Recently retired pharmaceutical company executive John George felt like it was too late to get in on the craft beer boom, but is hoping to cash in on hand-made spirits. He’s the driving force behind Five Saints Distilling that just opened in Norristown.
On the day I met him, the trained pharmacist was overseeing a batch of triple-distilled vodka, the first alcohol produced at the location inside what used to be the Humane Fire Engine Company building. (While Norristown has paid firefighters, it still has some firehouses staffed by volunteers. Humane shuttered in 2013, for lack of volunteers.)
When George was scouting for a location Norristown was not his first choice. “The municipality of Norristown really made us feel wanted,” he said, “and we didn’t feel that in a lot of other places. They were like — they went out of their way to make us feel wanted.”
George credits Jane Musonye, the Planning Director for Norristown with helping Five Saints find its home. She said it has taken some time, but new businesses are finally moving into the area. In 2015, two dozen new businesses were started in Norristown. Musonye said all but one are still open. This year the municipality has already welcomed 28 new businesses.
Musonye knows Norristown is competing for consumer dollars with bustling, nearby areas like the King of Prussia, Plymouth Meeting and Conshohocken. She said by offering consumers something unique like Five Saints Distilling people will have a reason to try Norristown.
“We want to see more restaurants,” she said. “We want to see more boutiqueish type of stores. We want to have type of commerce that will draw people in.”
George hopes the Five Saints’ décor will draw in people. When he purchased the building, the fire company agreed to donate memorabilia and artifacts from the firehouse’s more that 150-year history on the condition the items be displayed for the public. So, when the fire trucks pulled out, the Norristown Fire Department left behind pictures, dress uniforms, ceremonial helmets, parade bugles and a fire pole standing about 20 feet. They’re all on display as museum pieces inside the distillery.
Norristown Fire Chief Tom O’Donnell said it was difficult to say good-bye to the Humane Fire House, but he is happy the building will get put to use. “It’s sad to see any volunteer organization that has been in this community for over 150 years to have to close its doors because of lack of membership, but the other important issue is that it, that closure resulted in an economic opportunity for the community,” he said.
Recently, George learned about distilling in Kentucky at a school billing itself as Moonshine University. So far the distillery is a very small operation, just a few people. He named it Five Saints to honor five family members who have had the biggest impact on his life.
Located on the corner of Main Street and Green Street in Norristown, the distillery has begun pouring its first drinks for the public.