A rash of craft distillers is now freckling our region, all of them making some truly elevated hooch. Reforms passed in Pennsylvania in 2011 and in Jersey in 2013 ignited a small-batch spirits boom, the likes of which our region hasn’t seen since the halcyon days before Prohibition, or even much further back in some areas.
You’ve likely heard of (and probably tried) the first to bear fruit—Dad’s Hat, in Bristol; HEWN, in Pipersville; Manatawny, in Pottstown—now the established guard of the movement. But the landscape’s filled in around them over the last year or two. Whiskey, vodka, rum, even if you’ve been a lifelong drinker of one or the other, this latest generation of artisans is finding its niche in nuance, crafting variations that are, in equal shares, truer to form and far more exotic than anything you’ve tasted before.
With some long, gray months ahead of us, the time’s come to meet the most appetizing of these new makers. After all, their spirits may become our sole salvation.
By Scott Edwards
Eight Oaks Craft Distillers | New Tripoli
After a 25-year career in the military and far too many nights spent away from his family, Chad Butters’ retirement plan was purely personal in its inception: Run a family business. Nearly a year in, Eight Oaks is, above all else, just that. His daughter oversees the tasting room, where his son tends bar. Her husband is the master distiller. His sister is the distillery’s attorney. And her husband, Jesse Tyahla, is Butters’ partner. (It took me a few passes, too.)
In the waning months of his service, Butters and Tyahla attended distilling workshops at Michigan State and Cornell universities and toured about 25 distilleries. Then, they interned at another in Spokane, Washington. When they returned home, full of confidence, Butters and his wife promptly sold their home and bought a farm, where, in short order, they began growing grain—wheat, rye and barley, along with corn—and constructed the distillery.
WHAT THEY MAKE Vodka, gin, rum and applejack (In the works: rye whiskey, bourbon, aged applejack and spiced and aged rums.)
THE LOWDOWN What you get in Eight Oaks is a self-contained process steeped in tradition. “Really, for us, it’s back to that whole concept of grain to glass,” Butters says. “That sounds simple. And it sounds a little bit like a marketing term. In reality, the application is exceptionally difficult.”
With so many variables at play in the distillation, not to mention the farming, Butters defers to the historical precedent as often as it’s appropriate. And science when it’s not. In fact, the very first spirit that came out of Eight Oaks’ still was a nod to the craft’s history.
As rum grew scarce during the Revolutionary War, farmers stumbled upon applejack, which Butters describes as “the original American spirit.” It’s basically fermented cider—that grew more potent as the winter wore on and the farmers removed the ice. When we talked, Butters was favoring a far more subdued version, an applejack hot toddy, as a cold remedy.
Skunktown Distillery | Flemington, NJ
Like so many other great ideas, Skunktown Distillery was born during a liquor-fueled night around a bonfire. “I said, ‘We’re smart guys. Let’s figure out how to make this.’ We both kind of laughed it off,” Caine Fowler says, referring to himself and longtime friend Paul Hyatt. “The next morning, he called me up and said, ‘You know, you had a really good idea last night.’ I said, ‘No. That was a stupid idea.’ ”
Fowler (pictured, left) is an IT project manager in the pharmaceutical industry. He’s traveled all over the world for his work and drank just about everything there is to drink in the course of it. But Hyatt (pictured, right), a tile-setter, has the far more sophisticated palate between them. He comes from a long line of drinkers. Not happy-hour mainstays. Drinkers.
“He can say, ‘This is what’s good. This what’s pretty good,’ ” Fowler says, “Everything does the right thing to me but tastes kind of harsh.”
Once they began to realize just how well they complement each other, the idea of a distillery started to sound a lot less, well, drunken. They founded Skunktown in September 2015 but only received the last of their licensing this month. When you’re the first distillery to launch in the county in 200 years, the scrutiny’s relentless, apparently.
WHAT THEY MAKE Vodka, whiskey and rum. (They’re expecting the first bottles to be available by Christmas.)
THE LOWDOWN The official line: Fowler and Hyatt are aiming for simple and pure, just as they regard the town in which they both live and after which they named their distillery. That would be Sergeantsville, NJ, formerly known as—I kid you not—Skunktown. No one’s entirely sure why. The obvious answer seems to be the most plausible: Lots of skunks at an unfortunate time, when naming rights were still up for grabs. But I digress. They’re using basic, local ingredients, doing little to them and distilling in a copper still, which is the oldest way, and still the truest.
