Guyandotte

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
A writer from Gentleman's Pursuit Magazine investigates a long-lost whiskey

Submitted: March 19, 2015

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Submitted: March 19, 2015

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Guyandotte
By Jesse Valmont for Gentleman's Pursuit Magazine 

Alistair McCallan shared his first Rye Whiskey in 1886. It was distilled in a barn on his family's property near Logan, West Virginia. The barns would get bigger, but Guyandotte Distillers would remain on that farm near the waters of its namesake river for nearly a 100 years, only shuttered during prohibition. Guyandotte might have been a household name today like Jim Beam or Jack Daniels, but the distillery was closed suddenly in 1982 by Alistair's great great grandson, and heir of the company, Aaron McCallan Jr. The local paper, the Logan Banner, published an interview with Aaron in 1985 in which he said he shut down Guyandotte after trying to get sober.

Aaron McCallan Jr was only 32 at the time of Guyandotte's closure, but growing up on the McCallan farm, he had spent his whole life surrounded by whiskey. He was groomed from childhood to one day take over the operations at Guyandotte. He worked in the distillery every day since he was 16, alongside his dad Aaron Sr. and Grandfather Alistair Jr. He also witnessed the spirit's side effects. He describes Alistair Jr. as "often falling down drunk" and "quick to anger" in the 1985 piece in the Logan Banner. Alistair Jr. passed away a few days after falling off his porch and hitting his head in 1974. At that time Aaron Jr. took over his grandfather's post, no official title, but for all intents and purposes second in command of Guyandotte Distillers. For nearly 6 years he would learn the secrets of that Guyandotte Rye and the family's 2 other variety's Alistair's West Virginia #12 Sour Mash Whiskey and McCallan Farm's Devil Cinnamon Whiskey.

In 1980, Aaron McCallan Sr. checked himself in to a local hospital with stomach pain. It turned out that he had ignored ulcers and problems with his liver and kidneys for too long. He wouldn't leave the hospital.

Aaron McCallan Jr. took over Guyandotte after his father passed. For the two years under his control, the distillery grew in its market more than it had since prohibition. Guyandotte was becoming a regional name, the pride of West Virginia,  and even got some attention from Scotland and Ireland. But within two years of Aaron Jr's control Guyandotte was shuttered permanently.

In the 1985 Logan Banner interview, McCallan said, "I had a lot of time reflecting on the curse in the whiskey. I'd saw what that curse'd done to my pappy and grandpappy. And I Saw that curse catching me. I didn't want that. I didn't want to put my youngins through it too." Aaron Jr. would go on to say about the two years between his father's death and the closure of Guyandotte, "Whiskey was all I knew. Pappy raised me just to make it. But I couldn't no more." Aaron Jr. sold the Guyandotte stills for scrap and fashioned water tubs from the mash tuns for his plan to keep livestock at the McCallan farm. He shut the operation down so quickly that 5 employees of Guyandotte Distillers showed up for work on a Monday morning to find whiskey draining out of stills and barrels all over the floor of the barn. He didn't even consult with his brother Benjamin or cousins if they might want to take over the family operation if he no longer wanted it.

Aaron Jr. and his family (Wife Theresa, sons Aaron III and Egon, and daughter Rose) remained on McCallan farm getting by selling eggs and corn, and raising a couple cows and goats. It didn't last long without the whiskey, though: The 1985 story for the Logan Banner was being written on the event of the farm's foreclosure. Aaron McCallan Jr. and his family left Logan after that, and kind of vanished.

----- 

I started this journey over two years ago. At the time I was sent by Gentleman's Pursuit Magazine to Monterey, CA to write a story about an auction of some of the rarest and most sought after spirits in the world. As you can imagine, such an event attracted a crowd you might see at a Hampton's Debutante Ball. I, a simple reporter raised in a less than glamorous Richmond, VA neighborhood, felt out of place. As any good reporter, I was able to convince myself that I didn't stick out like the sore thumb I felt like and embed with the blue bloods. I talked to many people attending this, but seemed to be more spectacle than substance; more flashing cash than anything. I couldn't find a story in it, until I found one actual connoisseur: James Ashton.

