When Robert Cassell first popped onto the spirit scene in 2006 as the master behind Bluecoat gin and Philadelphia Distilling, his company was a pioneer in a Pennsylvania craft distilling movement, that, at the time, numbered just one.
Eight years later, after a split with his founding partners, Cassell, 35, is starting anew in a big way, launching an innovative line of stills, chairing the newly formed Pennsylvania Distillers Guild, and firing up a new whiskey distillery in the Olde Kensington section of North Philadelphia. But when New Liberty Distillery comes on line in August in a historic stable in the Crane Arts complex off North American Street, his new still will hardly be alone.
From a nascent Distillers Row with three newcomers set to debut by September around Kensington, to downtown Camden and suburban industrial parks as far off as Pottstown and Pipersville, liquor entrepreneurs are breathing new life into spirits production across the region.
Pennsylvania, home to 1,200 distilleries before Prohibition, is finally in the midst of a long-awaited booze renaissance.
There are now 21 licensed small distilleries in the Commonwealth, with pending applications for 10 more, according to the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board.
"A year from now, there will be at least half a dozen more in Southeastern Pennsylvania," says Cassell, who has had inquiries from prospective buyers of his versatile custom stills.
A handful of Pennsylvania stalwarts (in addition to Philadelphia Distilling) have been at it for a few years, including the Dad's Hat rye distillery in Bristol and two in the Pittsburgh area: whiskey-centric Wigle, and Boyd & Blair vodka.
But the quickening pace of new local spirits, from coffee-"cavitated" rum to malt whiskey aged with charred ancient hickory staves, has largely resulted from the creation of a "limited distillery license" in 2011 that made craft distilling both accessible and sustainable for small businesses. The significant first crop sparked by that state legislation is finally coming to fruition, at least five new distilleries in the region alone. And the movement has smoothly risen, like sweet vapors through a still, on multiple currents of the zeitgeist - riding the wake of the craft beer movement to tap locavore love for artisanal products, cocktail mania, and destination production facilities with the potential to drive tourism, amped by food-truck events and even reality TV.
At least two new distillers have turned to their TV careers to document the pursuit of their liquor dreams - La Colombe's Todd Carmichael has appeared on the Travel Channel with Dangerous Grounds; four episodes have been filmed for a series on Sean Tracy of Hewn Spirits called Barn Hunters, being shopped to HGTV or DIY for fall.
"You can't buy advertising like that," says Tracy, a former Alaskan bush pilot and Navy diver whose more recent career has been as a builder converting old barns into homes.
"My passion for old wooden things collided with a newfound love of whiskey, and Hewn was born," said Tracy, who opened his distillery with a homemade still in a Pipersville industrial park beside the Bucks County Brewery in April.
The local growth echoes a major national trend, which has seen craft distillers grow nationwide from 68 in 2003 to 704 today, says Bill Owens, founder of the American Distilling Institute trade group. He projects 30 percent more growth this year.
Like many new distilleries across the nation, deep ties to the robust craft beer movement are obvious, as virtually every whiskey maker began their fermentation education as a brewer, from Cassell (formerly of Harpoon and Victory) to Max Pfeffer, 30, a Victory and Sly Fox alum who's a partner and distiller at the Manatawny Still Works, located in a Pottstown industrial park just across the street from Sly Fox, whose owner, John Giannopoulos, is also a partner in the Still Works. The distillery is independent, but able to piggyback on some of the brewery's infrastructure for storage of ingredients, such as malted barley.
In the case of tiny Rowhouse Spirits off Frankford Avenue in Kensington, the Philadelphia Brewing Co. is the landlord for former employee Dean Browne, who fired up his copper still for the first time this month in the cinder-block shell of a former auto garage in the parking lot across from the brewery.
"Brewing was fun, but distilling just seemed more exotic," says Browne, a former software product manager for IBM. "The technical aspects of it held my attention more."
With a small tasting room for direct sales to customers that he built himself from barrel staves, and relatively small-scale equipment on wheels that he can operate alone, the sheer independence of the endeavor appeals to Browne.
