Mid-Atlantic Brewing News August/September 2006
Philadelphia Distilling Restores Another Proud Tradition to the City
By Rich Wagner
A few years back when I heard that California’s Bill Owens was starting up American Distiller Magazine devoted to “microdistilling,” I figured it was only a matter of time before a trend emerged. After all, he was ahead of the curve when he opened the first brewpub in California before most people had ever heard the word! If you visit the American Distilling Institute’s website you’ll find there were over 80 attendees at their last conference. Sudswineandspirits.com has a list of over 70 micro-distillers in the country in 25 states! Naturally most seem to be concentrated in California and Oregon, the same region where microbrewing first took hold.
So when I heard they were making Bluecoat gin in Philadelphia, I had to find out more! I don’t pretend to know much about the city’s distilling heritage, but I know that, along with breweries, Philadelphia had more than its share of distilleries, so it was intriquing that another industry with deep roots here would re-emerge.
I arranged to visit Philadelphia Distilling’s facility and was met by Robert Cassell, a brewer-turned distiller who was able to study distilling via the internet through the famous Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland. And when he started to show me around, the first thing I saw was the very impressive looking custom-made, hand-hammered pot-still that the company imported from Scotland. There is no fermentation involved; they basically refine neutral grain spirits (NGS) obtained from a vendor. Robert explained the process and the various parts of the still which was foreign to me and my understanding of the brewing process. Brewing beer or ale essentially leaves off where the distilling process begins. For one thing the “boiling” part of the process obviously occurs at a much lower temperature than the boiling point of water. And the size of the still is not rated the same as a brewing kettle in terms of it’s volume. Instead of hops, “botanicals” are added for flavoring. In this case Eastern Mediterranean Juniper berries and Certified Organic Citrus Peels are added during the “boil” and collected at the end of the process in the “botanical basket.” The distillate goes to a “collection vessel” rather than a fermenter, and the volume is adjusted to a prescribed 1,500 liters. The water used is triple filtered on site to a far purer level than bottled water. I saw no packaging machinery and had to ask, and Robert assured me he filled each bottle by hand.
Philadelphia Distilling received a Bronze Medal for their package at the 2006 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, practically before the product hit the shelves. Described as American Dry Gin, Bluecoat comes in a cobalt blue bottle with gold-lettered label, and the insignia is reminiscent of the two horses found on the Pennsylvania State flag.
Thinking back to all the legal obstacles that microbrewers and brewpubs had to go through, I asked Robert about getting a microdistillery off the ground in Pennsylvania. He said it was pretty straight-forward, just a matter of adhering to existing Federal requirements. He added that the P.L.C.B. has been most supportive of the endeavor. In fact, this may be one case where the much maligned State Store system actually provides an advantage. Since they are the only purveyor of spirits in the Commonwealth, Philadelphia Distilling sells to them and their product is distributed statewide.
Robert told me that bars in Philadelphia have embraced Bluecoat American Dry Gin with enthusiasm. The flavor is different than other gin on the market and its great to see a local product filling a new niche.