James is the epitome of eccentric. He wore a frilly white cravat under a salmon tuxedo with giant lapels, like a stud junior going to prom in 1974. He arrived in a '50s era Nash Metropolitan painted the same two tone colors as his attire. His hair was thin, black, over slicked, and combed to one side. He wore those Blue Blocker sunglasses from old day time TV commercials. Below his curled moustache was a carved (it wouldn't surprise me if it was ivory) cigarette holder about 8 inches long with what smelled like a clove cigarette that he puffed on just enough to keep lit. Not a habit, just another part of his outfit. I could tell by looking at James that there had to be a story there. It might be complete bullshit, but I still wanted to hear it.

Few people who need attention like that actually demand attention, but James does. Trying to get to him, I milled around the edges of crowd where James was holding court over a case of rare gin set for sale that evening: his nasal, northern California accent raving about the wealthy people whose collections this case has been through. I don't recognize a name he lists. I wonder why nobody has drank the gin, as that's what gin is for when I buy it.

James didn't win the case of gin. Even having a wealth of knowledge on a subject doesn't give you an edge when actual wealth is involved. After officially meeting James, I tipped my hand about what I was doing at the auction. He was more than open to sharing some of his knowledge. We scheduled to meet two days later at his home in Oakland.

I was surprised that a man who flashed his cash at a society function over the weekend lived in a relatively modest home on the wrong side of the bay. Though the home certainly fit his aesthetic: a 1950's ranch with a butterfly roof painted in pastel shades of salmon and sea-foam green. He served sushi and sake for lunch and orated on the state of the tech industry (where he, like many in this area, made his money,) the debris in the ocean, his favorite birds, his distaste for contemporary industrial design, and finally, liquor. That's when James invited me to his basement bar, orange shag carpet and the smell of the real cedar paneling the walls. He pulled bottle after bottle of the shelf and told the stories of the history of each spirit as if I had any idea that these names and specific bottles should be known. There are 18th century familial feuds and tales of barrels stolen in the night or lost in shipwrecks or stranded somewhere by the distillery to be found by adventurers, the stuff of classic novels, all seemingly happened and these bottles tell the story. I am James' perfect audience, just listening to a man who loves to tell a story. And a man who doesn't mind a sample of a 300 year old Scotch or an 80 year old rum, even if I don't taste it with the brevity it deserves. After a few samples, James starts getting a little more personal. He tells me a little of his upbringing, but jumps quickly to when he fell in love with alcohol.

James grew up in the San Francisco Bay area. He tells me about typical high school experiences with cheep beer in pull tab cans. But it wasn't until his twenties that he discovered how great something like a whiskey could be. 
I don't think James would be upset if I described him as a bit of a dandy. Which makes his story about the summer he spent in West Virginia as a coal miner all the more surprising. One of those life experience things when upper-middle class kids act as tourists amongst the poor. And it's there in West Virginia, on a balmy evening in the June of '78 (it took James a moment to remember the year) that he was given a shot of Guyandotte Rye. "It was what all the miners drank," he recalls it wistfully, not as the greatest per se, but obviously something special. Then, in what I now recognize as typical James fashion, he tells me his understanding of the story of the McCallan family and the end of Guyandotte. Then he leans in and looks me in the eye, which was uncharacteristic of him from my experience to that point, and in kind of a hushed tone tells me, "There's a rumor in the scene that a barrel of Guyandotte is out there. One of the guys that worked for them was able to save a bit when he came in that morning and saw the stuff spilled out on the floor of that barn, or something to that effect. Nobody's quite sure where it would be, but I've heard this for a while now. I've tried out a couple leads on a couple trips out east, but nothing's panned out." 

The next day, I set up shop at the magazine's San Francisco office and started scouring the web to get info on the McCallan family and their signature spirit. There wasn't much out there. An empty, filthy bottle on eBay, and a couple of short histories that weren't even enough to verify everything that James claimed to know. If any of the family was on a social network, they did a good job disguising themselves. There wasn't anything I could do there, so I only stayed in San Fran for a couple of days until the dirty whiskey bottle I bought on eBay came into the office. I knew that if I was going to get to the bottom of the story of Guyandotte that I had to get to West Virginia.

