A Spirited Quest: On The Trail Of Philadelphia’s Distilleries

 

Philadelphia is married to beer, but in the last few years a new seductive mistress has come back to tempt us: spirits. In 2005, the Philadelphia Distilling Company, in Byberry, became the first new craft distillery to open in Pennsylvania since Prohibition. Their flagship product, Blue Coat Gin, has become a stalwart of liquor shelves throughout Philadelphia to the West Coast and, I’m told, even China. I have a bottle of their Barrel Reserve on my personal liquor shelf.

The truly impressive La Colombe distillery, bakery, and café opened last year on Frankford Avenue. With coffee or beer or wine in hand, you can stare through plate glass windows at the rum distillery that resembles an 18th century alchemy lab. It’s not just for show. The rum is distilled with coffee beans. It possesses a unique refreshing taste.

In South Philly, a small company, Pollyodd, operating out of a nondescript storefront in Passyunk Square, has reinvented the old Italian stalwart limoncello.

But no other spirit distilling operation in Philly intrigues more than Jacquin. The company’s cordials are a ubiquitous brand throughout the world–I’ve seen them for sale in clandestine Indian liquor shops where the higher caste members flout the religious ban on spirits. But few Philadelphians realize they’re still produced on Trenton Avenue in Kensington. The operation sprawls across several blocks from Huntington Street to Lehigh Avenue, projecting a nostalgic 19th century image of manufacturing in Kensington. During warm weather, Jacquin’s employees sit outside the factory on their lunch breaks, eating sandwiches and snacks they packed at home and talking to the neighbors who they seem to know on an intimate basis.

A cordial greeting at Charles Jacquin et Cie. Inc. The company was founded in 1884 and is America's oldest liqueur producer. | Photo: Michael Bixler

A cordial greeting at Charles Jacquin et Cie. Inc. The company was founded in 1884 and is America’s oldest liqueur producer. | Photo: Michael Bixler

150 years old, Jacquin does not have a company website. I learned this a few years ago after a fulfilling a desire to learn more about the liquor manufacturer by embarking on a strange and not very helpful Google search, which led me to one of the oddest Facebook pages I have ever seen. Clearly, if I wanted to learn more I needed to walk down to the factory.

The main office door to Charles Jacquin et Cie. Inc. is a bit hard to find, but after some searching through the labyrinth of small alleyways that run below the catwalks that connect the buildings, I found an entrance that said “office” in small type. Through the door was a high school trophy case of Jacquin’s classics: “Orange Flavored Gin,” “Ginger Flavored Brandy,” and, of course, “Rock and Rye.”

A woman, about 60, sat at a desk behind a piece of Plexiglas. Through the communication hole, she asked me if I needed help. I told her that I was looking for the marketing department. She asked me why I needed the marketing department and I identified myself as a journalist. She was intrigued by the journalist part and began telling me about her son who is a writer. “Well, actually, he could be a writer if he got off the couch,” she sighed.

| Photo: Michael Bixler

The road to Rock & Rye. The Jacquin’s facility  in Kensington includes 2 buildings for manufacturing and on large warehouse for storage. All are interconnected. | Photo: Michael Bixler

Before I could hear anymore, another woman, about 40, entered the lobby and asked if I was Nic Esposito. I was a bit taken aback that she should know that, but she quickly explained, “Yeah, I recognized your voice from the voicemail.” (I had, in fact, called, hoping to interview someone at the distillery.) She implored me to come with her and took me back to her office. Once safely back there, she first informed me not to talk to the receptionist. The woman then lamented that I would not be getting an interview with the company owner, Norton “Sky” Cooper. Before prohibition, Jacquin had been the leader in industrially produced cordials in Philadelphia. Just after the U.S. Congress put an end to prohibition, the Cooper family purchased the shuttered Charles Jacquin et Cie factory.

Mr. Cooper, an octogenarian, still enjoyed the life of a cordial mogul. He was traveling. But anyway, he avoided any press, fearing that undue attention would attract the interest of enterprising Kensington crooks who would try and loot the factory. (Since I couldn’t even find the front door, this fear seemed unfounded.) But alas, I was sent on my way without an interview. However, after hearing me cough and sniffle due to the cold I was fighting, the marketing manager said, “You should pick up a bottle of the Rock and Rye. That’ll get rid of that cold.” I complimented her on her marketing technique.

As I walked past the reception desk, the older woman started talking about her son again. I moved on.

