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Proof Positives: The Serious Business of Craft Distilling
Any mystic will tell you: The spirit world is all around us, hidden in plain sight. Ask any of the mixologists in and around Philly, and they’ll tell you that the same is true of the spirits world in Philadelphia.
This is nothing new for our local bar culture; we’ve been touting the bounty of local craft beer for years now. And it won’t be long before local whiskies, gin, rum — and even vodka — will be sharing center stage with our local brews, to be given their due as some of the finest spirits made anywhere.
The Gin Game
A quiet industrial warehouse in Northeast Philly is an unlikely location for the first gin distillery to open in Pennsylvania since Prohibition, but that is exactly where Andrew Auwerda chose to put the home of his distillery dedicated to producing Bluecoat American Dry Gin. Auwerda, a cosmetics executive, had just sold his company and “was looking for the next great opportunity,” he says, when his nephew approached him in 2004 with an idea for a craft distillery.
“My nephew worked for a local brewery — Victory in Downingtown,” Auwerda recalls, “but he thought that small-batch distilling would be the next big thing — and he turned out to be right.”
A few craft breweries had previously dabbled with distilling, most notably Delaware’s Dogfish Head making rum at their brewpub in Rehoboth, and San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing Co. making single malt rye whiskies as early as 1996.
“Scotch already had its following,” says Auwerda. “Bourbons were becoming more popular and available, and it seemed like new vodkas were coming out every week. But there was no premium American gin.”
In 2005, Auwerda co-founded Philadelphia Distilling (www.philadelphiadistilling.com) and commissioned a special, one-of-a-kind, hand-hammered pot still. Designed by his distiller, Mike Higgins, it was installed in that unassuming warehouse close to busy Roosevelt Boulevard. Less than a year later, the bright blue, embossed bottles of Bluecoat gin began appearing in cocktail lounges, steakhouses, store shelves and in the local press, where it received particularly glowing reviews.
At first sniff, this is not your bubbie’s summertime gin-and-tonic gin. Invigorating swirls of sweet citrus scents, fresh green herbs and juniper greet your nose, but the aromas are brighter and more floral.
“We import special organic juniper berries that are proprietary to us,” says Auwerda, “and we use raw botanicals and allow them to macerate in the still as long as our distiller feels they need to.”
The gin is distilled from four grains — corn, wheat, rye and barley — which explains its full, round, sweet flavor in the mouth. But Bluecoat also dissipates into a cool, silky finish. “The botanical mix has a lot to do with that,” adds Auwerda. “For example, we use a sweet orange peel in our mix instead of the more bitter variety most people know, and we source our grains locally, which also makes a huge difference.
“But in the end,” he continues, “it’s three things that make this gin special: the basic spirit that we create; the unique still that Mike designed; and his skills as a distiller.”
After Bluecoat’s big splash, it didn’t take long for customers to start asking if the company would be making other spirits such as whiskey and vodka. They now make an un-aged corn whiskey, XXX Shine, which is clear, with a bracing, slightly nutty finish, as well as two barrel-aged variations, one flavored with salted caramel, and a more complex, grassy, almost vegetal whiskey called LiberTea, made with black tea and honey.
Auwerda and his distillers also make a pot-stilled absinthe, Vieux Carré (their most expensive offering at $60), which celebrates New Orleans and its affection for the emerald spirit, distilled from green and star anise, fennel, hyssop, wormwood and spearmint. Despite its decadent, bohemian reputation, absinthe is an acquired taste, with a complex, lingering bitterness and finish.
Philadelphia Distilling does, in fact, make a vodka with Philadelphia water (purified several times to remove its distinctive aroma and taste): Penn 1681 vodka is distilled from local rye, which gives it a slightly spicier first note, as well as a cleaner, sweeter finish.
The company’s newest offering is Penn 1681’s evil twin, a savory variation called The Bay, housed in a nautical-looking, swing-top bottle and flavored with traditional Maryland Chesapeake Bay seasoning (commonly known as Old Bay). It is the first savory vodka sold in the United States, delivering a spicy blast of paprika, sea salt and cardamom the moment it hits the tongue. Handle with care.
The Power of Memory
At around the same time that Bluecoat gin was making its debut in Philadelphia, Herman Mihalich was reading a New York Times article on rye whiskey and its roots in pre-Prohibition Pennsylvania. The article brought back memories from his childhood, when he lived above his family’s tavern in Monessen, Pa., on the banks of the Monongahela River, south of Pittsburgh. He also thought of his grandfather, who enjoyed a glass of Sam Thompson rye whiskey daily.
“He called it his ‘medicine,’ ” Mihalich remembers, “and in his later years, it was my job to bring him his glass of Sam Thompson every day. It was a simple pleasure. He lived into his 90s — you can draw your own conclusions.”
Memory and tradition played a big part in what Mihalich and his partner, John Cooper, banked on when they co-founded Mountain Laurel Spirits in 2010. Mihalich and Cooper were fraternity brothers at Penn in the late 1970s, and have been friends ever since. They each hasd successful careers: Mihalich as a chemical engineer; Cooper as a sales specialist of computer software.
“We’d been sharing good food and drink experiences for over 30 years,” Cooper recalls, “and when Herm and I talked about making rye whiskey, we knew we had both accumulated the right principles in business to put them in place here, to make and sell a great product.”
