Answer Man

Faded lettering is what’s left of booming whiskey business

The faded Sunnybrook sign on the side of the Belleville Exchange Club.
The faded Sunnybrook sign on the side of the Belleville Exchange Club.

Q: On the Exchange Club building at 404 Sycamore in Belleville is emblazoned the words “Age & Purity Make Sunny Brook Whiskey” and then “Gold Medal” and “Grand Prize.” It does not indicate what kind of whiskey (rye, bourbon, etc.) they distilled, but I have known that neighborhood since the 1950s and know nothing of the name, brand or any distillery in this town. Any clue?

Ned Wilson, of Belleville

A: “None Better Under the Sun — Sunny Brook Pure Rye, The Pure Food Whiskey.”

That’s how the Sunny Brook Boys — brothers Morris, Lewis and Joseph Rosenfield — advertised a product that had America bellying up to the bar in droves at the turn of the 20th century. As an extra shot, they often added this advice at the bottom of their ads: “Should be in readiness in every home for medicinal purposes.”

They were the sons of Sampson Rosenfield, an itinerant jeweler who had emigrated from Germany in 1850. For years, the family moved frequently — Ohio, Kentucky, Minnesota, Rock Island, Ill., and St. Louis — before finally settling down in Chicago. That’s where, in 1891, Morris and Louis established Rosenfield Bros. & Co. Wholesale Liquors. The brothers quickly launched Sunny Brook Whiskey, and, within just a year, it was being marketed nationwide.

At first, the Rosenfields simply bought their whiskey from two Louisville, Ky., distilleries. But as their whiskey’s popularity grew, they knew they would have to buy their own distilleries to maintain both quality and a steady supply. So they paid $1 million for two Louisville distilleries under the same roof. One they called the Sunny Brook Distillery and the other, the Willow Creek Distillery.

Their 15 warehouses had an aging capacity of 200,000 barrels, which they rapidly expanded. By 1904 — the year they won that gold medal at the World’s Fair in St. Louis — they said they were the largest producer of whiskey in the world, claiming a distilling capacity of 20,000 gallons daily and a warehouse capacity of 10 million gallons, or 50 times their original storage space.

For years, it appeared they were on the road to becoming the Anheuser-Busch of the whiskey world. In September 1913, for example, the Rosenfields shipped by rail an estimated 840,000 bottles of their whiskeys, which, by this time, also included such brands as Gladstone, Kentucky Comfort and Sun Beam. As the nation moved toward national prohibition, the Rosenfields were hit hard, and, in 1917, they filed for bankruptcy. Once valued in the millions, the company was bought back at auction for $55,000 by Louis Rosenfield.

But the Rosenfields were never able to return to the glory days. Just about the time Prohibition ended, Louis died, and his widow, Julia, sold the distillery for $600,000 to the National Distilling Co., which marketed Sunny Brook Whiskey until about 1975, when the plant and warehouses were closed and ultimately razed. The Sunny Brook brand name was acquired by Jim Beam Brands Co. in about 1987. Otherwise, the only lasting memories of this once-great spirit are on collectors’ memorabilia and the ghostly signs you can see at The Belleville sign is thought to date from about 1910, considering it had already won its gold medal.

Q: While battling one of those dreaded summer colds I was searching for a magic pill to help me get through it. I couldn’t help notice how many products now on the market make the claim that they are the same strength as the original prescription. Did the FDA lower its standards?

G.S., of Millstadt

A: No, it’s a movement that has been picking up steam ever since it was introduced in 1972. In simple terms, the government seems to be increasingly trusting that consumers are smart enough to buy and use dozens of formerly prescription-only drugs without seeing their doctor first.

In 1951, an amendment to the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938 finally drew a sharp line between drugs that could be sold over the counter and those that had to be dispensed by a physician. In brief, it said that drugs that could not be used safely without professional supervision could be sold only by prescription. Such drugs were deemed habit-forming, had potential major side effects or were for conditions that cannot be readily self-diagnosed like your common cold or minor bout of diarrhea.

Then in 1972, the FDA began allowing drug companies to ask for an OTC drug review that might allow them to sell commonly used prescription medications on the shelves of your local CVS and Target. It’s what’s known as an “Rx to OTC switch.”

During this review, panels of nongovernment experts review the active ingredients in OTC drugs to determine whether they are safe and effective. But — and this is the important part — these panels also review prescription ingredients to determine whether some are appropriate for OTC marketing. It takes into account whether patients on their own can use them and achieve the desired medical result without unduly endangering their safety.

Since the first six antihistamines and nasal decongestants were approved through this process on Sept. 9, 1976, the FDA has okayed 113 ingredients, indications or dosage strengths for OTC sales, according to the Consumer Healthcare Products Association. The latest was a formulation for Flonase Sensimist Allergy Relief on Aug. 2.

All studies point to a major savings for consumers now that they can buy such products as Prilosec and Claritin OTC. A study by Northwestern University estimates a potential savings of $4.75 billion annually by using OTCs to treat certain upper respiratory infections alone. For a complete list of switches, see Question 4 at

Today’s trivia

I’m about to head off for some serious R&R. But as Gen. Douglas MacArthur once famously said, I shall return — on Oct. 26.

Answer to Saturday’s trivia: By one definition, pilchards are a type of herring that are 6 inches long or longer. Until they reach that size, you know them as “sardines.”

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer