Sunday, April 15, 2012
With a Name Like Guckenheimer the Whiskey Had to Be Good
Where Asher Guckenheimer learned about making good whiskey is not clear, but he and his extended family made the Guckenheimer brand tops in America, winning 99 out of a possible 100 points for quality at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and a gold medal. The Guckenheimer name was on every bottle
He was born Asher Guggenheimer in 1825, in the town of Adingen, Wuttemberg, Germany. The date of his emigration to the United States and arrival in Pittsburgh is unclear but once here he and future generations changed their name to Guckenheimer. After his father’s death his mother married again, a man named Wertheimer.
After receiving some early experience in the U.S. whiskey trade, in 1857 Asher with his half-brother, Samuel Wertheimer, established his own company, calling it, A. Guckenheimer & Bro. They obtained their liquor from Thomas Bell, who in 1845 had founded a distillery at Freeport, Pennsylvania, and whose product was highly regarded. Guckenheimer absorbed the entire output and after Bell’s death in 1865, with Wertheimer, he bought the distillery, enlarged it, and improved even on Bell’s quality. The distillery produced 2,000 barrels a year.
Asher also enjoyed family life. About 1857 he married Caroline "Ida" Weiss, apparently in Pittsburgh. Their first child, a girl Emma, was born in 1858. She was the first of nine children, the last two of whom were born 20 years later in 1878. At least two Guckenheimer children died before maturity.
In 1866, as the demand for Guckenheimer Rye was outpacing the supply, Asher constructed a new and much larger facility at Freeport, shown here in an illustration. According to a contemporary history, the facilities included a three-story brick distillery building, a grain house able to hold 30,000 bushels, a 150-ton capacity ice house, a three story brick malt house capable of malting 100 bushels per day, a 50-barrel per day cooper shop and a three-story bonded warehouse with the capacity to hold 8,000 barrels. Some 25 workers were employed at the facility which usually operated at less than full capacity, customarily producing twenty-two 42-gallon barrels a day.
As the Freeport facility was gearing up, Guckenheimer purchased a second distillery in Upper Sandusky, Ohio, to make a brand of whiskey called “Wyandotte,.” The distance from Pittsburgh prevented the brothers from giving it the attention it needed, so they soon sold it. They then turned to opportunities closer by and in 1876 bought a distillery that had been established earlier in Buffalo Township, Butler County, Pennsylvania. Shown here in an engineer drawing, it operated under the name of the Pennsylvania Distilling Company and made the firm’s “Montrose” brand. The Guckenheimer offices were located on First Avenue in Pittsburgh.
Asher sold his whiskey in bottles ranging from quart to flask size. Shown here are three of the latter, demonstrating the variety of well-designed labels the company employed. Guckenheimer even reached out to the Fulper Company of Flemington New Jersey for one of their “fancy jugs” with his name in gothic gold letters across the front. The company also made and merchandised other brands including “Fairy Breath,” “Freeport,” “Golden Cupid Rye,” and “Pennbrook.”
Guckenheimer’s Rye became one of America’s most famous whiskeys and in 1893 won top honors at the World’s Colombian Exposition in Chicago, scoring 99 points out of 100 in the whiskey judging. As shown here, the firm took full advantage of the honor in its subsequent advertising and in reverse glass signs provided to customer saloons.
That same year, 1893, Asher Guckenheimer died, age 67, much mourned in the community. Always a family affair, company management fell to his son, Isaac, and his two half-nephews, Emanuel and Isaac Wertheimer. In July 1899 the Buffalo Township distillery burned to the ground but was rebuilt and by1900 was back in operation producing 50 barrels of whiskey daily. In 1905 the company consisted of Isaac Guckenheimer, the Wertheimers, Samuel’s son, Morris, and Isaac’s son, Leon -- a third generation. The Freeport Distillery was producing 20,000 barrels of rye a year and the Buffalo Twp. facility about 12,000 barrels of Montrose whiskey annually. The company continued to be successful until shut down by Prohibition in 1919. In deference to Asher Guckenheimer, the business continued to be run under his name until the very end.
In the post-Prohibition era, the Guckenheimer brand name was sold several times, eventually becoming a commercial-grade bourbon. Asher, whose product emphasis had been high quality, probably would not have been happy. But he continues to be a presence with a huge stain-glass window dedicated to his memory in a major Pittsburgh synagogue. Shown here in a detail, the Guckenheimer window depicts Moses in prayer.
Note: Much of the material for this article is derived from the pre-pro.com website where the originator, Robin Preston, has provided a digest version of a 1908 article published by the Pittsburgh Gazette-Times.