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 Carré 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 Carré 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.PhiladelphiaDistilling.com or call 215–671–0346.

Reporter William Kenny can be reached at 215–354–3031 or bkenny@bsmphilly.com