Craft Distilleries Revive Pennsylvania’s Pre-Prohibition Tradition
In 2011, Pennsylvania’s government passed reforms that allowed distillers to offer tours, samples and onsite sales. These new laws opened up the craft to would-be distillers who now proudly produce and sell small-batch spirits in Philadelphia. In a sign of the industry’s maturation, Philadelphia Distilling, the first distillery to open in Pennsylvania since Prohibition, recently moved into much larger headquarters, adding a full-scale bar, restaurant and bottle shop.
In just over four years, the number of craft distilleries in the Philadelphia region has increased by more than a dozen, helping to restore Pennsylvania to its once-prominent place in the national distilling conversation. Until Prohibition wiped out the state’s industry, Pennsylvania housed the country’s densest cluster of homespun and commercial whiskey producers, beginning with some of the country’s earliest settlers.
Here’s a look at some of the region’s distilling pioneers:
Distilleries Open To The Public:
Approximately a decade after opening as Pennsylvania’s first craft distillery since Prohibition, Philadelphia Distilling relocated to a larger and more visitor-friendly facility in Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood. The makers of Bluecoat American Dry Gin, Blue Coat Barrel-Finished Gin, Vieux Carré Absinthe, Penn 1681 Vodka and THE BAY Seasoned Vodka (seasoned with traditional Chesapeake Bay seasonings) offer a full bar and restaurant with an outdoor patio, bottle shop and retail store. 1000 Frankford Avenue, (215) 671-0346, philadelphiadistilling.com
Manayunk’s W.P. Palmer Distilling Co. takes an historical approach to its sole spirit. Handcrafted in a copper-pot still, Palmer’s Liberty Gin uses a traditional 18th-century Dutch recipe that calls for rich botanicals, citrus and spices. 376 Shurs Lane, Building A, (215) 588-5108, palmerdistilling.com
Past the fresh-baked breads and fragrant coffees at La Colombe’s Fishtown cafe is the La Colombe Distillery, a glassed-in room that houses a 450-liter antique copper still. It’s here where the Philly-based coffee roaster distills its Different Drum Pennsylvania Rum, a sipping rum infused with coffee. The shop sells it by the glass and by the bottle, and during weekday happy hours, all draft beers, rum drinks and cocktails sell for half-price. 1335 Frankford Avenue, (267) 479-1600, www.lacolombe.com.
Opened by a founder of Philadelphia Distilling and veterans of the spirits industry, Millstone Spirits Group designs and manufactures copper stills and produces whiskeys and vodka under the name New Liberty Distillery. On Saturdays, visitors can choose a standard or premium tour package to explore the showroom and distillery—partially housed in circa-1906 horse stables—and taste the product, branded as Kinsey spirits after a 19th-century Pennsylvania label that folded in the 1970s. Crane Arts, 1431 N. Cadwallader Street, (800) 996-0595, www.millstonespirits.com
A visit to Rowhouse Spirits gives a glimpse of the evolution of the modern American craft movement—from craft beer to craft spirits. Rowhouse owner Dean Browne works out of a tiny shed on the property of Philadelphia Brewing Company, where he worked for years as a brewer. Currently, Browne produces very small batch gin (lauded by Philadelphia magazine as “Best of Philadelphia” in 2016), traditionally Scandinavian Nordic Akvavit, Poitín Irish-style moonshine made from 100% barley malts and Bear Trap herbal liqueur, which tastes like anise and is made from 19 fresh organic botanicals. Browne also offers rum and barrel-aged spirits. Tours of the 1,200-square-foot space take place Thursday through Saturday, noon to 6 p.m. 2440 Frankford Avenue, (267) 825-7332, www.rowhousespirits.us
The Kensington neighborhood’s Federal Distilling specializes in the clear nectar of the gods. A tribute to the rich history of Philadelphia, their signature Stateside Urbancraft Vodka is the main attraction. Tours and tastings are available Thursday through Saturday. 1700 N. Hancock Street, www.statesidevodka.com
Founded with a successful crowd-funding campaign, Kensington’s Red Brick Craft Distillery produces two small-batch whiskeys and Simple Shine, a clear sugar wash rum. Tours and tastings take place weekends by reservation from 1 to 6 p.m. 2628 Martha Street, (267) 603-3790, www.redbrickcraftdistillery.com
Located next to the Bucks County Brewery, Hewn Spirits differentiates itself in part by collaborating closely with its brewing neighbor and sharing its used barrels for aging. Owner Sean Tracy, who has spent 25 years restoring and converting early-American barns into custom homes, experiments with aging his whiskey in rare and sometimes extinct types of wood. He also incorporates grains grown less than 10 miles away and milled in a working 19th-century gristmill. The public can visit on Friday and Saturday nights and tour by appointment. 31 Appletree Lane, Pipersville, (215) 766-7711, www.hewnspirits.com
Named after owner Herman Mihalich’s father’s favored fashion accessory, Mountain Laurel Spirits’ Dad’s Hat rye whiskeys carry a strong sense of history. Mihalich uses a recipe that harkens to the 18th-century days when Pennsylvania farmers used their surplus rye grain to distill the homemade whiskey that later turned the state into the world’s chief producer of this type of spirit. Most Saturday afternoons, visitors can get a lesson in the modern and historical production methods from Mihalich or business partner John Cooper, and then sample the final product. Reservations required. 925 Canal Street, Building #4, Bristol, (215) 781-8300, www.dadshatrye.com
Historical records suggest that Bluebird Distilling is Chester County’s first post-Prohibition distillery. Bluebird uses all natural ingredients to produce its broad selection of products, including white whiskey, rum, gin, vodka, plus four-grain bourbon and rye. That wholesome ethos extends to the self-proclaimed “urban steampunk” saloon, where bartenders mix cocktails with fresh-squeezed juices and ingredients made from scratch. 100 Bridge Street, Phoenixville, (610) 933-7827, www.bluebirddistilling.com
Manatawny Still Works operates out of a modern facility, but its owners base their practices on “old world production with a reverent nod to the history of the region.” The nearby Manatawny Creek, named by the Lenape Indians as “the place we meet to drink,” lends the distillery its name. Tri-weekly tours end in the bar, where visitors sample cocktails made with Odd Fellows No. 214 Gin, J. Potts Whiskey and other small-batch whiskeys, T. Rutter Rum and Three Bitches Wheat Vodka in a setting filled with preserved antique items. In September 2016, Manatawny plans to open a tasting room and bottle shop on East Passyunk Avenue in South Philadelphia. 320 Circle of Progress Drive, #104, Pottstown, (484) 624-8271, www.manatawnystillworks.com
Producing spirits under the brand name Fortis, Midnight Madness Distilling sticks to the basics: vodka, rum and gin. According to the Midnight Madness team, Fortis is made for the regulars at the “bar down the street.” 2300 Trumbauersville Road, Quakertown, (215) 268-6071, www.fortisspirits.com
Named after his father and the four men who served as father figures to founder John George after his own dad passed away, Five Saints Distilling and International Spirits opened its doors in autumn 2015 in the Historic Humane Engine #1 Firehouse. Doubling as both a firehouse museum and distillery that specializes in premium spirits, including gin, vodka, whiskey (including bourbon) and orangecello, Five Saints offers tours, tastings, retail and events. 129 E. Main Street, Norristown, www.fivesaintsdistilling.com
Corporate émigré siblings recently founded Boardroom Spirits Distillery by tapping the talents of Hungarian Master Distiller Attila Kovacs. The distillery uses natural ingredients and not-yet-mainstream technology to produce five varieties of whiskey, rum, gin, brandy and vegetable-based specialty spirits. For the vodka lover, Boardroom offers both a double gold medal award-winning regular vodka, as well as “fresh vodka” infused with real cranberry or citrus, along with other seasonal small-batch releases. Tours are offered evenings Wednesday through Friday, and on weekends, 1 to 5 p.m. In addition, local food trucks help tasters hold their liquor on Foodie Fridays. 575 W. 3rd Street, Lansdale, (267) 642-9961, www.boardroomspirits.com
Kentucky-bred Cooper River Distillers owner James Yoakum comes from a background that breeds many of the region’s micro-distillers: home brewing. Yoakum home brewed for years before deciding to open what may be Camden, New Jersey’s first-ever distillery. Distilling rum, rye whiskey, brandy and soon-to-be-released bourbon out of a handmade copper still in a garage, Yoakum opens to the public every Friday, 4 to 8 p.m., Saturday, 1 to 8 p.m. and during special events to show visitors around and sell them bottles and cocktails. 34 N. 4th Street, Camden, NJ, (856) 295-1273, www.cooperriverdistillers.com
Distillery With Off-Site Tasting Room:
Launched as a distraction for a mother grieving her deceased son, Naoj & Mot distillery has been producing the Pollyodd line of Italian liqueurs since 2012. Though the distillery itself is closed to the public, Joan Verratti, the state’s first licensed female distiller, runs a tasting room where she pours five natural cream-based and five water-based spirits like Limoncello using locally sourced ingredients. 1908 East Passyunk Avenue, (215) 271-1161, www.pollyodd.com