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Old bottle, a legend, and a secret speakeasy inspire new distillery opening downtown

A soon-to-open distillery owes much of its inspiration to a Dayton whiskey brand lost to time but rediscovered because a liquor bottle survived being buried for a century under a pile of broken glass and debris.

The Belle of Dayton distillery, which opens in April at 122 Van Buren St., is named for the ornately emblazoned bottle unearthed during a renovation of the basement of Don’s Pawn Shop, 107 East Third Street.

The bottle, kept in a display cabinet at the shop, has drawn many visitors who take photographs of it and quiz employees about the legend.

Mike LaSelle, 32, and his two brothers, Tim, 31, and Murphy, 30, will share in the duties at the new distillery and taste room located in the historic Oregon District. The brothers said they searched for years for the ideal business name.

After reading a story in the Dayton Daily News about the bottle, they realized that recreating the Belle of Dayton brand would be the perfect way to meld old world tradition and history with the new craft liquor venture.

“I came up with a dozen or so names and then I saw that story,” Mike LaSelle said. “And I said, ‘This is our name!’ It almost gave us goosebumps. We want to tie it back to Dayton, to the days when distilleries dappled the riverbanks and liquor was handcrafted.”

It’s all about making things again locally in the grand tradition of Dayton’s history as a manufacturing and innovation powerhouse, LaSelle said, noting the recent flowering of craft breweries downtown and around the area. “We can’t let these mysteries die. The more we believe in Dayton, the stronger it will come back,” LaSelle said.

Deepening the intrigue is Don’s Pawn Shop’s location across the street from a building that once held a secret downtown Prohibition-era speakeasy revealed by the four-part 2013 Dayton Daily News investigation.

Before the newspaper stories, the speakeasy in the basement of 124 East Third Street had achieved the status of urban myth, but its exact location had been obscured by time and unknown even to local historians. The building was erected in 1919, the same year Congress passed the Volstead Act, launching the Prohibition era.

By some miracle or fate the Belle bottle, another labeled “Sour Mash,” and two others, were the only ones to emerge intact from the pawn shop renovation. Underground steam tunnels once connected all the buildings on that portion of East Third and legend has it served as well-concealed passageways to and from the speakeasy.

Terry Carolus, manager at Don’s Pawn Shop, said it’s believed Belle of Dayton referred either to a popular female entertainer in the pre-Prohibition era or a race horse by that name who was also well known. Did the bottle ever make its way to the speakeasy? That’s unknown. What is known is that Don’s location was once home to Solomon Rauh and Sons Co., a wholesale wine and liquor seller. From at least 1899 until 1905, Rauh operated a distillery.

The building burned nearly to the ground following the 1913 Great Flood. Historian Curt Dalton believes the bottles remained buried after the block was rebuilt.

Today, the 80-foot-by-20-foot speakeasy room is filled with legal documents from a law firm upstairs. It’s distinguished from the rest of the underground space by a raised wood-planked floor, ornate plaster moldings on silver-painted walls and the remains of wiring for ceiling electric outlets. City directories from the era list no basement establishment.

The Belle of Dayton distillery received state approval Thursday to begin making old-style rum, vodka, whiskey and eventually bourbon. A tasting room which is scheduled to open in April will allow visitors to watch the process and try any liquor they’d like to buy. The public is invited to stop by the distillery Monday to get a preview of the operation, Mike LaSelle said.

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