American Whiskey
Distilleries of Eastern Pennsylvania
  
 


June 16, 2006
Kinsey Distillery
Linfield Distillery
Angelo Myers Distillery

Linfield, Pennsylvania
 

 

UNIVERSITY ROWING TEAMS tend to prefer straight rivers. Wide, smooth, straight rivers, with plenty of room to maneuver their long racing sculls. The Schuylkill River suits that need perfectly as it passes the beautiful old racing club boathouses as it runs along the western side of Philadelphia, but on its way there from the factory outlets out in Reading it's a lot more, well, interesting. It twists. It turns. It changes directions radically, and often. In some places it almost threatens to cut itself off and disappear into an endless circle. One place where that happens is the site of the old Kinsey Distillery, near the village of Linfield, Pennsylvania, and less than eight miles from where we once lived. We learned about the Kinsey distillery while exploring the story of the giant Publicker Industries Corporation, a story nearly as twisty and full of switchbacks as the Schuylkill River itself. The Kinsey Distillery was operated by the Continental Distilling Corporation beginning shortly after the end of prohibition up until the mid-1980s. Continental was a subsidiary of Publicker.

Continental called the site the Kinsey Distillery. Apparently no one else did. Nearly all the other sources we've found, including official documents as well as general usage, refer to the site as the Linfield Distillery or the Linfield Industrial Park, although they acknowledge Continental's propriety. When we called the real estate company that handles it for permission to photograph the site, John asked if it was the old Kinsey Distillery, and the agent said right away that it was.

People also tend to assume that Continental distilled whiskey here.
And they may have.
Perhaps.
Except...

Except that Continental's main plant was located in Philadelphia. Their own promotional literature boasts eloquently of their modern technological approach to making whiskey, and the efficiency of their state-of-the-art facility. The same literature also describes, and with equal pride, their distillery here on the banks of the Schuylkill River, with modern warehouses to store "the world's largest single concentration of aging whiskies". The literature, however, carefully avoids mentioning anything about actually distilling any of that whiskey at the Kinsey site. A few relics of barrels remain in the warehouses, and the barrelheads indicate they were filled, not at DSP-PA-12, which was the Kinsey site's official designation, but at DSP-PA-1, which was Continental's Philadelphia plant.
We saw no barrels marked with the DSP-PA-12 location.

In the Publicker Industries promotional material they treat their Continental Distilling Corporation and their Kinsey Distillery as two separate entities. So they may, indeed, have distilled whiskey at Linfield and not just used the site as a warehousing facility. Perhaps that was before or after the promotional booklet was produced.

The publication doesn't refer to this site as the "Linfield Distillery". In fact, it isn't very specific about just where their Kinsey Distillery was located. Continental did market a Linfield brand of whiskey, a bottled-in-bond straight bourbon, whose label states it was "Bottled for the Kinsey Distillers Company, Philadelphia, Penna.", but that brand isn't listed among their spotlighted brands in the early promotional brochure. And there was the Kinsey brand itself; but that was a blended whiskey which would more likely have been produced at the Philadelphia location and which required no aging beyond that required of the component ingredients. Interestingly, a secondary label on the Kinsey bottle purports to be an assurance of fine quality and "a half century" of personal supervision, over the signature of J. G. Kinsey, himself. Not an insignificant feat for a gentleman who would have been in his late seventies in 1933 when the Continental Distilling Corporation was formed.

For, according to Ellwood Roberts' biographical research on his own family, which he published in 1904, one Jacob G. Kinsey was born in Lower Salford, Pennsylvania on March 13, 1858, As a young man Jacob went into the creamery business and by his early thirties he owned three creameries. In 1891 he sold them and built a distillery and 2,000 barrel capacity warehouse in Linfield. He later increased the capacity to 20,000 barrels, and was still successfully engaged in that business as of 1904.
It would not be difficult to imagine that Jake called his whiskey "Kinsey's".

But then, what about Angelo?

Angelo? Who's Angelo??