That product would become Dad’s Hat Pennsylvania Rye Whiskey (www.dadshatrye.com), named after Mihalich’s father’s penchant for fedoras — specifically, Stetsons made in Philadelphia. But the whiskey’s emotional pull on its creators extends far past family memories and friendship.
“There is a tremendous amount of joy in making something from scratch that people really like,” says Cooper, “and reaching back in time for something iconic and bringing it forward.”
Before Prohibition, there were 163 distilleries in Pennsylvania, and rye whiskey was their most famous product. “ ‘Monongahela Red’ was the nickname for Pennsylvania rye whiskey,” Mihalich explains, “the original American whiskey, known around the world. Prohibition destroyed that industry. Dad’s Hat is the first rye whiskey made in Pennsylvania since 1989.”
To be blunt, Dad’s Hat is dangerously easy to drink. It has a nutty sweetness in the finish that is unexpected in a whiskey so young. “We use local rye exclusively,” Mihalich says. “We don’t use corn. Rye is drier, spicier, but extremely smooth. Rye creates a flavor explosion: cinnamon, spice, pepper, chocolate and mint are just some of the notes you’ll taste.”
“The sweetness comes from the rye being local and fresh,” adds Cooper, “and a unique barley malt we found and, of course, the charred white oak barrels we use. We age our whiskey just six months or so. People say you can’t get this kind of smoothness after just six months, but you can.”
Mihalich and Cooper also bottle an un-aged white whiskey, spicy and hot (“makes a great margarita,” says Cooper), and two distinct whiskies that are aged in California vermouth and port wine barrels after their six months in white oak. Both are rounder, richer whiskies with fruity, floral aromas and softer, layered finishes. Both are spectacular sips.
The inspiration for Philly’s newest distillery was found in the small coffee farms and sugar plantations of one of the poorest nations on Earth. Tobin Bickley visited earthquake-ravaged Haiti to source coffee for La Colombe Torrefaction (www.lacolombe.com), the coffee house and roasting company where he is chief operating officer. He was moved by the warm hospitality of the coffee farmers amid the devastation on the Caribbean island.
“When I’d sit down with them, they would bring out their rhum agricole, their homemade moonshine made from the island’s sugar cane,” Bickley recalls. “La Colombe saw an opportunity to help Haiti in a significant way and try something we’d been talking about for a long time.”
For the past year, Bickley and La Colombe founders Todd Carmichael and Jean-Philippe Iberti have been importing Haitian clarion (similar to American grain alcohol) made from sugar cane, and quietly distilling rum in two small pot stills tucked into a corner of their Port Richmond coffee-roasting facility. Bickley is excited by the results.
“We’re making a small-batch white rum, a very rich, oak-aged dark rum and a unique coffee rum infused with Geisha beans from Panama,” says Bickley, “and early next year, just after we open our newest cafés in Washington, D.C., and Chicago, we will open a very cool café and distillery on Frankford Avenue in Fishtown. We’ll move the distilling equipment there and add a third pot still. And you’ll be able to see the rum being made, have a cup of La Colombe and have a bite to eat.”
The preliminary test batches of the rum are as distinctive as the company’s coffee blends. The oak-aged rum, after only five months (Donaldson plans to age it for a year), was surprisingly smooth and sweet, evoking vanilla custard — “rum for a bourbon drinker,” says Donaldson. It will be the coffee-infused rum that gets the most attention, though, and it showcases Donaldson considerable skill. With a hint of dark cherries and flowers in the nose, this rum delivers several wisps of aromatic coffee in your mouth before virtually evaporating on the tongue, a magical sensation that will likely bring La Colombe new acclaim on both beverage and humanitarian fronts.
Art in a Bottle
What do Thomas Jefferson, famed Philadelphia botanist John Bartram, Amish farmers and Native Americans have in common? They are all unexpected touchstones for the unusual spirits commissioned by the Old City artists’ collective and retailer, Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (www.artintheage.com). You’ve probably seen their squat, corked bottles, with labels such as Root, Snap, Rhubarb and Sage, at many of the city’s trendiest temples of cocktail artistry. “The melding of very familiar, old-time flavors with the base spirit makes them perfect for making a new kind of cocktail or tweaking a familiar one,” says author and mixologist Katie Loeb (who is also a contributor to this magazine), “and they throw your taste buds a curve, too, with chewable tastes in liquid form.”
These concoctions all hearken back to a time when farmers and early settlers in America made their own beverages, curative or just simply distilled and aged, from root tea (the pre-Temperance Movement predecessor to root beer), to spicy lebkuchen (we call them ginger snaps) to sagey “garden gin” and rhubarb tea. “Here’s how to best use them,” says Loeb. “Take the very herbaceous Sage and use it instead of the gin in a French 75 cocktail, and you have an even better French 75. A splash of Rhubarb in a daiquiri or a gin and tonic will amaze you. I’ve also made an adult ‘lemonade’ with Root, mint, lemon and whiskey that I really like.
“For this time of year, pour Snap in a hot cup of coffee, all buttery and cinnamon, and it will be like sipping a warm cookie!”
Richard Pawlak is a frequent contributor to Inside. This article originally appeared in Inside Magazine, a Jewish Exponent publication.