Philadelphia

Who is Publicker? (Fortune, 1933)

June 24, 2012: 9:30 AM ET

An idea from the Old South -- and a threat.

FORTUNE -- The gentlemen of the wood-pulp fiction business are very fond of writing stories based upon the thesis that a comet is headed for the earth. It is the most impossible of impossible premises; grant it, and anything can happen. Just now some people in Philadelphia are saying that a comet is headed for the whiskey business and the gentlemen of the whiskey business are very loudly pooh-poohing it.

On the corner of Snyder Avenue and Swanson Street, far down in the South Philadelphia river-front district, is one of the two plants of the Publicker Commercial Alcohol Co. For the past few weeks it has been distilling whiskey as fast as it could, promises soon to be operating at capacity -- 90,000 gallons a day, just a little less than the capacity of Hiram Walker's Peoria plant. "But," objects the whiskey man, "what is that to me? Everybody knows that whiskey is not fit to drink until it has been aged."

A moment's patience, sir. Every gentleman of the Old South knows that if you put a keg of moonshine in the river it will age faster. Reason: agitation. That if you put it near the stove it will age faster. Reason: heat. Impatient young gentlemen of the Old South have long been accustomed to treat their whiskey with electric needles and other instruments with similar properties and bawdy names. Publicker's chemist, Dr. Carl Haner, has a laboratory where he has devised a method of curing whiskey. Not only does Publicker claim it can make seventeen-year-old whiskey in twenty-four hours, but it is bottling it today. Now what do you think of that?

"But the Great White Father down in Washington won't let Publicker dupe the people like that." Of course he won't. And Publicker isn't going to try. Publicker is going to sell its artificially aged whiskey for just what it is and it expects the people to take it and like it.

"Oh, come, come. The people have been educated. They won't buy the stuff." The answer to that is that Publicker says it will spend exactly $2,000,000 trying to reeducate the people. It is going to put out scary advertisements reading something like this: "Don't fill your stomach from a misty old keg," advertisements contrasting the purity of artificially aged whiskey with the admitted impurity of liquor which has absorbed tannic and other acids from oak. It is going to ignore the old brand names you whiskey men have been fighting for and make up new names for its whiskey: It is going to escape the greatest expense of the whiskey business -- storage -- and sell whiskey cheaper than yours. And one day the President of the Publicker Commercial Alcohol Co. is going to walk into the White House, if Mr. Roosevelt can spare the time, and bow and say: "Mr. President, sir, there is no whiskey shortage." And so, little man, what now?

MORE: A whiskey primer (Fortune, 1933)

Mr. Harry Publicker ought to know about barreled whiskey because he used to make his living steaming old whiskey barrels and extracting from them the gallon or two of whiskey soaked in the charred wood. This he sold and when the government tried to prosecute him for not paying a revenue tax, he became highly indignant. Obviously the tax had been paid -- by the man who let the whiskey soak into the barrel. Anyway, that is how Mr. Publicker passed from the barrel business to the alcohol business. His brother had founded the David Berg Industrial Alcohol Co. down in Delaware Avenue in 1911 (it is now a unit of American Commercial Alcohol Corp. Who was David Berg? One forgets.) and was making money out of the War. So in 1913 Harry Publicker started his own company up the street and he too made money. In the early 1920s, Publicker was making six million gallons of alcohol a year and Harry Publicker had a son-in-law named Simon ("Si") Neuman. Pretty soon, vigorous Si Neuman was President of Publicker and Harry was taking it easy as Board Chairman. And the company had increased its capacity to 60 million gallons a year. Last year it made 12 million, but that was 17 per cent of the allotment to the industry, second only to V.S.I. Alcohol's 34 per cent. And it has the world's biggest blacks trap molasses alcohol plant. And it made big money.

When repeal started this way, Si Neuman got busy. So did his Dr. Haner. When Dr. Haner told him he could age whiskey artificially overnight, President Si set aside $2,000,000 to remodel his smaller, grain-alcohol plant. That is the one that will soon be able to make 90,000 gallons of whiskey a day. In the molasses alcohol plant, Publicker began making rum last month. It could have the U.S. soaked in rum within six months. As for gin, Publicker makes plenty.

At the end of August, Publicker formed its gin-rum-whiskey subsidiary, Continental Distilling Corp., and found a President in Dr. Lewis H. Marks, late head of the Industrial Alcohol Institute. Bankers turned a bevy of accountants loose on its books and pretty soon Wall Street may be hearing about it.

Messrs. Neuman and Publicker and Haner and Marks think they have got something there, and Distillers and Schenley and Walker say "Shucks." Nobody knows whether the public is going to swallow artificially aged whiskey, bottle and all, or whether it will be drunk only by cabbies and cooks. Nobody, in fact, knows anything at all about it, except that it hasn't killed Dr. Haner yet. But the Publicker people expect to spend their $2,000,000 in six short months of bombshell advertising and by the end of that time they ought to know. Maybe Mr. Neuman's whiskey will revolutionize the industry. Or maybe Si Neuman is crazy.

Return to Whiskey and America: A post-prohibition reunion (Fortune, 1933)

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