We first became acquainted with Angelo (and the Kinsey brand) by way of a picture we were sent by a reader. It's apparently a painting that was made as an advertisement for Kinsey's whiskey brand. That was a popular promotional tool in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Large prints of such paintings would be made available to saloons and liquor retailers, or it may have been printed on serving trays and distributed as giveaways. This particular picture is of an idyllic hunting scene. Well, perhaps it didn't start out so idyllic after all. We see there is a hunter (of course), dressed in hunting clothes and accompanied by a hunting dog. He is a successful hunter, and carries a bird in one hand while balancing his hunting shotgun in the crook of his elbow. That's because in his other hand he is holding a flask, from which he has just poured a drink for the other gentleman in the picture.

The other gentleman is not a hunter, though; We can see that, because he isn't wearing hunter's garb. He appears to be the farmer who owns this land.

There is a large "No Trespassing" sign.
The farmer is carrying something that might also be a shotgun, or a large, heavy stick.
And he's holding it in a somewhat more threatening way.

The artistry of this painting is evident in the subtle expression on the farmer's face, indicating that the whiskey is (1) strong, (2) good, and (3) cause enough to forgive this stranger his trespasses and wish him good hunting.

Thus, it appears these gentlemen have just reached a temporary land-use arrangement that suits them both better than the farmer had expected when he went out to have a word with the hunter. And the writing on the fence in the foreground make it clear that sharing fine Kinsey Pure Rye Whiskey (bottled in bond) has been a contributing factor to the resolution of this situation.

What a great advertisement!
A terrific sentiment, and how very, very true!

And then there's the second rail of the fence, with it's own message.
"Angelo Myers Distillery, Inc. -- Linfield, PA."

I'll bet you already know this, don't you?  Of course there really was an Angelo Myers Distillery. Or more accurately, the A. & H. Myers Distilling Company, Inc., Angelo J. Myers, President. The Philadelphia-based company was a major whiskey wholesaler from 1874 to 1918, with branch offices in several U. S. cities.

The firm is included in Philadelphia's 1886 List of Leading Merchants and Manufacturers. At that time the only brand mentioned was Schuylkill.

They appear in the 1910 and 1915 Philadelphia city directories, too, nearly a quarter century later. During those years they'd developed or acquired several other brands of whiskey. And what brands of liquor did A. & H. Myers market? Well, Myers Pure Malt shouldn't be too surprising. Nor, considering its Philadelphia location, would be Independence Hall, Neshaminy Rye, Oglethorpe Club, or Old Schuylkill Choice Rye.

But wait, there's more! What do we have here? How about Kinsey and Kinsey Special ?

So, it appears that some time after Roberts' biography of 1904 was published and before the 1910 city directory listings, there may have been an arrangement between them involving the distillery in Linfield.

Of course, there were a few other things going on that affected the distilling industry then, as well. For example, the Pure Food & Drug Act of 1906-09 sent many an otherwise fine brand of liquor into never-never land. Kinsey's Pure Rye - Bottled in Bond was probably not a victim of that legislation; the Bottled-in-Bond act, with its even tighter restrictions, had been in effect since 1879. But we notice that when the Kinsey's brand re-started after prohibition it was as a blended whiskey and not subject to bottled-in-bond restrictions (such as being a straight whiskey and distilled at a particular location). But it would not be too imaginative to suspect some of Myers' other offerings -- particularly their more profitable ones -- may have been compromised.

In addition, by the mid-teens production restrictions in support of World War I materiel needs polished off many of those distilleries that remained. Especially the small ones.

And then there was also the growing public temperance and anti-saloon sentiment, and the spectre of national prohibition looming overhead. We tend to think of Prohibition as "The Great Experiment", a term popular with those who opposed it. It's easy to lose sight of the fact that the impact of the 18th Amendment was not a fourteen-year moratorium; it was the total and irrevocable elimination of all alcohol beverages in America. From sea to shining sea. Forever. One could hardly fault an astute Philadelphia liquor merchant in 1918 for taking the opportunity to sell off his stock and get out while still profitable.

So, did Angelo take off with all the profits, change his name, and move to Bolivia?

