Christmas came a little early for Robert Cassell and the rest of Pennsylvania's nascent craft distilling industry. And their gift, by extension, is going to be shared by all spirits-loving Pennsylvanians who like to drink local.
It came in the form of House Bill 242, which Gov. Corbett signed at his residence Dec. 22. As a whole, this omnibus legislation is a steaming mash tun of unrelated and seemingly picayune adjustments to the state's liquor code, from extending happy hours to rules for golf course bars.
By Page 34, however, the bill's original mission is spelled out: Small distilleries such as Cassell's Philadelphia Distilling (maker of Bluecoat gin) have been granted the right to sell their products directly to the public from tasting rooms on site.
It's a privilege the state's wineries and breweries already have, as well as small distilleries in nearly 30 other states. And the ability to become a tourist destination serves as a crucial marketing tool and revenue boost for these relatively small stills in a world dominated by Big Liquor.
"In other states that have enacted legislation like this - in Washington, Michigan, and Oregon - you see a flourishing of small distilleries," says Cassell, who's been working for five years to get this legislation passed.
Paired with a decrease in the annual distillery licensing fee (from $5,600 to $1,500), it just might be the economic incentive needed to make Pennsylvania a new focal point for growth in a national movement toward artisan alcohol that's expanding exponentially on the heels of the craft-beer craze.
Currently, only three distilleries in the state fall under the aegis of the bill, which applies to those who produce less than 100,000 gallons a year.
But Barry Young of Boyd & Blair, a potato vodka distiller near Pittsburgh, believes others are waiting in the wings.
"It's going to make Pennsylvania a craft distilling hub," says Young, who, with partner Prentiss Orr, also worked to have the bill passed.
In terms of revenue, Young estimates the direct retail opportunity could boost his revenue by 25 percent. And though distillers will not be able to sell their products for less than the price seen at state-run liquor stores, they will be able to retain the state's usual 18 percent markup, Young said: "It's significant."
The notion of distilleries as tourist destinations - and not simply industrial facilities - has proven to be a powerful draw to neighborhoods and regions in search of a reviving identity. In Portland, Ore., for example, the Lower East Side industrial district is now known as Distillery Row, home to seven distillers pouring samples of more than 20 spirits to tourists who arrive by the busload to their tasting rooms.
In rural areas such as Maxwelton, W. Va., where Smooth Ambler Spirits sits just nine miles from the Greenbrier resort, co-owner John Little says the ability to embrace the tourist trade is so strong, "at least half our business is sold out of our retail store."
Being able to sell the "high-valley mountain air" story and "friendly folks" behind a small-production "grain-to-glass" spirit directly to consumers is essential for small players in a retail field dominated by deep-pocketed liquor companies. It also emphasizes the character of these businesses as essentially local artisans.
"You have a better chance of being successful as a quality local brand rather than trying to be the next big thing," Little says.
The ripple effect on local economies shouldn't be underestimated.
"Now I'm hiring people to run a retail shop," said Cassell, who, once the law comes into effect in February, will also have the ability to open two satellite locations with food operations.
The impact is even greater simply from the raw materials required for the production of the spirits, as Boyd & Blair buys its "chipper" potatoes from Schuylkill County and Philadelphia Distilling sources rye and corn for its products in-state, too.
That creative synergy with local ingredients will be even more heightened - and more seasonal - now that distillers will have venues to sell small batches of one-off products.
"I can look at what farmers have in the fall and make a brandy," Young says.
"I'm going to buy a couple acres of cherries from a farm in my hometown of Boyertown to make eau de vie," says Cassell, suddenly riffing on the possibilities. "Or I could make a batch of single-farmer rye. And I'll finally have a place to sell a re-creation of early 19th century bitters I'm working on with Bartram's Garden. In fact, they're supposed to have just peeled a bunch of bark off some prickly ash trees for me."
Pennsylvanians, someday soon, will be able to visit Philadelphia Distilling's headquarters in Northeast Philly and drink to that.