Templeton Rye has a fascinating history—one that the company plays up heavily in its marketing, where it touts its “Prohibition era recipe.” The Templeton whiskey that’s for sale today, however, is not distilled in Templeton, Iowa, nor is it made using a recipe from the Prohibition era. Whether that matters has been the subject of considerable debate, but that’s a blog post for another day (for tomorrow, to be precise).

In Gentlemen Bootleggers: The True Story of Templeton Rye, Prohibition, and a Small Town in Cahoots (Chicago Review Press), Bryce T. Bauer doesn’t concern himself with the present state of affairs at Templeton Rye, focusing instead on its past. His story ends with the end of production for the original Templeton rye whiskey a few years after the repeal of Prohibition. The brand resurrected and repopularized in 1996, however, doesn’t figure into Bauer’s tale.

What made the original Templeton rye unusual, Bauer explains, is that unlike most of the bootleg liquor sold during Prohibition, it tasted good enough that people actually sought it out. “At a time when asking the provenance of a particular shot of liquor was as absurd—and embarrassingly naive—as asking the origin of the pork in the sausage that rolled off the belts at Swift & Co.’s sprawling processing plant on Chicago’s South Side, the whiskey [Joe] Irlbeck came to make, Templeton Rye, managed the remarkable: it established itself as a brand. Newspapers quoted its price independent of other bootleg liquor and discerning buyers ordered it by name,” he writes. The story is less about the whiskey itself, though, than the people behind it, the residents of Templeton, and one man who was very much against its production.

  • Alison Klein
  • Bryce T. Bauer

Bauer never addresses the rumor, much touted by the current Templeton Rye brand, that Al Capone’s drink of choice was Templeton. But he does begin his tale with Capone, drawing parallels between the Chicago gangster and Templeton’s own whiskey kingpin, Joe Irlbeck. The two men, roughly the same age, both faced charges of bootlegging in June of 1931, with very different results: the town of Templeton rallied around Irlbeck to protect him, while in Chicago the residents were tired of the violence Capone brought to the city. Bauer’s primary concern, however, isn’t comparing the two men, but describing the war that went on for over a decade between Irlbeck, who eventually oversaw the production of hundreds of gallons of whiskey a day in and around Templeton, and federal prohibition agent Benjamin Franklin Wilson.

Unlike many of his fellow officers, Wilson was committed to stopping bootlegging. “Wilson would define himself, and find his passion, with the enforcement of the state’s liquor laws. In doing so he would learn a lesson among the most important for any Prohibition agent: when it came to bootlegging, sometimes the good guys were the bad guys,” Bauer writes. The local sheriff in Templeton, for example, would wear a hat only when there was a raid going on, to tip off the bootleggers that prohibition agents were closing in. But while Wilson was very effective at catching bootleggers, eventually becoming the top alcohol officer in Iowa, Irlbeck proved to be an elusive target.

Bauer does a remarkable job of weaving together the various stories in the book, positioning them against the backdrop of the political and economic climates of the day. He makes it clear, for example, that the Templeton bootleggers weren’t just a bunch of scofflaws: most were farmers supplementing their income by running stills, and many of them wouldn’t have been able to survive the farm crisis of the 1920s or the Depression without that additional income. That helps explain why the town of Templeton was so united in supporting Irlbeck’s whiskey operation, as Bauer colorfully illustrates:

By 1931, Irlbeck’s operation had grown into a sprawling organization capable of producing hundreds of gallons of booze, worth thousands of dollars, a day. To achieve that required the involvement of nearly every one of Templeton’s residents, from the town grocer to the church monsignor. As a result of their volume, the quality of their product, and their total commitment to bootlegging, Templeton, population just 428, became known as the “far-famed oasis of the middlewest.” . . .

As the rye industry took off, nearly every household in Templeton was involved in some aspect of its production. Whiskey making so permeated the city, even some of the children knew what was going on: one afternoon, when a stranger arrived in town searching for a drink, he met a boy on the street and asked him where one might be found. “Mister,” the boy replied, “see that house next to the church? That’s the rectory. Any house but that one.”

The boy wasn’t being truthful, of course. There was most certainly booze in the rectory, and it wasn’t just sacramental wine, either.

The town of Templeton’s involvement in bootlegging extended to its religious leaders, who had allowed a still to be set up in the church basement and passed out sample bottles of Templeton Rye to visitors who showed an interest in buying whiskey. In 1931, Templeton celebrated its whiskey in even its Christmas decorations: part of the garland strung up across Main Street was “a little cardboard cutout of a whiskey jug, identifiable by its fat, round bottom and domed top, with a corked spout directly in the center, next to a little looped handle,” Bauer writes. “Scrawled across the side was XMAS SPIRITS; below, a little Christmas tree. It was innocent yet incriminating.”

The end of Prohibition didn’t mean the end of bootlegging in the U.S.: unused to paying taxes on booze, many people chose to avoid doing so by continuing to make their own, Irlbeck included. But at the end of 1936 he was caught with ten gallons of alcohol and arrested, and this time it looked like the charges might actually stick. Scared straight, he finally decided to get out of the bootlegging game. As the last stocks of Templeton rye dwindled, the Des Moines Register sent a correspondent to Templeton to find out why. The reporter wrote: “The once mighty flood has been reduced to a forlorn gurgle. Gone is the merry song of corks popping from the little brown jugs of Templeton rye. If you ask for whiskey in Templeton they refer you to the state liquor store in Manning. ‘Templeton Rye,’ once the much-counterfeited symbol of bootleg quality, has been relegated to the back country from which it sprang to national fame during Prohibition.”

Bauer will be at City Lit Books (2523 N. Kedzie) Thursday 9/25 at 6:30 PM in conversation with Chicago author Tim Chapman. On Saturday 9/27 he’ll be at Scofflaw (3201 W. Armitage) from noon to 4 PM for a signing and informal meet and greet; bartender Danny Shapiro will be making a special Templeton cocktail for the occasion.