Mike Rowe’s Knobel Whiskey Embodies the Spirit of the Everyman Who Inspired It

DUNDALK, Maryland—To understand television host Mike Rowe, consider his grandfather.

In the undated photo of Carl Milton Knobel, he is standing in what appears to be his backyard. Dressed in a dapper suit and wool overcoat, he is looking at whoever is holding the camera with affection. Everything about him emotes dignity and grace but also joy and anticipation, as if someone knew this was the moment to capture all of who he was, for posterity’s sake.

Knobel was a father of two daughters, the grandfather of five grandsons and the great-grandfather of four when he passed in 2003 at the age of 91. As a young man, he had been an estimator at the Washington Navy Yard and then ran an electrical contracting business. When he retired as an investigator for the Baltimore County Electrical Administrative Board, county officials declared it Carl Milton Knobel Day in his honor.

He sat in Kenwood Presbyterian Church’s pews for 73 years, serving as a deacon, an elder and, for 26 years, as its Sunday school superintendent. In 1959, the congregation dedicated its then-new school building in his name.

All of us, in some way, try to keep alive the memories of the people who came before us who led remarkable lives just by doing unremarkable things. What mattered was the way they loved and cared for us, what they taught us, the examples of duty and hard work they lived by, and the humility in all the ways they practiced it. Television host, narrator, and champion of the working class Mike Rowe is no exception. Nearly 20 years since his grandfather Carl Knobel died, Rowe keeps Knobel’s memory alive in just about everything he does, from dedicating his Discovery Channel “Dirty Jobs” show to the man he called Pops to naming his venture into the spirit world (whiskey, that is) after him.

But before he gets into the name, Rowe explains how he became an accidental distiller—a story that began when his business partner Mary Sullivan had a friend in the whiskey-futures business who knew a distiller in Tennessee with 5-year-old barreled whiskey whose business was about to go bottom up.

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Rowe said he was skeptical about everything regarding the distilling business, including actually liking the whiskey that was available to him. “Honestly I didn’t really want to love it, but I did. I just thought it was terrific. I literally Forrest Gumped my way into some really good whiskey,” he said, laughing.

He decided to place Pop’s name on it and make the distilling venture primarily a fundraiser.

“I thought that it would be fun, because (his TV show) ‘Dirty Jobs’ had just been rebooted, and that show was a tribute to Carl Knobel, and his name pretty much kind of died with him, because he didn’t have boys,” he said.

Rowe said he thought if Knobel Whiskey could raise some money for MikeroweWORKS by giving him the ability to talk about the return of “Dirty Jobs” and get essential work back in the headlines, that would be good for his Work Ethic Scholarship Program that helps people get trained for skilled jobs in the trades.

When he put Knobel Whiskey out exactly a year ago, he signed 10,000 corks, went on Facebook, and said: “Look, we don’t have a lot, but we put together this gift offering and threw some swag in it and really put it up as a fundraiser.”

It sold out in two days.

Rowe said he called the guy he got the original limited batch from to see if there were any more available, and they said, “Actually, we do have some more, but this really truly is the end of it. We just can’t keep doing this.”

It was very much a crawl, walk, run situation.

Rowe told the distillers: “If I can get something close to his original whiskey batch in a larger quantity, then I’d be willing to take a deep breath and kind of go for it.”

They said they’d get back to him.

Within weeks, they sent him a 4-year-old batch that was higher proof than the original, finished in French oak staves.

He liked it better than the original.

When he came home to the Baltimore area (where most of the whiskey is being sold), he decided to make a list of every mom-and-pop store in the area and just stop by to see how people really like it. What he found was what he has always loved about his calling: the everyday people he meets, along with the characters who run the stores that carry not just Knobel Whiskey but all kinds of American spirits whose stories are the heart of our nation’s exceptionalism.

One such place was Drug City in Dundalk, Maryland—a throwback to the American general store where everything you ever wanted from cradle to grave was under one roof and everyone knew everyone who walked in their door by their first name.

Rowe smiles broadly, recalling his Drug City event: “They organize the meet-and-greet, hundreds of people show up. I’m sitting there next to the adult diapers, eating a crab cake, signing whiskey with my granddad’s name on it as people are queued up for as far as I can see to tell me about their dirtiest job and to buy my pop’s whiskey. I swear, I was just so touched.”

Nancy Byers, who has worked at Drug City for nearly two years, gushed at Rowe coming to their little store. “Oh, we had a ball that day,” she said. “We didn’t know he was coming, so when his partner came in the door and announced Mike Rowe is coming here, well, I start screaming, ‘Mike Rowe’s coming, Mike Rowe’s coming!'”

Byers said that when Rowe walked in the threshold of the door and said, “Mike Rowe’s in the house,” she noted, “And I’m, like, what? And I ran over and gave him the biggest hug ever.”

Rowe referred back to his grandfather, whose house was 100 yards from his parents growing up in Maryland in a place Knobel had carved out for his family. “When I grew up, I thought I was in Colorado. Heck, I thought I was Huck Finn. It was just cattails and covered bridges and babbling brooks and wildlife and a barn my pop built for my mom, who was horse crazy.”

“We had a big vegetable garden. We had horses running around and I had chores. I picked up the horse s—, and I split the wood because we heated our house with a wood stove primarily,” he said of a childhood filled with both freedom and structure.

“I had a front-row seat to this relationship with my granddad and my dad,” he said. “My dad was a schoolteacher, not terribly handy like me, while my grandfather was a magician. So seeing those guys wake up clean, go back into the woods or do something, and they come home dirty and a problem is solved, that was the influence he had on me.”

No matter how hard he tried, Rowe never inherited that handy gene, and his grandfather recognized it. “He was the guy who told me to get a different toolbox,” Rowe said.

On his grandfather’s advice, he went to a community college. But he didn’t study the things he liked.

“What I wanted to do was follow in his footsteps,” he said of utilizing the gifts he was given rather than the ones he wished he inherited. “What I learned was just because you loved something doesn’t mean you can’t suck at it. Just because you don’t love something doesn’t necessarily mean you might not have some sort of facility for it.”

His voice and his ability to tell stories soon became his gift. He left Baltimore and took every and any job he could that involved using that gift very successfully. But his mother, Peggy Rowe, thought it might be time for him to do something with his talent that had a purpose.

“That’s when ‘Dirty Jobs’ happened. My mother called to say, ‘Your grandfather just turned 90, and he’s not going to be around forever.’ And her exact words were, ‘Wouldn’t it be great before he died, he could turn on the TV and see you doing something that looked like work.'”

“Dirty Jobs” returns to the Discovery Channel on Sunday, Knobel Whiskey is once again available, and Carl Milton Knobel was never really going to be forgotten. His faith, love of family, and work ethic are embodied in all of his family, in particular his grandson, whose respect for the “everyman” is his superpower.

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