In 1810, Napoleon Bonaparte and Empress Joséphine divorced; one year later, Gagneur & Co. distilled some Cognac. By 1934 it was ready to bottle and, in 1935, Louis Glunz II bought a bottle of “Reserve Imperatrice Joséphine” from the Union League Club for $16. Eighty-three years later, that dusty bottle has never left the shelves at House of Glunz—Chicago’s oldest wine and liquor store—where it sits in a humble glass case near the register.
“It’s really hard to price old things unless they have come up at auctions, which are few and far between,” explains Christopher Donovan, the fourth generation proprietor, along with his mother. “But you’ll eventually find the market. I mean, some of these things we bought 100 years ago. We can afford to wait.”
Patience is certainly a family virtue at House of Glunz, which Donovan’s great-grandfather, Louis Glunz II, opened in 1888. The German immigrant chose the Old Town neighborhood, and opened his eponymous shop with the help of brewing magnate Charles Wacker and wiener baron Oscar Meyer. The former helped set him up with the contract to distribute Schlitz beer. Glunz supplied all of Chicagoland from 1893 well into the 1970s, and Schlitz paraphernalia is still crammed into every corner of the multi-room building, which was built in 1874, three years after the Chicago fire.
A mural depicting grape vines and beer production hangs in House of Glunz’s main room, something Donovan, now in his late-40s, recalls being painted when he was just a young boy. In an elegant backroom, now used for private tastings, oil paintings of Louis Glunz II and his wife, Elizabeth, watch over an extensive collection of antique glassware and furniture. The youngest of six children, Donovan’s childhood chores included polishing all the “nooks and crannies” with an Old English-covered rag. Since the Glunz family has been around for a good chunk of American distilling history, the entire facility is littered with curios: gallon-sized bottles, oddball decanters, Prohibition-era whiskey. Almost everything is for sale if you have the loot.
Inside the House of Glunz
The shop survived Prohibition by selling sacramental wine to Catholics and medicinal whiskey to malingerers. At one time, customers could bring their own jugs to be filled with cask wine or beer. By the 1940s, the family started bottling their own products, bringing in casks of fortified wines from Spain and Portugal and bourbon barrels from Kentucky.
“Glass quality was poor at the time and transportation was expensive, so they didn’t want to cut the liquor before shipping,” explains Donovan. House of Glunz had a bottling plant in the basement where the family would proof down the spirits themselves. By the 1950s, their merchant bottling practice had become so large they had to add a plant a few blocks away.
“My grandpa was the first person to do a production of 20-year-old bourbon,” says Donovan, proudly. “He went to the Hoffman distillery and tasted barrels. He ended up buying five of them, then paid for them to age for 20 years.” The Hoffman Distillery was eventually purchased by Pappy Van Winkle’s grandson, Julian Van Winkle III, in 1983; the Glunz family developed a great rapport with the man and were one of the earliest liquor stores to stock Pappy. “We used to make eggnog with Van Winkle 10-Year,” remembers Donovan. “Why wouldn’t you? It was a 20 dollar bottle.”
When Old Town began to decline in the early 1960s, House of Glunz also struggled to keep their house bottling business afloat, eventually closing the plant down. But in the years since then, the store’s reputation has only been burnished, a neighborhood fixture who never quit trying to sell interesting products to locals Thanks to the modern whiskey and cocktail revolution, business is booming again and House of Glunz has become one of the country’s most respected retailers of rare and unusual spirits.
“This building is really a time capsule,” says Donovan. “Some of these bottles have been in my family forever.”
House of Glunz’s Historic House Bottlings
Red Star Sloe Gin | mid-1970s
“I wouldn’t be surprised if we made that here,” explains Donovan, noting that they also produced grenadine and a lot of other cocktail ingredients in-house. While some Chicago locals might suspect this was produced specifically to sell at the Red Star Inn—a North Side tavern—Donovan says that’s not true. Louis Glunz II was such a huge fan of the German spot, that, upon its closing in 1970, he literally purchased the entire restaurant piecemeal—tables, chairs, even the walls, and brought them back to the shop. This sloe gin, “prepared for Louis Glunz,” celebrates his favorite local haunt.
Old Decanter – Cognac Godet | 1950s
For a time, House of Glunz bottled products under the name Old Decanter. This intriguing box set of four 24-year-old Cognacs (in decanters), with matching snifters, was produced by Godet, a still-active brand. Donovan says that “Godet did a bunch of things for us,” starting in the early 1900s, though he dates this from the 1950s or ’60s. He currently displays it in the entryway to his home, which is located above the store.
Overhill 8 Year Old Maryland Straight Rye Whiskey | 1937
Not only did Glunz bottle their own liquors, in many cases they produced the labels as well. In fact, Donovan recently located the printing plate for this 1937 rye—though he has virtually no other information about the distillery or quality of the whiskey. That’s not so strange; Donovan literally has bundles of old Glunz family labels for a plethora of products that time has all but forgotten. “Once my grandfather realized he could produce all these labels and create new products, he seemingly did just that,” explains Donovan.
A House of Glunz Selection BIN #420 – 20 Years Old Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey | 1983
This 86-proof bourbon comes from that initial lot Louis Glunz II purchased from Lawrenceburg’s Hoffman Distilling Company, then the smallest distillery in all of Kentucky, shortly after its April, 1963, distillation. The five barrels would ultimately yield 520 bottles (“a yield of 35 percent of the original quantity” notes the back label), one of which is still available for purchase.
Faux Bénédictine | 1970s
Produced by French monks since the 1800s, Bénédictine was Louis Glunz II’s favorite liqueur. When he suspected their recipe had secretly changed, he confronted the monks while on a tour of the distillery. They promptly denied the change. “After a few drinks, though,” explains Donovan, “one monk said, ‘Yeah, okay, we changed something.’” When Glunz II got back to Chicago he created a mock Bénédictine based on his memory of the previous formula. His faux Bénédictine has the same iconic bowling pin bottle shape and even says Bénédictine on the label (though his label is far less ornate that the real deal). Only one bottle remains.