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Pullman Dining Cars, Bourbon and Whiskey

Posted by Colonel Bourbon on

We decided to have a little fun, and dig into the history of the Pullman Company; their iconic luxury passenger cars, and what was on the menu, particularly of course the bourbon and other whiskeys and whiskies.

Once an iconic brand and service

The Pullman Company is mostly forgotten today but there was a time when the name was synonymous with passenger train service, especially luxury travel.  The titans of the late 19th century and early 20th century had their own spectacular railroad cars built. Gilded Age industrialists like Jay Gould and J.P. Morgan had cars. U.S. Presidents used Pullman cars. A Pullman car -- or coach -- named the Amundsen, built in 1928, is said to have been used by Presidents Herbert Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower. 

Pullman dining cars,  bourbon and whiskey

(Photo: The Pullman car Amundsen, built in 1928, said to be used by U.S. Presidents from Hoover to Eisenhower. Photo credit Marine 69-71, from Wikipedia Creative Commons.)

Think of Air Force One and privately-owned luxury jets as today's Pullman luxury coaches. Back then, before air travel, the railroad was how you traveled in style long distance.

History of the Pullman Company 

Speaking of U.S. Presidents, there is a story, likely apocryphal, that George Pullman, who founded the company in the early 1860s, began the rise to dominate the passenger and luxury railway car business after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The story goes that prior to his death, his wife Mary had seen one of Pullman's luxury cars in Chicago and wanted her slain husband to be transported in one of the cars.

True or not, George Pullman had the vision to build and dominate the niche. He had gotten his start with his father literally moving building -- raising them up and transporting the structure, intact, in at least one case, while people were still working inside, to a new site.

One can imagine that this may have inspired Pullman to think about mobile hotels and restaurants aka railroad passenger cars. Part of the vision was that he would not just manufacture the cars, he would own and  run them, attaching to a train.

And the other part of his vision -- call it his micromanagement times 100 -- was his meticulous focus on excellence, which resulted in being branded as the best -- the Rolls Royce of the luxury railroad coach, if you will. In Christian Wolmar's great book The Great Railroad Revolution, the author writes of the 12 steps to serve a beer, which starts with the rather obvious "ascertain from.passenger what kind of beer is required."

In 1868, the first Pullman dining car hit the train tracks. Named the Delmonico, after New York's famed restaurant. Meals were served with fine china, crystal, and silver. Guests were attended to by waiters in white jackets.

The Menu

 A dining experience was one of the ways railway services could distinguish themselves from other services, which were  all going back and forth to the same destinations.

Wolmar wrote in his book: "The (Pullman) hotel cars on the Chicago-Omaha leg of the transcontinental route listed no fewer than 15 seafood dishes... and no fewer than 37 meat entrées..."

The opulence of the Gilded Age was dialed back as time went on, no doubt to streamline costs. A Pullman menu dated January 4, 1941, a Washington DC route to New York on the Pennsylvania Railroad, listed the following main course options:

  • Broiled double lamp chop
  • Grilled ham and eggs
  • Brown corn beef hash with egg
  • Quaker sausage, grilled apple rings
  • Omelet with minced ham or marmalade
Significantly less opulent indeed. By then George Pullman was gone; he had died in 1897. In an interesting coincidence, considering the tale told about Abraham Lincoln at the start of this article, Lincoln's son Robert Todd Lincoln become president of the Pullman Company when Pullman died, and later served as chairman until 1922

The bar menu

The same menu from the route, on that day, had a pretty decent bar menu.

The bourbon and Rye were all bottled in bond; the Act that -- again with the coincidences -- was passed by Congress in 1897, the year Pullman died.  Here's a list of the whiskeys offered on the menu:

  • Old Bridgeport Monongahela Rye (Distilled 1916)
  • Mount Vernon Pure Rye (Distilled 1930)
  • Old Overholt Rye (Distilled 1933)
  • Old Grand-Dad Bourbon (8 years in wood, Distilled 1931)
  • Old Taylor Bourbon (DIstilled 1934)
  • Bourbon De Luxe (Kentucky distilled, very old and mellow, distilled 1917)
  • Four Decades Kentucky Bourbon (Distilled Spring 1934

Each were offered in 1.6 ounces, as either straight or selzer highball, or highball with club soda. The most expensive was the Bourbon De Luxe wiyh club soda, at 70 cents 

According  to Whiskey Auctionner, "Bourbon de Luxe is a historic whiskey brand, bottled for most of the 20th century by National Distillers, who acquired it in 1934. National Distillers and their portfolio were acquired by Jim Beam in 1987, who shut down the distilleries and moved production to their sites in Clermont and Boston Road, KY."

The bar menu offered some Scotch whisky, including Johnny Walker Black Label, along with an Irish whiskey. You were given 2 ounces for these.

You could get an Old Fashioned or Whiskey Sour, with your choice of whiskey, with Bourbon De Luxe,  again being the most expensive at 70 cents. 

Rounding out the list were a selection  of Champagne --  Cook's Imperial -- a half bottle for $1.50, white and red wine, sweet wine, port,  sherry, cognac, gin, and Bacardi.

No vodka. Of course, there was a war going on in Europe. And the Russian liquor wouldn't become popular in the United States until the late 1960s and 1970s, making bourbon whiskey "unhip."

At the bottom of the drink menu were mineral waters, orange juice, lemonade, Coca-Cola -- chewing gum,  playing cards and...Aspirin.

 And of course, the sign of those times, cigars (domestic or Havana) and cigarettes.

The bar menu on a Pullman dining car in 1941

(Photo: The beverages/bar menu from Pullman dining railcar in 1941, from the New York Public Library. The link has a higher-res version you can view.)

Pullman, later years

The 1941 menu is a moment in time. World War Two would come to America in December of that year, at Pearl Harbor. The nation would find itself rationing supplies for the war effort. After WWII, the Pullman company faced several challenges, including competition from airlines and the rise of the automobile. Pullman went defunct on December 31, 1968, after over 100 years of operation.

A video on the history of the railroad dining car:

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1 comment

  • So fun to read this history, of people at a moment in time, long ago. The TV show “Pawn Stars” featured a classic Pullman car for sale, built in the early 1990s.

    Johnny Van on

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