Pennsylvania's Small Liquor Makers Are Bottling Heritage

Philadelphia Distilling's Bluecoat Gin
Philadelphia Distilling's Bluecoat Gin

From moonshine to bourbon, Nascar to bathtub gin, liquor has played a vital role in America's history and culture. Unfortunately, while many distillers are happy to use America's alcohol heritage as a selling point, there's a big distance between rhetoric and reality -- and precious little of that heritage ends up in the bottle. For two Philadelphia liquor makers, however, creating and selling booze has become a way to honor America's history while tantalizing its liquor lovers.

Pennsylvania's history is closely tied to alcohol. In the Revolutionary War, the Keystone state supplied alcohol to the Continental army, and after independence, it became a mecca for distillers across the country.

A few years later, when a federal whiskey tax hit liquor makers in the Western Pennsylvania, it spurred the famed Whiskey Rebellion of 1794. However, while the state's liquor industry survived the taxman and George Washington, it couldn't survive the 18th Amendment: Prohibition decimated the state's distilleries.

Reviving an Old Tradition

When Andrew Auwerda and his two partners founded Philadelphia Distilling in 2005, it was the first microdistillery to open in Pennsylvania since prohibition. To honor the state's Revolutionary War history, the trio named their first product "Bluecoat Gin," after the distinctive blue overcoats worn by American soldiers in the Continental Army.

Auwerda points out that his gin's name is also a gentle mockery of more popular brands: "It differentiates us from 'Redcoat' gins like Beefeater," he notes. "Our message is that we won the Revolutionary War, and we're going to win the gin war."

While Bluecoat's packaging alludes to America's revolutionary heritage, its flavor is extremely modern. "When we started," Auwerda says, "there weren't any premium American gins that had a distinctively American taste profile." Noting that Americans tend to drink their gin with lime, Auwerda and distiller Robert John Cassell composed a recipe that was rich in citrus, a move that quickly differentiated Bluecoat from the cucumber-accented gins that were popular at the time.

The first bottles shipped in 2006, and the gin quickly spread across the country. Today, Bluecoat is sold in 35 states and has drawn the adoring attention of dozens of food writers and liquor afficionadoes. Perhaps most notably, it won the best gin award at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in 2009 and 2010.

A Pennsylvania-Style Vodka

In 2008, Auwerda and his partners expanded their selection, releasing an absinthe and a vodka. One problem with Bluecoat was that, while it honored Pennsylvania history, several of its ingredients couldn't be grown in the state's temperate climate. The partners' absinthe, which they named Vieux Carre after New Orleans' French Quarter, wasn't much help: Many of its botanicals had to come from Europe. However, their vodka offered an interesting opportunity for the distillery to invest in local growers.

Pennsylvanians raise a wide variety of grains, but rye holds a special place in the state's agricultural and distilling history. A wild, indigenous grain, it provides ground cover over much of the state, and as far back as the 1700's, it often found its way into liquor stills. However, as Auwerda points out, "Apart from Belvedere, there aren't many rye-based vodkas. This made ours a little different."

The final product, which the company christened "Penn 1681," tips its hat to the year in which William Penn received his original land charter from the British crown. In the process, it also honors the people who make the liquor: The company's distiller, Robert John Cassell, is descended from farmers who bought their land from Penn. The vodka is available only inside the state, and Auwerda notes that it has built a strong local following.

Heritage in a Bottle

While Philadelphia Distilling focuses on the state's colonial history, Quaker City Mercantile takes a slightly different perspective. At the Philadelphia-based firm, the history is firmly located inside the bottle. Their signature liquor, Root, follows a traditional recipe for root tea, a native American elixir that -- according to the company -- was the forefather of root beer. Using organically grown ingredients, the final product is an 80-proof liqueur that evokes root beer, but has many more layers of flavor.

Sponsored Links

Steve Grasse, CEO of Quaker City, isn't a distiller, or even a dedicated liquor maker. Founder of Gyro Worldwide, an advertising agency, he has 23 years of marketing experience, and has represented a dizzying array of companies, from Puma sneakers to MTV to Camel cigarettes. After developing Sailor Jerry's Spiced Rum, the company contracted with William Grant and Sons, a Scotland-based distillery that agreed to produce the drink. Later, when Grant decided to branch out into other liquors, it came back to Gyro with a strange request: It wanted the marketing company to design its newest offering.

The result was Hendrick's, a distinctive, cucumber-accented liquor that Grasse describes as "the first microdistilled gin." With a unique flavor and a stylish apothecary-style bottle, Hendrick's quickly gained the attention of liquor afficionadoes. At the San Francisco World Spirits Competition it won gold medals for best gin in 2004, 2005, 2007 and 2008. While Sailor Jerry hasn't received quite as much acclaim, Grasse notes that it's the fastest-growing rum in the U.S.

Grant owns Hendrick's, but Gyro retained ownership of Sailor Jerry. In 2008, Grasse recounts, "Grant told us 'You can't own one of our biggest brands.'" He laughs, "So we told them to buy us out. And they did." With the money, Grasse rebranded Gyro as Quaker City Mercantile and started a new company, Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, which set a goal of creating distinctive, handcrafted clothing, art and consumer products. Root was the first item off the line.

Selling Out and Moving Up

Birch beer, a stronger-flavored relative of root beer, has a long, rich history in Pennsylvania, and Quaker City's marketing for Root plays off this heritage, noting that the liqueur is made with birch bark, wintergreen and other plants that are native to the area. However, Root isn't made in Pennsylvania. Quaker City contracts out the actual production to Modern Spirits, a Monrovia Calif.-based distillery that makes the certified-organic liqueur.

Released in 2009, the root-beer-flavored tipple quickly developed a strong following in Pennsylvania. One day, Grasse met with the head of William Gran, who expressed an interest in the new liqueur. "He told me, 'That money I gave you for Sailor Jerry -- you're going to spend all of it building up Root.'" Grasse recounts, "I realized that he was right and sold Root to Grant and Sons within six months of its creation." Today, Root is available in seven states and can be purchased online.

Not long after selling Root to Grant, Grasse began developing Snap, Art in the Age's second liqueur. Based on Grasse's great-grandmother's recipe for lebkuchen, or gingersnaps, it hearkens back to his Pennsylvania Dutch heritage, combining ginger, blackstrap molasses, cinnamon and other traditional German flavors. Grant and Sons also took control of this one, and Grasse's company continues to produce it.

The partnership with Grant has given Quaker City the freedom to develop products that honor Pennsylvania's heritage, without the difficulty of building a production and distribution network from scratch. Grasse plans to continue this trend of "creating brands, building them up, selling them, then staying on to manage them." While he declines to tell what his next product will be, he offers a hint: "We're making a series of historic liqueurs that are based on Pennsylvania Dutch recipes."

Healthy Future Ahead

Pennsylvania's tax structure discourages microdistilleries, making it unlikely that Philadelphia distilling will face any competition in the near future. For that matter, Quaker City's method of designing and creating companies and products puts it in a category of its own. Yet both companies see a healthy future for liquors that honor the state's history and heritage.

Between Grasse's plans for Pennsylvania Dutch tipples and Auwerda's prediction that Philadelphia distilling will release a new product "every year or two," it looks like one of America's alcohol homelands may have a bright and boozy tomorrow.

See the full Special Report:

From Prohibition to Microdistilleries: Changing How America Drink
New York's Microdistillery Law Is Building a New Industry
Bringing Cheer to the Local Economy
Colorado's Microdistilleries Follow an All-American Path