In September 1892, the press reported that a group of major liquor dealers in Philadelphia had announced the purchase of 103 acres in Bucks County to build “an enormous distillery for the production of rye whiskey.” A leader among them dealers was James Edward Maguire, an Irish immigrant whose Montezuma Rye was a nationally recognized brand. Although denied, this project was a direct snub of the so-called “Whiskey Trust.”
Several year earlier a number of Midwest distillers had turned their plants over to a board of trustees who aimed to control the liquor trade through the kind of monopolistic cartel that had developed in oil and other American industries. Officially named the “Distillers and Cattle Feeders Trust,” it was popularly known as "The Whiskey Trust.” That organization, based in Peoria, Illinois, gathered in more than 80 distilleries, often using tactics like dynamite to convince holdouts. Most of the plants the Trust procured were shut down. The idea was to control supplies and drive up whiskey prices.
For a time the Trust was successful, cornering, some said, ninety percent of the available liquor stocks. The monopoly drove up prices for “raw” whiskey used by wholesalers, like Maguire and his allies, for blending (“rectifying”) their proprietary brands. By creating their own source of supply these Philadelphia whiskey men were striking a blow to end their dependency on the Trust.
The new facility, organized with capital of $3 million (equivalent to $60 million today) was titled the Pennsylvania Pure Rye Whiskey Distilling Company. “Nearly every large liquor dealer [in Philadelphia] holds stock in the company,” said one press account. A prominent member of the venture noted: “I suppose those 40 firms represent about $30,000,000. All the subscriptions have been paid in. The plant eventually had a capacity of 30,000 barrels a year. The site selected had a large frontage on the Delaware River and a wharf was constructed. The Pennsylvania Railroad line was a mile from the distillery, necessitating the building of a branch spur to the site.
A spokesman for the group was quick to disavow any intent to be antagonistic to the Whiskey Trust. The reasoning behind the new distillery was to established an industry close to home, he said, economizing on shipping and buying local grain. He added: “Then too, we are going to try some new experiments in the manufacture of whiskey which are entirely original, and which, if successful, will have a tendency to revolutionize things.” Nonetheless, alarm bells must have gone off in the Trust’s Peoria headquarters. Not only would they lose the Philadelphia houses as customers, members of the new distillery were being encouraged to promote sales of excess whiskey stocks to dealers outside the membership. According to the press account: “Each stockholder will virtually be an agent, and will use extra efforts to sell the whiskey, because he will reap a decided benefit from it.” And the Trust would be the loser.
A year after it opened in 1893, the new Philadephia Pure Rye Distilling Company was surveyed by Ernest Hexamer, an insurance assessor based in Philadelphia. There were two large stills, one wooden with a capacity of 16,840 gallons and a copper still holding 2,554 gallons. A single bonded warehouse was constructed of brick, six stories tall, with a capacity to age 14,000 barrels. At that time the distillery was employing six men. Hexamer’s drawing is above. Below is an artist’s representation of the distillery several years later at build-out.
The important role played by James Maguire in organizing the distillery company was indicated by its board meeting at his headquarters at Third and Noble Streets to sign the original building contract. Maguire had been elected by his colleagues as the treasurer of the new distilling company. This represented recognition by his peers that this Irish immigrant had risen to the top ranks of Philadelphia whiskey men.
It had been a long road for Maquire, born in County Cavan, Ireland, in 1833 and coming to the United States as a young man. His early years in this country have largely gone unrecorded, but a reasonable assumption is that he was working for one of the many liquor houses in Philadelphia, learning the trade. He was also having a personal life, in the late 1850s marrying Rosalie Pauline Martin, also Irish-born. They would have five children, three daughters and two sons. Among them, born in 1864, was Thomas A. Maguire, who eventually would go to work for his father in the liquor house.
James had struck out on his own in 1872, opening a store at 472 North Third Street in Philadelphia and by 1874, a second outlet at Callowhill and North Fourth Street. Eventually he expanded at the Third Street location, to encompass the store fronts on either side. An important part of Maquire’s rise in Philadelphia was his success in making Montezuma Rye Whiskey a nationally recognized brand. When he trademarked the label in 1894 he claimed that the name had been in use since 1875.
He was particularly intent on providing saloons, hotels and restaurants featuring the brand with attractive back of the bar bottles. Of particular note was an elaborate metal overlay bottle used to dispense Montezuma Rye. It stood just over eleven inches high, completely encased, as shown here, in a soft metal cage with a filigree vine and flower design. Plaques on the front contained a hammered and engraved text that read: “Celebrated Montezuma Rye Whiskey, Jas. Maquire,” and his address. Two variants are shown here.
Retail customers could buy Montezuma Rye in glass bottles, sized from quarts to flasks, or get their liquor in an attractive canteen sized metal bottle that carried a bronze plaque on each side, shown above. McGuire also featured such giveaways as shot glasses and pocket mirrors. Through the excellent color qualities of celluloid, the latter provided an effective merchandising tool when distributed among the public. Shown below, he also handed out a “good luck” token to customers, one side advertising Montezuma Rye and the other side, Belle of Nelson, a brand from a Louisville distillery.
Throughout this period, the Philadelphia Pure Rye Whiskey distillery in Bucks County continued to prosper with liquor house owner, Angelo Meyers, as its chairman, and Maquire as treasurer. The group succeeded in undercutting the Trust. Noting this success, other whiskey men banded together to open distilling operations. Similar steps were taken in New York under the leadership of Henry Naylon and in Indiana by John Beggs.
With those repeated blows, the power of the Trust ebbed. Although the cartel survived until the advent of National Prohibition, it now controlled only a fraction of the Nation’s available whiskey supplies. The Bucks County distillery, by contrast, continued to thrive, with multiple transactions recorded into 1920 when activity ceased. By that time James Maguire had died. He passed away on January 28, 1900, at 65 years of age. His rites were held at Philadelphia’s Church of the Gesu. He was buried in New Cathedral Cemetery, next to Rosalie who had preceded him two years earlier. Management of the Maguire liquor house fell to his 36-year-old son, Thomas.
Thomas, left, maintained his father’s name at the head of the firm, as shown in a 1909 letterhead, still located at the North Third Street address. He successfully managed the liquor house for the next 18 years.
Then tragedy struck the family. In October, 1918, Thomas fell victim to the deadly strain of flu virus sweeping the country, as did his 17-year-old son, Thomas A. Maguire Jr. Both were buried the same day in Section R of New Cathedral Cemetery, adjacent to the Maquire monument marking the graves of James and Rosalie.
Many U.S. whiskey men had publicly and vehemently opposed the Whiskey Trust but it likely was James Maquire and his allies, while denying any intention of doing it any harm, that struck the first important blow against the monopolist intentions of the Trust and in the process sent it into its descent into ineffectiveness.
Note: This blog contains profiles of several of the whiskey men mentioned here, Angelo Meyers, December 2, 2011; Henry Naylon, February 7, 2014, and John Beggs, October 25, 2017. Much of the information about the formation of the Philadelphia Pure Rye Whiskey Distillery is from an article in the Pittsburgh Dispatch dated September 16, 1892.