Cure All

1821 exterior image of Dr. T. W. Dyott’s office in Fishtown/Kensington neighborhood. Advertisement reads: “Approved Family Medicines, which are celebrated for the cure of most diseases which the human body is liable: prepared only by the sole proprietor, T. W. Dyott, M. D. Grandson of the late celebrated Dr. Robertson of Edinburgh – Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Advertisement from 1821 featuring Dr. T. W. Dyott’s office in Kensington. | Source: Historical Society of Pennsylvania

In 1807, the “Father of American Surgery,” Philadelphia socialite Dr. Phillip Syng Physick, introduced carbonated water to his patients for the relief of “gastric disorders.” While teaching a young pharmacist how to carbonate water years later, he advised to add fruit juice to make it more appealing to patients. Dr. Physick’s soda pop is now bottled by the Philadelphia Brewing Company, in Kensington. A few decades after Dr. Physick’s invention, Thomas Dyott arrived in Philadelphia touting tonics and elixirs that could cure everything from asthma to cholera.

Dyott told unwitting patients that he was a doctor, but this claim was false. After emigrating from England as a poor man, and dabbling as a boot black, Dyott brazenly added “M.D.” to his name and began marketing elixirs and tonics to middle class Philadelphians desperate for good health. So they snatched up his “Vegetable Nervous Cordial,” “Infallible Toothache Drops,” and “Stomachic Bitters.” He opened a drugstore at Second and Race Streets to sell his variety of miracle remedies, the germ of a national marketed medicine business that held the lead for patents in the industry.

While the popularity of these tonics and elixirs made Dyott a success, his financial aspirations went unmet as long as he depended on others to supply him with glass bottles. This he remedied in the 1830s by purchasing the Kensington Glass Works; he traded the life of a medicine man for that of a glass manufacturer.

Dyott went on to form an empire–Dyottville–that provided healthcare, housing, recreation, religious buildings, and even a farm for his 400 workers. The empire crashed with the economy. His self-financed Manual Labor Bank, which printed its own money, was destroyed in the panic of 1837. Dyott was ruined. At trial, some 70 witnesses accused him of fraud and

H. G. Leisenring & Co., Patent Medicines advertisement, 1875 | Source: Philadelphia City Directory 1875

H. G. Leisenring & Co. advertisement, 1875 | Source: Philadelphia City Directory 1875

the judge sent him to Eastern State Penitentiary. Eventually, his factory was buried under the rubble of Philadelphia, only finally being discovered in 2012 by archeologists before work began on Interstate 95.

About 40 years later, in 1875, Harry G. Leisering came to Philadelphia with his own brand of “Bitter Cordials” that he advertised to relieve chronic cases of dyspepsia, diarrhea, chills and fever. He also claimed the cordials would refresh the body and cure all diseases of the stomach, bowels, liver and kidneys. Leisering may have had a fortune waiting for him in Philadelphia, but before he could sway curious Philadelphians to buy his product, Mr. Leisering was reported to have met financial ruin when his exhibit of wax figures representing the signers of the Declaration of Independence failed miserably at the 1876 Centennial International Exposition in Fairmount Park.

The privileges afforded by industrialism continued to provoke middle class Philadelphians to seek health remedies for maladies, some of them certainly caused by industrial pollution, but the dire conditions of World War I, as well as Prohibition following war’s end, nipped this nascent industry at the root.

Jacquin Redux

The Cooper family has owned and operated Jacquin’s since the end of Prohibition. | Photo: Michael Bixler

But more questions on the operation lingered. So I took another trip down to Jacquin’s this past week to get some photographs of the facility with Hidden City co-editor Michael Bixler. Stanton Remer, the company’s chief financial officer, instantly greeted us at the door. We explained that we were doing an article partly about the factory and he matter-of-factly told us that we would not be able to take pictures of inside the plant, but only the exterior–for legal purposes.

After Bixler agreed to safely store his camera in his bag so as not to be tempted, Remer took us through the entire facility, showing us bottling assembly lines, laboratories where they test the liquor, warehouses where the store the boxes of booze and making sure to point out which street—Tucker or Oakdale—we were walking over when we went through one of the catwalks.