"If it gets to the point where I'm not hands-on anymore, I'm not going to be enjoying myself," he says.
The small scale, he says, also allows him and other new distillers the creative slack they need to craft the kind of unique flavors that will eventually distinguish Philly's new local distillers in a market already saturated with quality drink.
For Browne, that may be the Bear Trap herbal liqueur (along the lines of a less-sweet Jägermeister) that he plans to make soon, or a whiskey with pawpaw fruit he's pondering for the future. For Tracy, there is Red Barn Rye, which he plans to make soon from 40 acres of rye growing near his Bucks County home, or the Reclamation malt whiskey finished with the charred staves of reclaimed 400-year-old hickory and chestnut woods he has ready access to through his building company.
La Colombe's Carmichael has innovated a way to pressure-infuse rare Panama Geisha coffee into rum, turned instantly amber and complex through a process called cavitation. More familiar white rums, meanwhile, are among the core products getting both Manatawny and Cooper River Distillers off the ground.
James Yoakum, who finally realized Cooper River after three years of efforts, is New Jersey's second new distillery since Prohibition. (Jersey Artisan Distilling, which makes Busted Barrel rum in Fairfield, was the first.) Working inside a steamy, unmarked former auto garage just feet from where NJ Transit's light-rail River Line rumbles by, his business is focused less on distillery visits then on getting his Petty's Island Rum into local venues such as Victor's Pub in Camden and ShopRite Wines & Spirits in Cherry Hill.
Cassell's Kensington distillery, New Liberty, will be producing bourbon, rye, and malt whiskey from scratch, though we won't be able to taste it until it's finished barrel-aging in the stables, around 2016. But in the meantime, New Liberty will be selling something distinctly Philadelphian after it opens this fall.
Cassell's umbrella company, Millstone Spirits, which he founded with several partners (including former CEO Thomas Jensen, former CEO of Rémy Cointreau USA), has acquired the trademarks to three local heritage brands of whiskey that have gone extinct. They will be resurrected in homage blends of purchased spirits, made to recipes inspired by Cassell's tasting of bottles from a former employee.
The first will be a rye-based blend called Kinsey, once made by Publicker in South Philadelphia and a plant in Linfield, where Rittenhouse Rye first originated.
"Everybody talks about the old whiskey heritage we have in Pennsylvania," Cassell says. "This is a fun way to bring that back."
Along the way, the new suburban distilleries with tasting bars inside have been drawing crowds of up to 250 people for weekend events featuring bands and food trucks.
Once all three of the city's newcomers come on line by the end of summer, meanwhile, with La Colombe's ambitious hybrid distillery-bakery-cafe complex (also with a pizza oven) set for a Sept. 1 debut on Frankford Avenue in Fishtown, they will quite literally serve the neighborhood a double shot of good news. They will simultaneously boost the revival of artisan manufacturing that once fueled North Philadelphia, and they'll create a potentially powerful tourism draw, along the lines of Portland's Distillery Row.
"It's almost a nod to how that North American Street corridor was back in the day," Cassell says.
Agrees Tobin Bickley of La Colombe: "It would be so great if we could make that [area] a destination."
How Do They Taste?
Cooper River Distillers.
James Yoakum's first product, Petty's Island Rum ($25.50, 750 ml), is a crisp white rum made from molasses with a fruitiness reminiscent of blanco tequila, and a background of licorice, mint, and smoke drawn, possibly, from the still's open flame and a carbon filter. Perfect in mojitos. A Driftwood Dream Spiced Rum is due out this fall, and a rye is planned for winter.
Sean Tracy's homemade still is already producing character- rich Red Barn Rye ($28, 375 ml) with a small-barrel-aged amber hue, cereal, and spice, as well as an exceptionally smooth, white whiskey (New Moon, $38, 750 ml). I was most excited, though, by Hewn's single-malt Reclamation, finished with ancient charred hickory, chestnut, or oak from Tracy's barn restoration business. The hickory- infused version evokes salty-savory notes of bacon and the caramelized sweetness of maple syrup.
La Colombe Torrefaction.
