McKenna brand bourbon wins award, but who was the real McKenna?

Published 8:32 am Thursday, June 7, 2018


Kentucky Historical Society

Heaven Hill’s Henry McKenna Single Barrel bourbon recently won the “Best Bourbon” award at the 2018 San Francisco World Spirits Competition.

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Many bourbons — including Jim Beam, Blanton’s, Evan Williams, Elijah Craig, E. H. Taylor and others — are named after distillers who revolutionized the bourbon industry or those who made their mark on whiskey history.

In light of this recent award, who was the real McKenna?

Henry McKenna was born in Draperstown, County Derry, Ireland, on Jan. 9, 1819. At age 18, he immigrated to the United States. Although he initially settled in Philadelphia, McKenna moved to Kentucky in 1838. According to one early biographer, he “was engaged in hard labor around Lexington for many years.”

McKenna was thrifty and entrepreneurial. He saved his money and soon began working as a contractor, building turnpikes.

In November 1847, he married Elizabeth Goodwin of Lexington. She was also a native of Draperstown. They eventually had seven children.

In 1851, McKenna moved his growing family to Fairfield, a small town northeast of Bardstown in Nelson County. There, he continued his work as a road contractor, building the turnpike between Bloomfield and Highgrove, two other Nelson County communities.

McKenna eventually opened a flour mill and also began distilling whiskey, producing about a half-barrel each day. It was in this industry that he earned a name for himself.

During the Civil War, McKenna ramped up production.  According to tax records, in 1863 he was taxed on several thousand gallons of distilled spirits at 20 cents a gallon.

McKenna continued distilling after the war. In 1866, he paid taxes on two stills, one producing 159.5 gallons, and the other producing 50. Soon, he was making between 150 to 300 barrels a year.

Despite the economic turmoil that the Civil War brought to the state, those years were profitable for McKenna. According to the 1860 census, at the advent of the conflict McKenna owned real estate worth $7,700 and had an $800 personal estate. Within a decade this had grown to $25,000 in real estate and $9,000 in personal holdings. During this time, he still owned the mill and worked a 380-acre farm in Fairfield.

McKenna reinvested his profits into his distilling business. In the early 1880s, he built a larger distillery at Fairfield and began making between 500 to 600 barrels a year. According to Nelson County historian Dixie Hibbs, the Henry McKenna distillery was the main employer in the area for decades after the Civil War.

Among McKenna’s brands was Pure Old Lime Sour Mash Whiskey, which was sold at wholesale on Fourth Street in Louisville.

Another brand of McKenna’s “medicinal whiskey” included a label signed by 10 doctors who declared they used it “for medicinal uses in our practice.”

Despite McKenna’s success, he remained humble. According to author Sarah B. Smith, while McKenna was on a trip to Ireland in 1880, his children built him a large brick home in Fairfield. When McKenna returned from Europe, he initially refused to live there because he believed it was “too ostentatious.” However, McKenna eventually moved into the home, which one writer called a “palatial residence, a model of symmetry and utility.”

Throughout his life, McKenna showed grit and determination and built his businesses while fighting severe health problems. One early biographer said that, “What is most remarkable during his labors … (is that) he has been almost a confirmed invalid.”

McKenna died in Fairfield on February 22, 1893. He was buried there in St. Michael Cemetery.

Although McKenna avoided affectation, he was a sharp businessman and entrepreneur. Therefore, this immigrant who made his mark on Kentucky’s bourbon history would have been pleased that, nearly 200 years after his birth, the brand named in his honor won the “Best Bourbon” award.

Stuart W. Sanders is the Kentucky Historical Society’s History Advocate.