The unofficial line: These are two old drinking buddies basically egging each other on. (Read: This could get fun fast.) They’re already working through the recipe for a scorching pepper vodka. Fowler, a lover of all things spicy, grows the Carolina Reaper, the hottest variety there is. “But that’s not the recipe that’s going to be bottled,” he says. “Don’t worry.”
Boardroom Spirits | Lansdale
Boardroom launched 10 months ago as an escape plan from corporate life, fueled by a renewed appreciation in heritage. Brothers Marat and Vlad Mamedov are Armenian. Zsuzsa, Marat’s wife, is Hungarian. Both are strong brandy cultures. Trouble is, ours isn’t. Another obstacle: Distilling brandy isn’t as forgiving as distilling the likes of vodka, gin and whiskey.
“If you mess up picking the wrong fruit, if you mess up fermentation, if you mess up distilling, you’re pretty much done,” Marat says.
So they opted to build their brand with the basics and revisit the brandy in the near future, being the experienced strategists that they are. With the help of a distiller in Europe, they spent a year working through recipes—85 in all. Once they settled on a line, they hired a master distiller here. Marat, Vlad and Zsuzsa stick to their strong suit: managing the operation. If a single, prevailing thought came out of the recipe trials, Marat says, it’s this: What I like doesn’t really matter.
WHAT THEY MAKE Vodka (straight and infused), gin, rum and a beet spirit. (In the works: whiskey and brandy.)
THE LOWDOWN Precision-crafted. No eyeballing here. The Lansdale distillery is the North American showroom for Hagyo Distilling, a Hungarian manufacturer with a reputation for state-of-the-art innovation. Where most small-batch makers will build their brand around the handcrafting, not here; everything’s fully automated.
Boardroom’s aim is to cherry-pick spirits from all over the world and turn them into household names here. “But at the same time, we want to make sure that we’re very precise in our distillation process”—it came up more than once—”so that they ring true to the category,” Marat says.
Example A: Their beet spirit, which was introduced this fall. They hauled in 2,000 pounds of beets, ground them down, then fermented and distilled them like a brandy. It’s the first installment in their periodical table-themed series. Thus, the capital B on the label. Next up: apple (A) and carrot (C).
“We want to keep things simple and let pure, natural flavors shine through,” Marat says. “When it comes to crafting our spirits, it’s all about, how do we derive the flavor naturally?”
Thistle Finch Distillery | Lancaster
Curiosity compelled Andrew Martin to follow his friends into home-brewing. Soon after, he happened upon distilling, and he immediately understood why they were all so entranced. He dropped brewing then and there and started reading everything he could find on distilling.
Martin grew up in Lancaster County and moved back to Lancaster proper 16 years ago. Every distiller in this portfolio carries a profound appreciation for the craft’s roots and their regions, but only Martin’s built his own still from scratch. And he named his distillery after a bird that’s become synonymous with Lancaster. Among the countless hex signs that appear in Pennsylvania Dutch folk art, known as fraktur, you’ll often find a bird. That bird is a thistle finch, and it’s meant to represent happiness and good luck.
WHAT THEY MAKE White rye whiskey; black pepper rye whiskey; black coffee rye whiskey; straight, two-year-old rye whiskey; gin and vodka
THE LOWDOWN In case it wasn’t already obvious, Thistle Finch specializes in rye whiskey. The white rye whiskey, an unaged whiskey that Martin describes as “kind of like a high-class moonshine,” was the first spirit he bottled three years ago. Cut to present day, Thistle Finch just bottled a two-year-old, straight rye whiskey, becoming only the third distillery in Pennsylvania to offer it. “That’s definitely the biggest milestone since we opened,” Martin says.
“We’re doing rye whiskey because that would have been the historic spirit made here in eastern Pennsylvania,” he says.
Typically, farmers around here planted rye in the winter to help preserve the soil. As such, back in the day, it was the cheapest grain that distillers could get their hands on and why rye whiskey was so prolific. But those distillers fell off the map with prohibition. This latest boom has brought a new wave of them, but few are like Thistle Finch.
Martin may be a traditionalist at heart, but he’s not making a traditional rye whiskey. The standard recipe calls for 100 percent rye or two-thirds rye mixed with a third of corn. Thistle Finch is making its from 60 percent rye, 30 percent wheat and 10 percent malted barley, which is what’s referred to as a “high-wheat rye” by those in the know. The thinking behind the move is that, where rye possesses a dry, spicy flavor profile and corn is sweet, the wheat will introduce a smoother, more robust taste. Basically, your grandfather’s rye whiskey, this is not.
Photos (from the top): courtesy Eight Oaks Craft Distillers (2); Josh DeHonney; courtesy Boardroom Spirits; courtesy Thistle Finch Distillery