Running a spirited business

Rob Cas­sell, a co-own­er of Phil­adelphia Dis­tilling, mon­it­ors the cop­per pot used to dis­till spir­its for the com­pany. JENNY SWI­GODA / TIMES PHOTO

An­drew Auwerda, Rob Cas­sell and Tim Yar­nall likely would’ve crashed and burned had they ven­tured a small start-up com­pany in­to any oth­er in­dustry in 2005.

The un­re­lent­ing re­ces­sion that has gripped the na­tion since roughly 2007 could’ve eas­ily seen to that.

But Auwerda, Cas­sell and Yar­nall bought in­to the booze busi­ness. And in times of eco­nom­ic strife, al­co­hol tends to be­come one of the most pop­u­lar di­ver­sions for the down­trod­den.

This is not to say that the three founders of North­east Philly-based Phil­adelphia Dis­tilling were look­ing to profit from oth­ers’ mis­for­tune when they opened Pennsylvania’s first new dis­til­lery since the days of Pro­hib­i­tion. Rather, the thought was to of­fer li­quor con­nois­seurs finely craf­ted spir­its at af­ford­able prices and to get in on the ground floor of what would grow in­to a gast­ro­nom­ic phe­nomen­on.

Phil­adelphia Dis­tilling now has four la­bels in pro­duc­tion — a gin, a vodka, an ab­sinthe and a white whis­key — all of which have re­ceived rave re­views in com­pet­i­tions and in highly re­garded food and drink columns.

In 2011, the com­pany will dis­trib­ute 12,000 cases of spir­its (with 12 fifth-gal­lon bottles per case) and is cap­able of pro­du­cing 450 cases a day.

Growth, while con­trolled and cal­cu­lated in the ar­tis­an tra­di­tion, has been the hall­mark of its first half-dec­ade.

“In early 2006, I filled bottles by hand one at a time by a spig­ot,” said Cas­sell, a former med­ic­al stu­dent and mi­cro­brew­er from Boy­er­town who re­in­ven­ted him­self as a mas­ter dis­til­ler.

“We went from be­ing the first new mi­cro-dis­til­lery in Pennsylvania since Pro­hib­i­tion. Then we be­came the first dis­til­ler of ab­sinthe on the East Coast since Pro­hib­i­tion. Then we be­came the first in Pennsylvania to dis­till whis­key since the shut­down of Michter’s in the 1980s.”

Formerly made in the Lan­caster area, Michter’s whis­key still ex­ists as a la­bel, but it’s pro­duced and bottled by a dif­fer­ent com­pany in Ken­tucky.

When Phil­adelphia Dis­tilling opened, Jac­quin’s was the lone act­ive dis­til­lery in Pennsylvania. Na­tion­ally, there were about 45 li­censed dis­til­lers. Now there are about 160 in the United States, ac­cord­ing to Cas­sell.

The ex­ter­i­or of Phil­adelphia Dis­tilling’s non-descript of­fices and ware­house in the By­berry East In­dus­tri­al Park on McN­ulty Road of­fers little in­dic­a­tion of the pleas­ures pro­lif­er­ated in­side.

Us­ing a 22-foot cop­per still that was hand-man­u­fac­tured in Scot­land, Phil­adelphia Dis­tilling an­nounced its ar­rival in early 2006 with the re­lease of Blue­coat Amer­ic­an dry gin, a cit­rus-in­flu­enced New World take on the tra­di­tion­ally piney and harsh vari­ety first pop­ular­ized in 18th-cen­tury Eng­land.

“You didn’t really see any new gins on the mar­ket. Our concept was to do something dif­fer­ent, both with mar­ket­ing and the spir­it,” Cas­sell said. “I think the concept we went with had a broad­er ap­peal. One of the com­ments we’d hear people say was, ‘I don’t drink gin, but I like that.’”

With­in a few months, Blue­coat was avail­able in 500 stores, bars and res­taur­ants throughout Pennsylvania and New Jer­sey. The con­coc­tion went on to earn “Best Gin” hon­ors in the 2009 and 2010 San Fran­cisco World Spir­its Com­pet­i­tion.

