Remember when: The Schenley Distilling Company ruled Gilpin for many years

A world-renowned brand of whiskey was once distilled in the Alle-Kiski Valley.

The Schenley Distilling Company was founded in 1888 in the small Gilpin community of the same name.

The facility was near the confluence of the Allegheny and Kiski rivers.

Post Prohibition, Schenley Distilling was one of the largest producers of whiskeys and related spirits, employing more than 2,000 people.

The company was founded by Henry Bischoff and his brother-in-law, Frank Maurice Sinclaire.

A chemist, Sinclaire held patents on charcoal rectifiers used in the manufacture of spirits. He found that water from an aquifer beneath the neighborhood was ideal for distillation.

It also helped that the proximity to high-quality grain and the railroad running along the rivers could get the produce to market.

The Schenley section of Gilpin takes its name from Mary Schenley, heiress to considerable tracts of land in western Pennsylvania. It was inherited from her father, Col. William Croughan Jr. Other places named after Schenley include Schenley Park in Pittsburgh and the former Schenley High School.

From its beginnings with five 10,000 barrel capacity camps, the company grew rapidly. Schenley was soon processing 200 bushels of grain a day.

The company prospered until 1919, when the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution was passed. Commonly known as the Prohibition Act, it prohibits the sale and manufacture of alcoholic beverages.

At this point, bottling of Schenley products was “for medical use only”.

In 1924 the company was sold to Joseph Finch & Co. The new distiller bought Finch’s rectifier from Pittsburgh’s South Side and moved it to Schenley.

After Prohibition was lifted in 1933, the distillery prospered. The company had 67 buildings on 60 acres and a company-owned 265-acre farm.

The arrangement of the buildings was designed for the correct material flow. One building was dedicated to employees and housed an auditorium and bowling alley.

Another building was the Schenley Club. Visitors from out of town stayed there and had a panoramic view of the Allegheny River and surrounding rolling hills.

From 1933 to 1937 Schenley – more precisely the Joseph Finch Co. – was considered the largest distiller in the country. The company also ranked as the largest taxpayer in western Pennsylvania, with all the additional taxes and fees the industry was saddled with.

But after the US entered World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Schenley turned his attention to making war alcohol. The alcohol was vital to the manufacture of synthetic rubber, explosives, and other war-related materials.

It was believed that Nazi infiltrators would confiscate alcohol from the distillery. To prevent this, three or four artillery pieces were stationed by the Army across the Allegheny River near the Dock Hollow neighborhood of South Buffalo Township.

After the war, the Schenley brand name expanded to include blends of whiskeys such as bourbons, Canadians and Scotches, as well as gins, brandy, vodka, tequila and rum.

In 1968 the Glen Alden Corp. acquired Joseph Finch’s shares and relocated its headquarters to four floors of the Empire State Building in New York City.

By 1974 there were still 400 employees at Schenley with an annual salary of $4 million.

In 1981, however, the distillery became a unit of Rapid-American Corp. and the workforce shrank to 140.

Finally, on November 11, 1983, the last bottle of whiskey in the historic facility was sealed.

George Guido is a Tribune Review writer.

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