Friday, January 16, 2009

Fritz the Bootlegger

In honor of today being the 90th anniversary of the one and only time the US Constitution has been amended to remove rights from US citizens, I would like to start this blog off with a story of my great grandfather, who fought the Volstead Act in a way that only a German gentleman like him would.

My great-grandfather, Fritz (actually, he was Dr. Jakob Friedrich, but everyone called him fact, his headstone says Dr. Fritz), came to this country with my great-grandmother, Helene, in March 1907. About 9 months later, my grandfather Rolf was born (as best I can figure, Fritz and Helene used their cabin on the ship to its fullest potential...if this cabin's rockin', don't come-a-knockin').

Fritz had the title of Doctor of Chemistry. A very industrious man, Fritz used his talents for good, never for evil. For example, as a hobby, Fritz had a still in the basement of the family home. It should be noted that this home was in Newark NJ, which was an urban area even then, albeit a much nicer one. These days, that house is probably in some crack neighborhood, but back then it was a nice area. Kind of like the meth lab that used to be in my neighborhood. Except Fritz's still never ran the risk of exploding.

Because Fritz was a well-educated chemist, he did not distill bathtub gin. On the contrary, Fritz, made fine cognac and brandy....the REALLY good stuff. And it gets crazier...he did not do this for profit. Fritz was quite generous with his friends, and would actually make cognac and give it away to friends and neighbors as gifts, or in return for favors.

It kills me to think that my family could've been the German version of the Kennedy's, making our money off of illegal hootch. I feel that I was robbed of the lifestyle that Jack Kennedy Jr enjoyed until his untimely demise.

In 1919, the Volstead Act was enacted, which created Prohibition. But being the stubborn German (you can always tell a German, but you can't tell him much), Fritz felt that this law did not apply to him. After all, Fritz had to escape Germany in 1914, while visiting family, or he would've been conscripted into the army as an officer, so adversity did not bother him. He was just a little more careful. But one day, on a weekend, Fritz was called into the office for an emergency (what kind of emergency a metallurgical lab could've had, who knows). Unfortunately, he had just started a batch of cognac, and the only person around to watch the still was my 12 or 13 year old grandfather, Rolf.

In desperation, he showed Rolf how to monitor the still. If this temperature gauge gets too hot, the still will blow up (much like a meth lab today), so cool the fire down. If it gets too cold, it won't distill properly, so heat it up a bit. Make sure the coils are cool, and make sure it drips out the far end into the container that was set up. If it's not dripping, there might be a clog, so check the line for clogs, otherwise there will be other problems. Fritz then ran off to the shop, entrusting his precious goods with Rolf.

So Rolf did as he was told. He checked the gauge, the fire, the coils, and the dripping product. He'd then repeat the process. He was not about to slack off, or his very German father would have a word or 20 with him. So very studiously, he'd inspect the unit. Gauge, check, fire, check, coils, check, cognac, check. After a while, there was enough cognac in the container, he would actually take a sniff of it, adding that to the list. Gauge, fire, coils, product, sniff. Gauge, fire, coils, product, sniff.

I should point out, at this time, that there is a reason brandy and cognac glasses are tulip-shaped, the way they are. You only put about a shot of liqueur into the glass, and the fumes fill up the rest of the bowl. To drink it, you swirl the glass slightly, activating the fumes, and you sniff them first, then drink, to get the full taste of the flavor (aroma is very important, much the same way a steak tastes different when you have a cold). The end result being, you can get drunk just from sniffing liqueur fumes. Can you see where this is going? Cause Rolf sure as hell couldn't.

Hours later, Fritz came back from the office, and immediately checked on his still. What he found instead was probably the one thing his entire life that truly made this dour, stern German laugh like there was no tomorrow. There lay Rolf, piss drunk on the floor of the basement in front of the still, like a college student after an all-night binge. The still was working fine, the container was filling, and Rolf had spent the afternoon killing brain cells on the finest home-made cognac in North America. Fritz was always a strict, proper person, but he nearly wet himself laughing at the site of his one and only son passed out. Helene, on the other hand, was not as amused. Mad as a wet hen would've been a better way to describe it, as most parents would've been.

Fritz kept up this hobby, and the complete lack of profit from it (obviously, this short-sited Kraut had no idea his great-grandson would've LOVED to have had a Porsche), throughout Prohibition. When Rolf started Princeton around 1925 or so, whenever he got on the train to return to school, he had a few bottles of Fritz's cognac with him, to give as gifts to friends at college, but Rolf never drank any of it himself. He had his vices...smoking (he was a huge smoker until his late 50's, especially pipes), and occasionally wine, but he never allowed alcohol to control him. But, since it was Prohibition, it was well-received by others, and probably won Rolf a few favors, so he happily carried his contraband back to Princeton each term.

Fritz died in 1943, as did his cognac and brandy recipes. Rolf never took up the family craft, although in 1983 or so, when I was doing a report on Arkansas, Rolf did draw a perfect diagram/schematic for a working still to include with the report (I totally got an A), but otherwise he had no part in distilling, and when he died in 2000, so did that part of our history, left to be told years later by his grandkids. With ancestors like this, whenever I'm asked which 5 people, living or dead, I'd like to have dinner with, I never stray from the family tree.


  1. I remember this one from Journalspace – an excellent story.

    This is probably a naive question, but why did your report on Arkansas contain a diagram of a still?

  2. Welcome back, you crazy monster man!

  3. hey welcome back to the fringes

  4. Simon, Arkansas is known for having played fast and loose with alcohol prohibition laws. Stills are to moonshiners what bald eagles are to freedom-loving republicans.

    Indy, Antic, thanks. I figure I spent enough time lurking, now it's time to be productive.

  5. By the way, I'm very much aware my math is shitty and it's the 90th anniversary, but I can't figure out how to edit my entry.

  6. Glad to see you're posting again - And it is a pleasure to hear that your G-GF put his chemical skills to better use than than many chemists!
    Co-incidentally - the best distiller that I know, is a ex-pharamacist. He married a Russian woman who found that she couldn't get any Vodka over here that tasted like the stuff that her village made. So old mate started making it. Then he started giving it out to her friends - who also liked it - then he went legit and got a license. And now he has a shit-load of cash and a very profitable business in the Gold Coast hinterland. Bastard!

  7. Man, I wish my family had cool stories. (I've asked...they don't, to anyone's recollection.)

    Welcome back, you! :o)

  8. I'm gonna read this cover to cover later, I swear.

    For now, I had an optometrist named Dr. Fritz. I bet he wasn't like your granddad though.

  9. As you can all see, I figured out how to edit....and subtract.

    Luna, it's a riveting piece, it's worth your time to check it out.

    Lerm, boutique distillers are becoming more common here, I hear that industry is taking off.

    Mando, some stories are good, some not so good. For example, there's my other great-grandfather, who died in the bed of a woman that was not his wife.

  10. With your lineage, you'll be perfectly positioned to capitalise on it!

  11. I think we need to hear this other story.

  12. your family DOES have the best stories.. I am SUUUUUPER happy you're here..

  13. Ok, FINALLY read it all...that is truly a great story, and well told. Makes me wanna drink.