History of Carstairs Rye Whiskey – A Philadelphia Story.

Carstairs “White Seal” Blended Whiskey has become a bit of a sad, bottom shelf brand, but when people realize that it’s a whiskey with a bourbon base made by Barton 1792, maybe it will join the rest of Sazerac’s allocated bottles! It worked for Benchmark, after all! Kidding aside, the brand has deep roots- far beyond that of “White Seal.” Perhaps not as deep as the original owners would have liked the public to believe, but certainly back to the 1850s. And those deep roots are not in bourbon. The brand’s history belongs in Philadelphia and with Pennsylvania and Maryland rye whiskey.
The Carstairs became a wealthy Philadelphia family through their very respectable liquor enterprise. The patriarch of the family in America, Thomas Carstairs, arrived in Philadelphia in 1780 from County Fife, Scotland. There, among the country’s founding fathers, he made a name for himself and earned prominence, not just as an architect and businessman, but as an active member of society and politics. The family’s liquor firm claimed that their liquor empire was founded in 1788, which would have placed Thomas as its founder. One can only assume he had some association with liquor because he was given a post on Philadelphia’s Board of Health during the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1793- treatments for which would have included liquors. As a man of means in the city, he may have had business ties to a general store or liquor house, but there has been no proof found to date that would connect Thomas to any specific liquor business. Thomas’ son, James, however, was certainly involved in selling liquors near Philadelphia’s wharves. James Carstairs, Sr. launched his business around 1834, dealing mainly with shipping tradesmen. He, like his father before him, remained an important part of local politics and an active member of the medical community, serving as president of Philadelphia’s southern dispensary (The Philadelphia Dispensary for the Medical Relief of the Poor) for many years. James Carstairs last will & testament lists his shop at 522 South Delaware Avenue and all its inventory, a great deal of which was wine and liquor. It was James Carstairs, Jr., grandson to Thomas Carstairs, that would focus and invest a great deal more into Philadelphia’s bustling liquor trade.
Perhaps the 1788 date is a bit of a marketing gimmick, but the Carstairs were an old Philadelphia family, make no mistake. James Carstairs, Jr. likely used that to his advantage in a city steeped in old liquor and well-established liquor houses. He established his own storefronts at 126 Walnut Street and 21 Granite Street before the Civil War and partnered with his brother, Charles, in 1863. They took on a partnership with John C. McCall in October 1868, forming what would become Carstairs & McCall Co.

Once the US government began implementing liquor taxes to pay for the war, Philadelphia became home to many privately-owned consolidation warehouses where liquor firms could store their goods, in bond and under government supervision. These warehouses were concentrated along the riverfront where the major liquor houses kept their own warehouses, storefronts, and offices. A major fire in August 1869 consumed all nine of Colonel William C. Patterson’s privately-owned warehouses along the waterfront where many of Philadelphia’s most respected liquor men kept their stocks of whiskey. While the warehouses were advertised as being “fire-proof”, over 25,000 barrels of whiskey were lost in one night. Carstairs & McCall were among the firms that lost hundreds (several firms lost thousands) of barrels in that fire, but the company was well insured, and they were able to emerge from the tragedy relatively unscathed. James Carstairs, Sr. passed away in 1875, but his son would very capably guide the business into the future.

Granite Street location no longer exists in Philadelphia. The area was razed in 1960.

It’s important to clarify that the whiskey sold by Carstairs & McCall was not their own. For more than half a century, as the family built its empire in Philadelphia, they did so through the sale of spirits manufactured by many different manufacturers. They sold both domestic and imported liquors. One might think of them as a specialty shop for discerning consumers😊 Essentially, they were a liquor firm that sold specialized goods to customers that trusted their reputation for handling only the highest quality products. They held contracts with several distilleries that sold them bulk whiskey. That whiskey was then stored in warehouses under their own name- because once they purchased it, it was their whiskey, after all. They were known as a liquor wholesaler- similar to what many refer to as an NDP, or non-distiller producer, today. What made them (and every other pre-Pro liquor wholesaler) different was that they handled their own distribution and kept offices and warehouses in several major US cities- not just Philadelphia in Pennsylvania, but in Massachusetts, New York, Florida, and Maryland, as well. Their business was not particularly unique- their business model was similar to many other liquor firms in the United States. What set them apart was their level of success, their respect within the trade, and the half century of experience that they could boast within the industry. There was no three-tiered system or “middleman” before Prohibition, so Carstairs & McCall were able to build their own distribution network and advertise their own products to the public. They built their own brand identities, and through them, their own legacy.