Now it’s dis­trib­uted to 37 states and eight coun­tries, in­clud­ing France, Italy, Spain and the Balt­ic na­tions.

In fall 2008, Phil­adelphia Dis­tilling ad­ded one bar­room staple and one trendy oddity to its lineup.

Cas­sell con­cocted Pen­n1681 vodka from or­gan­ic­ally grown Pennsylvania rye as a trib­ute to the state’s farm­ing and pre-Pro­hib­i­tion dis­tilling legacies, with a nod to his per­son­al her­it­age. Now 33, the mas­ter dis­til­ler is the des­cend­ant of early Ger­man im­mig­rants who bought land from Wil­li­am Penn in the 1700s near present-day Skip­pack.

“The vodka thing was after two years of hear­ing people say, ‘Do you have a vodka?’ It was time to do a vodka,” Cas­sell said.

Mean­while, the im­petus be­hind the com­pany’s in­tro­duc­tion of Vieux Carr&ea­cute; ab­sinthe was pure folly. The vari­ety, with its three de­fin­ing in­gredi­ents of grande worm­wood, fen­nel and green an­ise, has since the late 19th cen­tury car­ried the stigma of its tra­di­tion­al pop­ular­ity among artists and bo­hemi­ans and its com­mon as­so­ci­ation with anti-so­cial and crim­in­al be­ha­vi­or.

European na­tions began ban­ning it soon after the turn of the 20th cen­tury, and the United States soon fol­lowed suit.

“The mys­tique about it is it has these psy­cho­trop­ic ef­fects,” Cas­sell said, “but that was a res­ult of good lob­by­ists and bad sci­ence.”

In France, for ex­ample, wine pro­du­cers were dis­gruntled about the pop­ular­ity of the spir­it, so they fin­anced a sci­entif­ic study of its ef­fects us­ing men­tal pa­tients as sub­jects, ac­cord­ing to Cas­sell.

In Amer­ica, fed­er­al reg­u­lat­ors lif­ted the ban on ab­sinthe in 2007. A mild re­sur­gence of in­terest en­sued, per­haps driv­en by the ta­boo at­trac­tion.

“I think when we star­ted out (with it), you had people do­ing that. But now the nov­elty has worn off and you have people say­ing, ‘I like it. It has an in­ter­est­ing fla­vor.’ You have people who gen­er­ally like that type of product,” Cas­sell said.

The Vieux Carr&ea­cute; name is a ref­er­ence to New Or­leans’ French Quarter. Trans­lated, it means “Old Square.”

This year, Phil­adelphia Dis­tilling de­b­uted yet an­oth­er trendy product that doesn’t dis­ap­point in dis­play­ing class be­hind the hip la­bel. XXX Shine white whis­key is one of per­haps a dozen moon­shine-styled premi­um bever­ages made by small, in­de­pend­ent dis­til­lers in the United States.

“This is meant to be the fun, crazy uncle type of product,” Cas­sell said.

Un­like bour­bon or Scotch, white whis­key is clear be­cause it’s bottled straight from the still.

“There’s no bar­rel-aging, so you don’t get the col­or (of whis­key) and there are no (fla­vor) notes you get from a bar­rel,” Cas­sell said.

“The sim­pli­city of Shine is that the only in­gredi­ents you get are corn, wa­ter and yeast.”

Like its sib­ling brands, XXX Shine is wrapped to sparkle on the shelf as much as it tingles the pal­ate. It’s pack­aged in a corked jug with a black bandana-style la­bel. The triple-X monik­er de­notes its triple-dis­tilled pro­cess.

Ac­cord­ing to Cas­sell, shop­pers who enter a Wine and Spir­its store look­ing for spir­its gen­er­ally spend less than a minute walk­ing around be­fore they’re ready to make a pur­chase.

“So you have to pop out at them and ap­peal to them,” the dis­til­ler said. ••

For more in­form­a­tion, vis­it www.Phil­adelphi­aDis­ or call 215-671-0346.

Re­port­er Wil­li­am Kenny can be reached at 215-354-3031 or

You can reach at

comments powered by Disqus