-----

I landed at Charleston right as they had shut off the water throughout the region due to the chemical contamination of the Elk River. That's a fine how-do-ya-do. Luckily, Logan wasn't effected by the spill. I still went straight to the Kroger to get bottled water, just in case. While there, I couldn't help but peruse the shelves in the liquor section. There didn't seem to much in the way of West Virginia based offerings. The only one that stood out proudly displayed "Since 2004" on the modern graphics laden label. The state seems satisfied to let their neighbors be more prolific in the booze game. Football and the coal it is for WV.

Logan is a small mountain town reminiscent of any other mountain town. Based on billboards around town, its main business seems to be personal injury lawyers.

My first stop on my mission was the Logan Banner newspaper. Explaining briefly what I was working on, I was given pretty much full access to the archives and the services of the archivist Maggie. As buzz got around the small office of "The man from the big magazine" visiting the office, a couple of the longer tenured members of the Banner staff came to pitch in with their memories as well. I was given a year that the Aaron McCallan Jr. interview was published, so we dug through the daily editions of that year, and the year after the mistakenly remembered year, until we tracked down that issue. The article mentioned the foreclosed property on Old Guyan River Rd. Maggie said that it was somewhere heading north out of the town. We were also able to track down Alistair McCallan Jr.'s obituary. I made use of a newsroom computer to scan the articles for my use, and thanked the staff for being so helpful. Then I went out to find a place for a late lunch. I found my way to a restaurant called Lou's. Based on the framed black and white photos the restaurant's namesake was a Shetland "Pit Pony" who hauled coal trains, I assume in the Logan area. Word had somehow spread to there about the man from the magazine. I must have really stuck out, because the waitress guessed that I was this man, and shortly after that, an 60 something, slightly drunk man came to my table from his perch at the bar. 
"You lookin' at the McCallans huh, son?" asked with authority, but in a voice pitched just a tad too high for the man's burly frame.

I politely confirmed his questioning.

"Aaron and me was good friends, actually. Maybe you should talk to the man's friend." 
I was kind of surprised by this. What are the odds of finding a friend of Aaron McCallan by just heading out to eat? I suppose in such a small tight-knit town, it would be obvious that people who grew up with the McCallan family were still here. What do I know? I've made a point to move around in my adult years. That doesn't seem to be the M.O. in Logan. You're born here, you're likely going to live here your whole life. If you leave, it's probably to the military.

The man's name was Jimmy Treadwell. I offered to buy him a drink while he told me what he had to say while I ate my meal. Jimmy said that Aaron was actually a regular at Lou's in his drinking days. "He'd have a beer and a shot of his hooch and repeat" Jimmy said. Buying a shot of something with your own name on it sounded odd to me, but I guess it makes sense. Jimmy confirmed the Aaron McCallan sobriety story too, he claimed to have gone to meetings with him, though he was off the wagon now.

I asked Jimmy about the farm, the distillery itself, seeing if he could recall who had worked there when McCallan shut down the works. Jimmy was able to point me to a Nathan Maines who he believed to have been one of the employees to find the destroyed stills and barrels on that morning. With the help of some folks at Lou's, I was able to contact Mr. Maines. Sure enough, he had been there, but, finding the barn in disarray and being unable to rouse anyone in the house, he just left the McCallan farm, and gave up on the job after calling on Aaron McCallan a couple more times. "I should've sued!" was about the extent of Maines' takeaway from the McCallan farm. When I asked about who else was there that morning, he gave me the name Thomas Watson who had long left Logan, and Ebbot Samuels who passed away about 20 years ago.

Though I confirmed pieces of the history of Guyandotte, Logan was actually turning into a bust, and fast.

With one last effort to dig something up, the next morning I took a drive north of town to Old Guyan River Road. Nathan Maines was kind enough to accompany me, but he assured me that there was nothing left of the distillery. It had been razed in the early '90s to make room for a more industrial business building of pre-fab steel. After just a couple of days in Logan I was no closer to some rare whiskey than I was when I left San Francisco. After dropping Nathan off, I drove straight to DC figuring I could hold up at the magazine offices there and decide if I would continue down this path or not.

