. provided dual services as a manufacturer of corn syrup and whiskey. However, this plan was abandoned after a federal law passed that forbid the operation of any other business in the same facility as a distillery. As whiskey was unquestionably the more profitable product, the manufacture of corn syrup was discontinued. Eventually, the distillery, which operated from a four-story factory building, employed about 25 men and reached a capacity of 3,000 gallons of alcohol per day. It burned down in 1887 and was subsequently abandoned.
It wasn’t until 1901 that a distillery would return to Hammond. That December, John E. Fitzgerald established the Hammond Distilling Co. at the southeast corner of Calumet Avenue at 150th St. The son of Irish immigrants, Fitzgerald was born in New York City on February 3, 1865. His parents moved to Chicago when he was only three months old. Fitzgerald had earned a reputation as a talented distiller in Chicago prior to moving to Hammond.
After organizing the Hammond Distilling Co., Fitzgerald served as its secretary and general manager. Start-up costs amounted to about $500,000. The large distillery eventually became one of Hammond’s largest industries. It manufactured bourbon, sour mash, rye malt gin, dry gin, cologne spirits, and refined alcohol. At its peak, it produced as many as 50,000 gallons of alcohol a day with annual sales reaching $6 million. The distillery paid more than $120,000 in tax revenue each year, a figure that has been used to assert that the company was one of America’s largest distilleries at that time.
As manager of a large and highly profitable operation that contracted for thousands of pounds of grain each year, Fitzgerald was given a non-resident membership on the Chicago Board of Trade. This membership made it easier to attract financing and to establish the types of large-scale grain contracts needed to keep the distillery in supply. He also became a stockholder in the Betz Manufacturing Corporation, another Hammond company responsible for the manufacture of surgical instruments.
Prior to 1909, the Hammond Distilling Co. kept a stock of cattle on its property along the banks of the Calumet River. The cattle were used to consume wet slop, a byproduct of whiskey manufacturing. Apparently, these cattle were a nuisance to residents who lived along the Calumet – due to water pollution and noxious smells. A subsequent debate had residents choosing sides between much-needed industry and residential quality of life, two competing interests that couldn’t co-exist peacefully along the river.
The Hammond Distilling Co. ended the debate when Fitzgerald announced construction plans for a new distillery that eliminated the need for cattle. The new plant included machinery that evaporated moisture from the by-product, turning it into a dry product that could be sold as cattle feed and shipped to farmers.
During World War I, the Hammond Distilling Co. was issued a government contract to produce alcohol for the military. The alcohol was used to produce smokeless gunpowder for use in combat.
The beginning of Prohibition eventually spelled the end for the Hammond Distilling Co. In April 1917, Indiana passed a law prohibiting the manufacture, sale, distribution, or consumption of alcohol. Businesses such as brewers, distillers, and saloons were given a year to close before enforcement began in 1918. Faced with a product it could no longer sell, Fitzgerald was forced to sell the business.
On December 27, 1917, Fitzgerald sold the distillery to Peter Meyn, the president of the Lake County Savings & Trust Co. for a mere $65,000. The property was eventually sold to Nowak Milling Corporation of Buffalo, New York, for use as a feed mill.
What happened to the thousands of gallons of alcohol the distillery could no longer sell? Local hearsay suggests that it was purchased by Al Capone and snuck across state lines back to Chicago. However, no proof exists that the notorious gangster had any dealings with the brewery.
The documented story is much more complex. Having sold thousands of barrels of whiskey prior to the passage of Indiana’s Prohibition law, the distillery ended up stuck with 117,000 gallons of whiskey and gin that had been sold but never claimed by its purchasers. Following the closure of the company and sale of its property to the Nowak Milling Corp., the whiskey was stored in a government warehouse on-site.
Theft was a constant problem, despite the presence of guards. The situation came to a head in 1923 when security guard Robert Anderson was shot to death while attempting to foil an armed robbery. The federal government subsequently announced that it would close the warehouse and remove the remaining barrels of alcohol to its facility in Chicago.
Before that could happen, however, a twist of fate led a Lake County judge to order the barrels of alcohol sold at auction to satisfy a judgement against the defunct Hammond Distilling Co. A Mr. Louis Davis of Chicago purchased 780 barrels for $8,000. Newspapers noted, however, that there was no clear plan for how Mr. Davis would retrieve his goods from the heavily guarded warehouse.
After Prohibition ended, there were some local efforts made to revive the Hammond Distillery, but none were successful. By that time, whiskey prices had dropped significantly from pre-Prohibition days. Further complicating matters, the distillery had been de-listed from the Chicago Board of Trade, a situation that made it difficult to obtain financing for the venture.
For his part, John Fitzgerald moved on to other projects. Having accumulated a vast fortune in the years prior to prohibition, he spent much of his time focusing on his role as a director of the First Trust & Savings Bank of Hammond. He also became active in local democratic politics and civic affairs. Fitzgerald died in 1934.
In the end, it would be another 100 years before a distillery would re-open in Hammond. In 2018, the 18th Street Brewing Co. opened a distillery on Oakley St. The award-winning craft brewery has returned a piece of Hammond’s past to the city.