an old man and a younger man sit sipping whisky
Kentucky Peerless Distilling owner Corky Taylor with his son Carson (Photo/Shaun Wilson-Kentucky Peerless Distilling)

At WhiskyFest, learn how a penniless immigrant built a whisky empire

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Food coverage is supported by a generous donation from Susan and Moses Libitzky.

Henry Kraver was a man unafraid to take a risk. It was 1878 when the 19-year-old immigrant from Poland decided to leave New York City and take a riverboat as far as he could afford to go. When his money ran out, he got off the boat.

“Of all places, he ended up in Henderson, Kentucky,” said Corky Taylor, Kraver’s great-grandson.

Knowing no one, and penniless to boot, the young Jewish man nevertheless rose from sweeping bar floors to become a successful banker and entrepreneur. His businesses included tobacco, theaters, hotels and the Kentucky Peerless Distilling Co. and its Peerless Whiskey, which Taylor has now revived and brought to San Francisco for WhiskyFest on Oct. 4.

“He loved the distillery, and I think he’d be really proud,” Taylor said.

Kraver was 5 when his family came to the U.S. He was a self-made man who sold newspapers on the corner in New York as a child, Taylor recounted. In Henderson, he rose quickly, aided by a local Jewish family, the Manns, who owned a department store.

“He didn’t know anybody,” Taylor said. “But I think he made a lot of friends real fast.”

After learning the ropes in St. Louis, Kraver founded a bank in Henderson and a score of businesses.

“He built basically a small empire, if you will,” Taylor said.

black and white portrait of a bald old man in a suit
Henry Kraver, founder of Kentucky Peerless Distilling

One of those businesses was whiskey, the distilled spirit made from fermented grain and matured for a period of time. (The spelling is a matter of preference or, as the Whisky Advocate puts it, “Whiskey is whisky is whiskey.”) Kraver bought an existing distillery and started producing whiskey under the Peerless name in 1889. It was only one of his many projects, which also included community work.

“He built the synagogue in Henderson, Kentucky,” Taylor said. “And we still own — the Kraver Estate — the Jewish cemetery there.” Taylor said the estate pays for the upkeep of the cemetery, where Kraver is buried.

Taylor never knew his great-grandfather, who died in 1938 before Taylor was born. But Taylor’s father was close to him and had an office filled with photos of Kraver’s businesses.

Taylor was in his mid-60s and retired from a successful career in financial services when he decided, with the help of son Carson Taylor, to honor his great-grandfather’s legacy by reviving the whiskey company Kraver originated.

But it wasn’t just a case of starting up again. First Taylor had to reclaim the rights to the name, and then he faced another battle trying to revive the original distilled spirits plant number, a federally regulated license required of all distilleries. Peerless could have received a new number, but Taylor said he fought for a year and a half to get the original “DSP-KY-50,” which showed it was the 50th distillery to be registered in the state (Taylor said more than 20,000 are registered now).

“It’s an honor to have it,” he said.

The revived Peerless, based in Louisville, started distilling in 2015, almost a hundred years after Kraver’s Peerless shuttered during Prohibition. The distillery began selling straight rye whiskey and bourbon in 2017, and it already has received a number of accolades: It was named one of the “most exciting whiskies of the year” by Whisky Advocate in 2017, came in at No. 4 on Forbes’ “best American whiskey” list in 2018, and this year was named “Global Craft Producer of the Year” by Whisky Magazine. It also received an award for its packaging of a bottle designed by Carson Taylor and bearing Henry Kraver’s signature.

There’s one other thing on the bottle that’s special for Corky Taylor: KLAS, for “Kosher liquor and spirits.” It’s something that most whiskey drinkers might not notice, but Taylor said he was “bound and determined” to get the certification and further honor Kraver.

“It was really important to me to have that,” he said, “and it’s stamped on our bottles.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.