-----

Pretty much at a dead end, I set the Guyandotte story aside. I didn't touch it much for over 6 months. Then I got a hit on a news alert I'd set up on the name Aaron McCallan. An obituary in the Ottumwa Courier, a regional Iowan paper, and I couldn't believe what I read: Aaron McCallan Jr. 64 of Chillicothe, born in Logan, WV. Survived by Wife Theresa, children Aaron III, Rose, and Egon along with some grand kids. It was more than a break. After letting go of the story, I'd found the man I was looking for. It was unfortunate, though, that he was dead.

I did some looking around the Courier's website, and decided to head to Iowa for the funeral. I didn't want to intrude on the family, but I figured I could investigate around Chillicothe to see if I could find some more info about McCallan's time in the town.

 -----

Chillicothe is a tiny town on a bend of the Des Moines river, just a quick jaunt from larger town of Ottumwa. The similarities to Logan were apparent immediately. I could certainly see why the McCallans would settle there. Also like Logan, it was hot gossip when a stranger showed up. I found my way to McCallan's funeral at the town's Methodist church and became an immediate distraction. Though half the town showed up, that's not a lot of people. I was leaving the scene, but before I was back to my car, I was stopped by a young man who was smoking around the corner from the church's main entrance.

"Who are you?" the man asked aggressively.

I decided honesty was in order, "A writer. I've been exploring a story on Mr. McCallan."

"What the hell kinda story some writer want on my dad?"

"Dad?" I thought, "is this a break or a fight?"

"Well, it started as a story about whiskey, to be honest. It's kind of become something else."

The young man wasn't amused.

With a little gloss on his eyes, he flicked his cigarette into the grass, kind of strutted toward me, "I don't know what you want, man, but leave my family out of it!"

With that he rounded his path back toward the door of the church, inside, and gone.

I felt a little ashamed. The one thing I wanted to do was stay out of the way. It was impossible to do in such a small town. So I left. I went down the road to Ottumwa, where I was staying. I searched out the building for the Courier, the local paper that I had found the McCallan obituary in initially. Much like my experience in West Virginia, the archivist at the Courier was incredibly helpful. The news I drummed up, not so much.

I went for a bite at The Canteen Lunch, the diner that inspired the one the titular character in the TV show Roseanne worked at. (Writer on the show and once husband to Roseanne Barr, Tom Arnold grew up in Ottumwa, by the way; Funny little facts about small towns.) I had the loose meat sandwich, the specialty of the house. A simple meal at a simple diner in a simple town of simple people. Not my favorite meal, but not without its charm. I must have stood out in the little restaurant. The woman who served me gave me kind of a suspicious look. I mean, this was pretty much the only tourist attraction around, why single out one out-of-towner? I don't know for sure what happened, but I think the suspicious sandwich slinger must have phoned one of the McCallans because about the time I was done with my sandwich Theresa and Egon came in the door. Egon, still posturing and defensive, but not as bad. Theresa visibly weighted with grief. Egon looked at me, and whispered to his mother, obviously confirming that I was interloper that he had encountered earlier. Egon turned and stood sentry near the door as Mrs. McCallan sat on the barstool next to mine. Theresa broke the ice quickly, "Were you the man snooping around the McCallan funeral this morning?" 
"Yes, I came to town when I heard about Mr. McCallan's passing, and I offer my deepest condolences." I replied.
"Why, who are you?"
"As I told your son this morning, I'm a writer. To be honest, I started a story for Gentleman's Pursuit Magazine about some lost Guyandotte whiskey, and found the story of your husband and the McCallan family intriguing." 
She was obviously surprised. People never think that they are the type of folk that get written about.

I continued, "I didn't imagine that I would stand out as much as I have around here. I'm terribly sorry for disturbing you all."

"Guyandotte?" Mrs. McCallan sounded agitated by the mere mention of the name, "That goddamn whiskey." Theresa took a long, introspective pause. "Aaron gave up the whiskey; ran far away from it. -- It's going to catch him yet."