By 1879, Carstairs & McCall had outgrown their Delaware Avenue address and upgraded to a larger property at 222 Front Street and 139 Dock Street. Their expansion led to the establishment of offices in both New York and Boston. James Carstairs, Jr. brought his own sons, Daniel H. and John Haseltine Carstairs, into the firm in 1886, at which point they had become the largest wholesale liquor firm in Philadelphia. James Carstairs Jr. died in 1893, and his partner, John McCall, followed him soon after in 1894, but James Jr.’s sons secured the future of the firm by purchasing the Robert Stewart Distilling Company in Highlandtown, Maryland in 1897. During this time, the Whiskey Trust had been making it difficult for old firms like Carstairs to secure the whiskey they had come to rely on from their trusted sources. The trust was buying up so many of America’s whiskey manufacturers that owning a distillery had become a necessity for any firm not wanting to fall prey to the whims and pricing schemes of the trust. Stewart Distilling Co. had been supplying whiskey to many other firms, perhaps most notably H.B.Kirk & Co. in New York, with rye whiskey for their private bottlings (Old Crow Rye, for instance, was likely sourced from this distillery). James Carstairs Jr.’s purchase of the Stewart Distillery would now put Carstairs & McCall Co. in control of its own output and keep them flush with whiskey from at least one of their trusted suppliers. Carstairs of Philadelphia’s core brand would now become Stewart Pure Rye Whiskey, a Maryland-produced rye whiskey. Production at the plant in the early 1900s was approximately 15,000 barrels per year. This business move was a smart one, and by September 1904, the company’s growth saw them upgrading their office headquarters again, this time to 254-256 South Third Street. By 1908, the firm employed nearly 100 employees at its Philadelphia, Boston, New York, and Maryland locations.

Stewart Distillery in Highlandtown, MD


The years leading up to Prohibition seemed encouraging. Carstairs & McCall Co. and Carstairs Bros. merged to become the Stewart Distilling Company in 1909. The name Carstairs & McCall was dropped, but Carstairs Rye Whiskey remained their top selling brand. It was widely advertised as being a unique, proprietary blend of well-aged, pure rye whiskeys. The bottles were hyped as being individually numbered by the distillery’s bottling house, and by 1914, sealed and protected from adulteration in non-refillable bottles.

It was a high-end product, served in all the major city’s finest clubs. One of their mottos for their non-refillable bottle was “A good bottle to keep good whiskey good.” Maybe not the most inspired tag line, but it got the point across. As the First World War began and the need for supplies and ammunition to be exported to Europe was increasing, the Stewart Distilling Company saw an opportunity. In 1915, the Carstairs brothers purchased 20 acres along the Delaware River front. The property had been home to a war munitions plant. Their plan was to expand capacity and employ 400-500 men in the production of industrial alcohol and powder munitions for export. By 1919, however, the Philadelphia-based company was filing for dissolution. The impact of the war and the closure of all US distilleries put the Carstairs at a huge disadvantage. J.H. Carstairs secured his distilling plant in Highlandtown, Maryland by purchasing it outright. He had a mind to maintain it as a concentration warehouse for the government but was unable to secure the permits to do so. He would bide his time instead.


