April 13-19, 2006
Eats : FoodRed, White and Bluecoat
A local distillery challenges the Brits to a friendly game of gin.
But even people who know about Jacquin's probably have no clue that we have a second distillery, located in an industrial park way up in the Northeast. That's going to change late this month, when Philadelphia Distilling's first product hits the state store shelves: Bluecoat American Gin.
"Obviously with a product called Bluecoat, we're going back to the Revolutionary soldiers who won the country," said Andrew Auwerda, one of three partners in the distillery. "We love English gin, but we do it better. And why should we drink English gin? Didn't we win the war?"
: Michael T. Regan
Philadelphia Distilling is part of a new wave of microdistillers, following the wave of microbrewers, which in turn followed the rise of small wineries. There are some microspirits on local shelves already: Tito's Vodka from Texas; Hangar One Vodkas from California, and Dogfish Head Vodka from Delaware.
A lot of microdistillers make vodka. It's a good first choice: It's cheap, it's relatively easy, it doesn't have to be aged, and you've got a market that's already used to the idea of paying top dollar for a product that is "without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color."
So why not Bluecoat Vodka? "Why try to make the most bland, tasteless spirit you can?" replied master distiller Rob Cassell, who is Auwerda's nephew, and the guy who had the idea in the first place. "I want something with distinctive flavors. There's the wonderful coincidence of something I want to do, and a hole in the market."
Auwerda, the marketing man for the distillery, saw the hole. "There are too many big players in vodka, with big money," he said. "But about 85 percent of gin sales in Pennsylvania is only three brands: Tanqueray, Bombay and Beefeater. That's pretty concentrated, and it seemed ripe for innovation."
A self-described "science geek," Cassell was earning a degree in nuclear medicine when he veered off the track a bit. "I took a semester off and got a job brewing at the former Valley Forge Brewing in Wayne. It was great. I could take a whole bunch of things and twist them all together in a really cool way. I took my brain and my sweat and I made this."
Nuclear medicine forgotten, Cassell eventually landed at Victory Brewing in Downingtown. "During my time at Victory, I had this idea," Cassell remembered. "Wouldn't it be cool if you could do what people did with microbrewing with distilling? That thought just kept churning and churning." He read everything he could find and took correspondence courses from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland, while still working 65 hours a week at the brewery.
Armed with his passion and hard-won knowledge, Cassell talked to his uncle, and their third partner, Timothy Yarnall, who has a strong sales background. They went to the top of the line for their still: A. Forsythe & Son, of Rothes, Scotland, where they make stills the old-fashioned way, by hand-hammering copper. Once the still was installed, Cassell began experimenting.
Gin is not very well-defined. "I asked a spirits competition for style guidelines, what they were looking for in a good gin," said Cassell. "All they told me was that the biggest winner was Tanqueray. What the hell is that? They want you to be the best copycat of Tanqueray, make Tanqueray better than Tanqueray? Forget that!"
The partners decided to put an emphasis on citrus. The citrus flavors they came up with during testing were "cool flavors," according to Cassell, and they just didn't want to have them buried in juniper, the standard, piney heart of gin flavor. "Going with that and not sticking with the stodgy traditional went over very well in the tasting tests we did," Cassell said.
There's a difference in that piney heart, too. Cassell found an organic juniper berry, softer and more complex than the standard juniper: It was bigger, stickily smashable between the fingers, and so much more interesting than the knife-to-the-nose pine of the common juniper. "I didn't want the over-the-top pungent pine needles," said Cassell, "but to be gin, you had to have juniper. What we use is still juniper, but it's grown in a different region; you get variations."
When the result of this experimentation comes out in late April, you'll only see it in Pennsylvania. Philadelphia Distilling's "fourth partner" is the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. The state's control of retail liquor sales actually works in their favor: They only had to sell the product once to get in the whole state.
"We have an extremely positive relationship with them so far," said Auwerda. "They were supportive right from the get-go. I liked the idea: one buyer, one level playing field where the state presents. We are going to be launched in 143 stores, in their top two demographic clusters, the premium stores."
Sold only in Pennsylvania with the cooperation of the PLCB, made to American standards on a new taste model, and presented on the merits of that taste rather than its package or advertising: Bluecoat American Gin looks revolutionary indeed.