The Debonair Story
THE FULL-ISH STORY
Have you noticed the woman stamped on our ice in the cocktail lounge, or perhaps that same women depicted in our logo? Here’s the full-ish story of Rose Miller aka The Debonair, and the inspiration for our distillery branding. Explore the tabs below by year to learn more about Rose, and her spirited life.
Born Rose Miller, her parents were thought to have conceived of this future alchemist while visiting the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Apparently, the revolutionary electric lights of the fair had sparked the passion necessary to create a genius. Born to a Chemistry Professor in Beloit, her mother died during childbirth. Rose’s early years were spent soaking up her father’s scientific knowledge. She further satiated her appetite for education in the university library. By the time she reached her teen years, her dad had taught her how to distill vodka.
The savvy professor treated the process as a small batch hobby. Rose approached the craft as a vocational forte. She was clearly inspired by her mother. Though they had never met, Rose was often told that her bold determination and attention to detail uncannily resembled her mother’s best attributes.
By the time she finished high school, Rose was hell bent on making a name for herself in a city where anything was possible… Highwood! But initially, Chicago! She worked odd restaurant jobs until landing a cocktailing gig at the Southside’s famed Royal Gardens Café. A swingin’ jazz palace, Rose began to make connections with politicians, musicians and socialites of the time. Her sense of humor, intellect and moxy drew many admirers in the scene. Rose peppered the bartenders with probing questions about liquor, and sampled their wide array of worldly intoxicants, developing a palette to detect subtle differences and balance.
Her return to crafting spirits resurfaced through after-parties with members of the famous King Oliver Jazz Band and Jimmy Noone party goers raved over Rose’s homemade vodkas and gins.
They demanded to know who provided her with the high-end product, but she remained guarded, joking that she was just a “silly girl who isn’t good with names.”
Though the nightlife seemed to suit her, Rose grew weary of the rise in organized crime, violence around her, and likely the stench of the Chicago River. Through the network she had curated, Rose was set up with a bar managing position at the Hotel Moraine On-The-Lake resort in Highland Park. She had grand plans. With prohibition looming, Rose knew that her aptitude for creating spirits far away from the expansive Chicago police force, would be ideal
In the summer of 1919, Rose was walking through Fort Sheridan and saw the wood structures of the temporary Lovell Hospital virtually covering the parade ground. While her ambitions were great, her compassion was greater. As she was stunned by the suffering of the returning soldiers, many wracked in pain from mustard gas poisoning. She found herself compelled to volunteer to help relieve these patriots’ suffering. Quietly, the vials she brought with her for the patients to drink from provided comfort, relief, and a coy smile.
Prohibition in 1920 led to an underground industry of unregulated liquor. Boot-leggers with very inconsistent product flooded the thirsty speak-easies and blind pigs of the time. Highwood became a lucrative destination with an army base in town and a discerning consumer base at Hotel Moraine. In this cauldron, a superior distiller bubbled to the surface.
Rose Miller seized the opportunity. Soon every gambling den was stocked and every discerning connoisseur was demanding this polished product. They called it “28 Special”, because the batch number always started with a “28”. Because women were generally not involved in such a nefarious business and were further discriminated against in holding positions of power, Rose had male workers stand in for her to broker larger deals.
She rotated her spokesmen, leaving crime bosses, racketeers, and saloon keepers with no idea of who the “bossman” of the storied hooch could be. There were times in which Miller herself was present at raids, and was ushered out by police officers who believed that she was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. As the distiller’s identity remain anonymous, she was eventually nicknamed, “The Debonair,” because of the refined nature of the sought-after spirits.
The blind pig was dubbed a very persistent animal, and The Debonair knew what to feed it. This infuriated authorities. With no leads on the distiller or her location, Highwood mayor Joseph Severson hired a private detective to pose as a train conductor. The private dick would listen in on passengers to ascertain the locations of speak-easies around Highland Park and Highwood. As Mayor Severson located and shut down nearly twenty locations, he traced the dealers to illegal distilleries.
But one distillery continued to allude his grasp.
Dummy distributers, non-existing addresses, and dead-end leads left one provider of spirits ahead of Severson’s “sponge squad”. If the mayor did realize that the number 28 referred to miles north of Chicago where Highwood was situated, it surely left him exasperated. Cleverly enough, Rose Miller belonged to the Women’s Temperance Union of Evanston, one of the guiding organizations of the prohibition movement. Through this group, she gained intel about the police’s plans and targets, which helped to keep her an untouchable.
As the North Shore market became awash with The Debonair’s spirits, her empire stretched into Chicago. Initially, Chicagoans staying at The Hotel Moraine resort would bring bottles back into the city, unaware that the mastermind behind their favorite spirits called the resort her home. As demand grew, undetectable routes were drawn up to provide the Windy City with exactly what its movers and shakers craved. The “28 Special” bottles were even found on the top shelf of Al Capone’s bars.
Towards the end of Prohibition, The Debonair’s product began to discontinue its circulation. Details during the Great Depression are sparse, but it was rumored that The Debonair retired comfortably before the mounting pressure of bringing her to justice reached her doorstep. Rose’s name popped up from time to time at major social events, but she gradually disappeared from the Chicagoland area. Her exact whereabouts were unfortunately verified one final time.
Rose Miller died tragically in the famous Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire in Boston on November 28th, 1942. Survivors of the fire recalled Rose helping several fellow patrons escape through a side door employee entrance before she succumbed to smoke inhalation.
The deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history left 492 people dead and another 166 injured.
The identity of The Debonair and her famed recipes would never had been known had it not been for an estate sale in Highwood, nearly sixty years after her death. At the home of one of her most trusted confidants, old ledgers collected in an unassuming box, revealed a series of scrawlings and curious diagrams. Notes about underground routes, herbal infusions, and barrel distributors undeniably fingered an eclectic and mysterious associate as the elusive matriarch of an empire. The ledgers were recently entrusted to us by a family member who wished their family’s involvement to remain anonymous. In keeping with The Debonair’s cloaked identity, that makes sense to us.