Did Jake cool his heels until fourteen years later when he could sell the old distillery to Publicker and retire on a nice salary for doing little more than licensing his name to be used on blended whiskey?

We leave that for you, dear reader, to figure out. But this is exactly why Linda and John so love this obsession we have with America's whiskey.

So, is there anything left of this interesting distillery, an important part of Linfield, Pennsylvania's economic base for nearly a hundred years?  Is there anyone who even remembers that such a distillery ever existed, as recently as thirty or so years ago?  We often find that the second question brings only a puzzled expression, followed by something along the lines of, "Well...  I wouldn't know 'bout no distillery being 'round here. Mighta been, though. We're not drinkers, you know."

But Linfield isn't like that. People in Linfield accept the abandoned Continental or Linfield distillery as a local landmark, and every once in a while there's discussion of what can be done with it. You can find references to it on Montgomery County's web pages. The site was known as Linfield Industrial Park for awhile, but no other industries ever moved into it.

Photos of the distillery have also been featured on several private websites. Art photographers love the post-holocaust, abandoned, crumbling, weed-covered buildings look. And they all seem to be especially fond of the fact that you can incorporate the (very) nearby Limerick New-Color plant into the background. Really intensifies that "morning after Three-Mile-Island" image; know whattamean, Vern?  Many of these pages contain truly awesome work -- do an internet search on "linfield industrial"; select "images" if you use Google (bottom of this page has a link). The photos you see here that we took are more informational and "souvenir-ish" than artistic.

Dave Ziegler: Kinsey Worker Extraordinaire

Back in 1966, a young man  just out of high school, and not yet old enough to even touch whiskey, got a job working with the maintenance crew at the Kinsey distillery. Well, all right, it wasn't really a "distillery" anymore; mostly it was a storage facility and bottling plant for Continental. But his job brought him into daily contact with all the old distillery buildings and equipment as well as the current storage warehouses and bottling lines. Kinsey was a HUGE storage site; it was also the largest bottling facility on the planet in its day. It also brought him into daily contact with people who made the plant a living, breathing organism and not just a "liquor factory". These people never spoke of "Linfield", only "Kinsey", and their lives and memories provided an unbroken line connecting all the way back to its glory days.

Dave Ziegler grew up working for Publicker/Continental at Kinsey. He worked there for many years; he says they were the best years of his life. The distillery itself had gone dark long before, back in 1951 (when Dave's father was working there). The bottling line shut down for the last time in 1979, although Kinsey continued to serve as a warehouse site until 1986.

Dave might not have been the last guy out; he was probably not the one who switched off the lights as he left. But for several years now he's been collecting those lights, and switches, and papers, barrelheads, advertising promos, explosion-proof telephones, and historical knowledge. A one-man treasure chest of information about the Kinsey distillery, Dave is fearless in his quest to salvage and preserve as much as possible before the wreckers, the vandals, and even Mother Earth herself dissolves it all back into the Pennsylvania countryside from whence it sprang. Armed with camera and flashlights (and snakebite kit), he has collected the most comprehensive set of photographs imaginable of a facility that has laid derelict for decades, entering alone into pitch-black and dangerously insecure caverns where one false step would certainly leave him without any hope of rescue or even discovery. Under the screen name "kinseyworker", he has posted many of his photos, along with those of a portion of his memorabelia collection, on the Bourbon Enthusiast bulletin board forum. His work is extensive, and provides probably the best understanding available anywhere of the American whiskey industry as it really was until just day-before-yesterday. Dave is a gregarious sort today, and there's no reason to think he was any less so thirty years ago. He has an insatiable thirst for lore and stories and the things that people bring to and take from where they work. Years later, those wonderful stories are a big part of Dave's memories, and of his conversations. The details of his stories bring the listener right into the picture, as though you were actually sharing with him your own memories of being a young man and of working there -- even though you weren't.  You should visit his "My Days at Kinsey Distillery" topic at http://bourbonenthusiast.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=17&t=4923

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Story and original photography copyright 2006 by John Lipman. All rights reserved.