The Stewart Distilling Company was often in the news during Prohibition. Whether it was thieves siphoning off whiskey from the warehouses, lawsuits over forged warehouse receipts, or illegal shipments of Stewart Whiskey to famous restaurants in Philadelphia (Bookbinders was a biggie), the name “Stewarts Rye” still commanded value within the industry. The company changed hands several times during the early 1920s; In 1922, Arthur H. Benhoff served as president of the company, but he resigned the following year after losing a large quantity of whiskey during a theft. His position was taken up by Robert R. Pennington, an IRS agent out of Havre De Grace, Maryland. Pennington was able to sue the Board of Internal Revenue in 1923 and won the right to export 750 barrels of Stewarts whiskey to England to be used for pharmaceutical purposes. The Prohibition Commission was not only forcing distillery owners to ship all their products to specific concentration warehouse sites, they were making it impossible for liquor men to dispose of their valuable whiskey stocks.
It must have been frustrating for the remaining Carstairs brothers to watch their family’s legacy become little more than a topic of gossip for newspaper articles about legal trials or bootlegging. J.H. Carstairs may have owned the distillery property in Maryland, but there was little he could do with it. He sold the property in 1925 and it was dismantled by its new owners. When Repeal approached, they would seek to reestablish their respectability in Philadelphia. John Haseltine and Daniel Haddock Carstairs brought Carstairs Brothers Distilling Company back to Philadelphia, but only after fighting several upstart companies that were attempting to use their name and the Stewart name to piggyback on the success of the old brands. At 70 and 71 years old, the two brothers began to sell blended straight rye whiskeys in Philadelphia, Boston, and Baltimore once again- not as Stewart Rye Whiskey as they did before Prohibition, but as Carstairs Rye Whiskey. Their name still carried a great deal of weight in Philadelphia. Their ambition was cut short, however, by their deaths- one after the other. David H. Carstairs died in January 1934 and his brother, J. Haseltine Carstairs, followed him in December 1934. Their younger brother, James Carstairs III was left to carry on the company.
James Carstairs III was only able to carry on his brothers’ newly revived company for the next few years before being bought out by Seagram’s in August 1937. He would stay with the company and be used, like so many other men with famous names within the whiskey industry, to add credence and respectability to his family’s brand. It’s curious to watch the Carstairs rye whiskey brand slowly devolve over the next several years. A big deal was made of the fact that Carstairs whiskey was the product of the oldest liquor firm in Philadelphia and that the company’s founder was Thomas Carstairs- much more so than the family ever had before Prohibition. They even put ads in the newspaper in 1938 asking the public to help the company prove its historic connection to that “founded in 1788” claim.
Beneath a small, etched print of a painting of Thomas Carstairs by Rembrandt Peale, the ads read: “Cash Payments will be made to locate old liquor bottles, Labels and Documents pertaining to Thomas Carstairs.” It seems the “founded in 1788” claim by the brand owners was highly prized and they wanted more substantial proof to build an exhibit in his honor. While I don’t doubt that James Carstairs III valued his family’s history and the integrity of his family’s brand, it seems that Seagram’s was not as keen. It took only 2 more years for the company to turn what they claimed to be a 152-year-old brand into a cheap whiskey blended with 72% neutral grain spirits. Carstairs White Seal Blended Whiskey was introduced in 1940 and the brand would never be the same. Nor would it ever regain its respectability. It’s almost too appropriate that they chose a seal balancing a ball on its nose to represent the new blend because they took a majestic, well-adapted, valuable brand and turn it into a circus act. A proud, respected brand born out of one of the oldest whiskey producing cities in the nation was laid low to extract every last dime that could be squeezed out of it. Way to go, Seagram’s!
1939 ad. The Man Who Cares campaign was launched while the brad was still a blend of straight whiskeys.
Of course, the story of Carstairs rye whiskey is not alone. It was only one of many highly respected brands to find itself relegated to the bottom shelf. It’s hard to know why these esteemed brands were allowed to devolve the way they were. They certainly made a lot of money for their parent companies. The name recognition of a resurrected brand could almost magically conjure consumer demand. Seagram’s did quite well with Carstairs White Seal! The largest distilling companies were testing consumers to see just how much they could get away with…and it turned out that it was quite a lot! Sometimes I think people drank cheap, blended whiskey as long as they did because they were left with too few alternatives. It was a far cry from what people were used to before Prohibition, but who could remember what it used to taste like anyway? Ad campaigns that included members of the original distilling family couldn’t have been doing things that differently, after all! Right? The thing is, you can only fool the public for so long before they catch on to the grift.
Consumers that no longer recognized the product moved on and others that didn’t care simply liked the idea of drinking from a bottle with a famous name. “Old brands” like Carstairs became pawns on the bottom shelf at the liquor store where they fulfilled their purpose to their parent company. Their recognizable names sold units and provided an outlet for less desirable whiskey stocks. Seagram’s sold the Carstairs brand to Sazerac in 1989 in a package deal. It was among 17 of what Seagram’s deemed to be “non-core” distilled spirits brands that were sold off to several distilling companies in Kentucky that year. It is now manufactured at Barton 1792 and continues to remain a bottom shelf brand. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with bottom shelf brands. It would just be nice to see fewer of those bottom shelf brands carry such historically significant names. That is unlikely to happen, of course, but at least we can set the history straight😊
1934 Copycat company that the Carstairs were forced to sue for cease and desist on using their company’s name.