Different Drum coffee rum ($49.95, 750 ml) is unlike most coffee liqueurs, which are syrupy-sweet blends. This white rum gets a high-tech infusion - "cavitation" - in which pressurized inert gas disrupts the coffee-bean cells, releasing the flavors of Panama Geisha beans. The result is dry but smooth and haunting, with notes of citrusy jasmine, bergamot, and toasty vanilla, plus an amber hue despite not much barrel time at all. Try it with flan at Que Chula Es Puebla nearby. Expect a whiskey by winter.
Manatawny Still Works.
With a big and shiny new quarter-million-dollar Italian still and a handsome house bar that draws crowds of 150-plus to its industrial park on Friday nights, Manatawny has the potential to be a force. An early sample of the liquors, though, showed relatively safe, bland versions of vodka (Three Bitches, $20), white whiskey (J. Potts, $29), and white rum (T. Rutter, $29) that need to develop more character to move beyond their suburban market.
New Liberty Distillery.
Robert Cassell's original aged whiskeys (a bourbon, a rye, an all-malt) won't be available until maturity, around early 2016. But the distillery will soon launch a heritage line inspired by historic local labels that have gone extinct. First up: Kinsey, a blend with hints of rye, but also softer spice.
Dean Browne's first spirits - a pot-stilled Irish white whiskey called Poitín, a gin, and an herbal liqueur called Bear Trap - won't be ready until mid-August. But a sneak-peek taste of prototype infusions was intriguing. The gin is highly spiced, with vivid cardamom, lemon peel, sweet angelica, and cinnamon (plus a little chile heat) dancing with the usual juniper. The Bear Trap, an herbal digestif along the lines of Jägermeister (though less sweet), with fresh rosemary and tarragon, backed by rich fennel anise.
- Craig LaBan
Business bubbles for wood-tank makers
The recent boom in craft whiskey has had major ripple effects for businesses on the nondistilling periphery of the industry - including a wooden-tank manufacturer that is one of Philadelphia's oldest businesses.
The Hall-Woolford Tank Co., which turned 160 years old this year, has been making wooden tanks in Northeast Philadelphia since before Abe Lincoln was president. Most of those, until recently, have been water tanks like those seen on rooftops in New York City, including those at the Mets' Citi Field.
A sudden demand for retro-style open-top fermenters used in whiskey distilling, however, has spiked by 70 percent in recent years, says Hall-Woolford general manager Jack Hillman. The firm has produced at least 60 tanks over the last seven years for distillers across the country, including powerhouses like Four Roses and Maker's Mark, as well as small craft darlings like Brooklyn's Kings County Distillery and Denver's Leopold Bros.
"Most of the new [distillers] have been using closed stainless steel tanks, but things are going full circle with wooden tanks," says Bill Owens, founder of the American Distilling Institute. "This is how our grandfathers did it. Open fermentation tanks. And it's pretty amazing how we are going back to basics."
In the distilling process, the yeast in the cooked mash converts sugars to alcohol and carbon dioxide in the fermenting tank before it passes through the still.
Aside from being made by a third-generation artisan like foreman Robert Riepen ("one of the last guys that can make a sloping tank bottom," says Hillman), wooden tanks have practical virtues.
Mostly made from Douglas fir in the range of 400 to 1,000 gallons, wooden tanks are durable, impart no flavors to the whiskey, and also have insulation advantages over steel, Hillman says. They're also easily erected in closed rooms that might be too tight for large, prefab steel units.
Aesthetically, open-top fermenters also have a powerful visual appeal for distilleries that are open to the public, like Maker's Mark, where visitors can see and smell a foamy crown of yeasty grains bubbling like a raft on top. Leopold Bros. has more than a dozen on display.
Exposure to the open air and changing ambient factors can also give spirits some extra unique "terroir," says Owens.
"Open fermentation tanks are just a style of doing it - they're not necessarily going to make it 10 times better," Owens says. "But the temps are going to be different. An open-fermenter whiskey in Montana is going to be different than in Texas."
And in the increasingly locale-driven world of micro-distilling, Owens says, "the standardization of everything is not good. That's what makes it so fabulous."