Inside the factory–at last–the curtain was mostly pulled back. Working the assembly lines were the lifetime employees that I expected to see. However, mixed in were young people with tattoos and septum piercings. Lab technicians had fresh chemistry degrees from local universities. The air was saturated with scents of flowers and fruit. Inside, then, this didn’t feel like a 19th century factory. It actually looked like a pretty nice place to work. I guess that’s something to be expected from a place that markets a product that can cure the common cold.

As I later read in Saveur, it was the marketing of products like Rock and Rye as medicine that got enterprises like Jacquin through prohibition. So the woman’s advice had at least some basis in popular culture. But why the intrigue surrounding Norton “Sky” Cooper? Our tour guide wouldn’t say.

| Photo: Michael Bixler

Four 25,000 gallon capacity tanks used for manufacturing Jacquin’s cordials rise above East Tucker Street. | Photo: Michael Bixler

After taking over operations of Jacquin’s from his father, Sky Cooper made his fortune introducing Chambord to American consumers and selling the brand to Brown-Forman for close to $250 million. According to the Wall Street Journal, the business has spread to a third generation of Coopers. Sky’s sons, John and Robert, each have made their mark in the liquor business. Although Sky Cooper apparently chided Robert for toiling with those “flowers,” Robert perfected an elderflower liqueur recipe, producing the now best selling St. Germain. Taking a cue from his father, who unsuccessfully marketed Chinese “Canton” (a ginger infused liquor) in the 1990s, John Cooper launched award winning Domaine de Canton in 2007.

Not Dyott, Pollyodd

“I don’t know why people are attracted to making cordials,” said Joan Veratti, the owner of Pollyodd Fine Liqueurs in Passyunk Square. “But I can tell you why people like my cordials. It’s because they have no preservatives, no additives, and are all natural.”

Veratti, a tried and true South Philadelphian with a dream, explained that there are only about four limoncello brands on the market in the U.S., and all are derived from traditional Italian recipes. But Veratti has introduced 10 different flavors of “Cellos,” among them chocolate, strawberry, orange, and banana. She also told me she will start making “Cello” sno-cones, which she describes as “dynamite,” as well as moving into the cocktail market.

Veratti

Made in South Philly. Joan Veratti produces her Pollyodd liqueur line at 25th and Morris Streets and sells it in her shop near Mifflin Street and Passyunk Avenue.

Veratti got into the business after losing her son in the mid-90s. She views her production as the fulfillment of a mission: like Dyott’s vision of giving back to his employees, she plans to spend a portion of her proceeds on providing for underprivileged children. Although this plan has not been hashed out beyond the informal, South Philly style of saying, “Hey you need this. I can help you with that,” Verrati’s intent is still strong.

Veratti is also a trailblazer like Cooper, Dyott, and even Physick. She is the first female owner in Pennsylvania to have a non-Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board retail store, which is a historic first for the industry and a feat for anyone who has ever dealt with the PLCB. And like her Philadelphia cordial producing predecessors that marketed such products as “Rock and Rye” or “Vegetable Nervous Cordial,” her company has its own lore. When asked where the name came from, she explains, “It came from my boyfriend’s dad. Whenever he would be on the stoop looking tired and hungover, he’d tell my boyfriend, ‘Oh, I got Pollyodd last night,’ which is South Philly Italian slang for getting whacked, either in the head or from being drunk.”

But it’s not just all about getting “whacked.” She explains, “On the front of the bottle, it says in Italian, ‘As always, from my hands to your heart.’ I try to make it all from the heart.”

About the author

Nic Esposito is an urban farmer, novelist and founder of The Head and the Hand Press. He lives on his urban homestead in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. Nic's new book Kensington Homestead was released by The Head & The Hand Press in November 2014.

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2 Comments


  1. So here’s something I totally forgot to add to the article (sorry dear editors). While on the tour, Stanton Remer asked Bixler and I, with a mischievous grin, “How do you think the grain alcohol gets to the factory?” We both gave pretty generic and lame answers because neither of us had any clue. Remer pointed to the train tracks across Lehigh Avenue and explained that back in the day, Jacquin’s had a special pipe installed on the side of the tracks that then runs underneath Lehigh Avenue and then ends right inside the factory. To this day, a train pulls up, hooks up it’s tank to the pipe, and then sends the grain alcohol to a spout waiting within the factory to fill up the vats that in time will become a delicious cordial. This was by far one of the coolest things we discovered that day and why it’s pretty awesome to do these articles and go on cool tours of these city spaces.

  2. a philadelphia institution….i love the cobble stone streets and sidwalks down there…support the local companies!

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