The lamentations of a grieving wife. She'd grieved with her husband many years before. She's grieving him now. Now I feel like a monster for having dredged this all up.
"I'm terribly sorry I came. It's obvious you didn't want this to ever be dug up again. If I thought it would end up hurting anyone, I would have never pursued it."

What else can one say in such a situation? I crossed a line. I never saw that line coming, and that sometimes happens in journalism. I'd chased a story from one coast to the other and to the heart of the heartland, and it was all for not.

----

So you may be asking why I went ahead and published this story when it had no resolution, and it seemed obvious that the McCallans wanted nothing to do with.

Well,

about a month after my trip to Iowa, I found myself back in the Gentleman's Pursuit offices in San Francisco. There was a package waiting for me there. I opened the box to find a wide, roundish 750ml bottle with an ornate patter in the glass, with a slightly yellowed label featuring a gentle river flowing: Guyandotte Rye, much like the bottle I found on Ebay a couple years prior, but with the exception that this bottle was filled with the beautiful caramel colored liquid I had been looking for, cap in place with the original paper stamp/seal across the cap. Alongside the bottle was a lovely, handwritten letter:

Dear Mr. Valmont,

I looked on the Gentleman's Pursuit website, I found you by your picture. I hope you don't mind. 

I'm sorry how everything happened when you visited us. I know you understand that my family was going through a lot right then. A few days after our conversation, I realized you meant well. I also realized that I could help you.

I made a few calls back home in West Virginia. An old family friend still had a bottle of Aaron's old whiskey. They graciously sent it to me. 
I hope it helps with your story.

I just want you to know that after we settled in Iowa, Aaron never had a single drink again. He worked at a local hog farm. He was a deacon at the Methodist church where the funeral was. He also coached the boys in baseball every season, and even after Egon graduated. He really became a wonderful father and husband and member or this community, all things he was not when he drank. I want the older, wiser, kinder Aaron McCallan to be remembered alongside any legacy of the Guyandotte Whiskey.

Thank you for your honesty, and thank you for being polite and trying to give us our space when you visited. I was surprised that anyone was interested in my family's story, but I do want to see how you tell our story.

Thanks for your time

-Theresa McCallan

I had a few correspondences with Mrs. McCallan since this letter arrived.  By the time this story is published she will have already seen it herself. It was an amazing turn for this letter to arrive, much less the bottle, the whiskey that started the story to begin with. It shows that people are generally good, and if they are given their space, they can determine when someone's being honest with them. I really feel that, however the story started, I did right by Aaron and Theresa McCallan and their family. I thank Mrs. McCallan for her cooperation.

 

After I received the bottle of McCallan Rye the first person I couldn't wait to call was James Ashton. He was more excited than I was, if that was possible; I mean he's not the one that ran all around the USA in search of the damn thing, but he has a sentimental attachment to the stuff.

settled in San Francisco on a Thursday and was able to set up a the meeting with Ashton on the coming Saturday. He invited me over to his house. He actually had told me he'd have $1,400 cash for me to buy the bottle. I didn't know if that was a fair price. I knew that I didn't pay anything for it. I don't think Theresa McCallan paid anything for it. I was a little uncomfortable accepting money for it. I figured it was worth something to a collector, but I certainly wasn't comfortable being the dealer. I decided that rather than deal with Jame Ashton that I would trust him, and I would send any money gained to Mrs. McCallan.

When I arrived at James Asthon's home in Oakland I was led down to his bar. I set the bottle on the bar top. He laid the cash out next to it. He took the bottle in his hand, stared at it wistfully and gleefully, taking in the graphics and shape of the bottle. Then he gently tore the seal-stamp from the bottle cap. He poured a splash into one, then another shot glass, one of which he handed to me, and he raised the other himself. We made our own "cheers" clink, before taking a sip.

The seal must have not have been secure on the bottle. There must have been some contaminant enter the liquid all while the whiskey lost alcohol content over the past few decades. As the caramel liquor touched our tongues, we both turned to each other, wide-eyed, shocked, and appalledIt was not sweet like whiskey. It was sour and dirty. It was tainted. I think I saw James turn green like an old Tex Avery cartoon. We both simultaneously spat the liquid in a spray out of our pursed lips. 


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