On the Label: In a Machine Town Every Brand is Pendergast
By Bjorn Skaptason, Tom's Town Historian
KANSAS CITY, 1933: Identifying a product as Boss Tom’s is an exercise in frustration. The portfolio is, to say the least, opaque. While he put his name on a number of companies and products, he was also the man behind many other brands that are not usually associated with Boss Tom or the Goat Machine. The best guideline we can suggest would be simply to assume if something in Tom’s Town made money, the Boss got a taste.
It wasn’t enough that Tom ran T.J. Pendergast Wholesale Liquor. It wasn’t enough that all bars, clubs, saloons, dram shops, and liquor stores were required to accept and sell deliveries from Pendergast without question, or that those same establishments were compelled to host Machine-approved card games or slot machines. In many cases Tom actually owned an interest in his competition. If it seemed like Glendale Sales, Atlas Beverage, or Frazier Distilling were providing the neighborhood liquor merchant an alternative to the strong-arm marketing of T.J. Pendergast, such was not the case. Tom Pendergast was an un-named partner in all of these enterprises, so those stubborn souls who risked bucking the Machine still dropped coins in Tom’s bottomless coffers.
One of our favorite examples is a whiskey that goes all the way back to the Civil War, and was never distilled in Kansas City. Giant George Shawhan rode with Confederate raider John Hunt Morgan during the war of 61-65. The Yanks caught George on the wrong side of the Ohio River, and he spent a season starving in Chicago’s Camp Douglas prison.
Afterward George farmed long enough to realize that grains were more valuable in their liquid than solid forms, and he quickly developed one of Kentucky’s legendary bourbon labels. In 1872 George transplanted his operations to Lone Jack, MO., and gave a thirsty town the noble hundred-proof Lone Jack Straight Whiskey. A fire in 1900 spelled opportunity, and Big George moved his distillery to the sweet springs at Weston, and continued to sauce Kansas City on such brands as Shawhan Whiskey, Double Stamp, 1786 Shawhan Rye, Shawhan White Corn, and many others. George Shawhan retired in 1908 without, apparently, crossing paths with Boss Tom in any public way.
That grand old brand, however, continued to pass through eager hands, and the popular Shawhan Whiskey still appeared on shelves long after Prohibition. Who ultimately profited from a whiskey that outlived its distiller? One might as well ask why so many citizens continued to vote in Tom’s Town long after they relocated to area cemeteries.
George Shawhan produced one of the tastiest spirits in Kansas City, and Tom Pendergast continued to get a taste long after Giant George went to his reward.
Hat tip to Jack Sullivan at “Those Pre Pro-Wiskey Men" blog.