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The New Distillers: A Pair of Startups Help Reestablish a PA Industry Dormant Since Prohibition

Ten years ago on a cold, dark night, Prentiss Orr was thinking. Orr, who in previous lives had owned his own advertising agency and had helped market Pittsburgh, found himself in the middle of the burgeoning brew pub explosion--at the time, there were some half-dozen in Pittsburgh alone. And he wondered: why aren't there similar liquor distilleries? Small-batch, high quality, privately owned and operated. Producing something he liked himself. Something like vodka.

"It always puzzled me," Orr says today, in the offices of his Pennsylvania Pure Distilleries, in Glenshaw, north of Pittsburgh, "why just make beer?"

Still thinking, Orr realized that he "was blessed with having launched many products into many markets. I decided that if I had one client, I'd want it to be one that I owned."

Then, on another cold, dark night in 2003, Barry Young called. A successful UPMC exec, Young wanted to do his own thing--something, anything--rather than work for someone, or something, else. "I want to run a company," he told Orr.

"I've had this crazy idea," Orr answered.

Bottling the hearts

With a simple business model, basic ingredients (potatoes, yeast, and water), and Spartan implements (cookers, bottlers, and a new German pot still), they incorporated in 2005. Then they found it "incredibly hard," Orr recalls, to raise the money. "Anxiety," he warns, "waiting for an answer, will eat you alive."

But Orr & Young's proverbial ace-in-the-hole was that their product is "sexy," Orr says. "Who doesn't like vodka?"

The Commonwealth kicked in a $165,000 grant from the First Industries Fund from the Department of Community and Economic Development for value-added agriculture production. "Nobody ever said, 'are you guys idiots?'" Orr recalls. "The huge obstacle that we feared we weren't seeing just wasn't there. Nobody ever did it before? I was stunned. It seemed so obvious. So...right!"

Finally, $650,000 in hand, they began. "Potatoes?" Orr asks. "They're plentiful here. Water, too. What we learned at alcohol school is 'quality in, quality out.'"

Staying exclusively with Pennsylvania spuds--for sweetness and a smooth finish--"our premise was that we could make a better vodka than what was on the shelf," Orr says.

The process, writ small, is the taters are cooked in water, then put into fermentation tanks with yeast. "It's a common process," Orr says, "and natural. Sugar plus yeast equals alcohol, in this case about 12 percent."

They put about 1,000 liters of that stuff into their 1,200-liter pot still. The first distillation takes out alcohol called the heads, which Orr likens to airplane glue. Like most distillers, they toss that. The second distillation, producing the hearts, gives them "alcohol that's pure, clear, and clean," Orr says, "the naturally sweet, good stuff that we keep."

You'd think they'd be done by now, but no. Distilling the liquid a third time, the last batch, called the tails, is musky. They pitch that, too. "We bottle only the hearts," Orr says. "That's very rare."

What they wind up with is 95 percent alcohol. That, your quick conversion table tells you, is 190-proof, potent enough to petrify even the most seasoned elbow bender. So they water it down to a mere 80-proof, or 40 percent alcohol, still a singular beverage, just right for a two-drink limit. Bottling two days a week, Orr & Young hand-fill every bottle, dip the tops in wax, and sign and number every bottle. Rolling off the line in mid-'08, they now deliver some 460 cases a month (or 2,500 bottles.)

"We produce something we're really proud of," Orr says. Being family men, they named their creation Boyd & Blair, after forebears who provided inspiration.

Homegrown gin, rye vodka, absinthe

On the other side of the state, in Northeast Philadelphia, Philadelphia Distilling, which produces Bluecoat American Dry Gin, as well as 1681 Rye Vodka and Vieux Carre Absinthe Superiere, came about much the same way. Playing golf in West Chester one day in 2004, Rob Cassell had the same thought as Prentiss Orr: "Did you ever notice," he asked a friend, "how there are small, local wineries and breweries, but no distilleries?"

A veteran of Wayne's Valley Forge Brewing and Downingtown's Victory Brewing, Cassell turned his thought into action. Although studying at Heriot-Watt, a distilling school in Edinburgh, Scotland, was easy, the licensing in Pennsylvania wasn't. "No one in Harrisburg had any experience issuing a distillery license," Cassell says.

Persevering, by the end of 2005, he and two partners--Andrew Auwerda and Tim Yarnall--had been licensed to operate Pennsylvania's first craft distillery since Prohibition. "We started with gin," Cassell says, "because it was a category that was dominated by a few players. There hadn't been anything new for a while.  There was nothing super-premium and American."

Seizing the market niche, they handcrafted Bluecoat, which rolled off the production line in '06. Using organic juniper berries, Bluecoat uses a secret blend of organic citrus peels that gives it a distinctly American finish.

For Cassell & Co., the prize was not only a 17 percent growth over two years, but also copping a gold medal at a London competition. "That was great," Cassell says, pointing out that for an American distiller to take first place in the world center of gin would be akin to an English bourbon maker replicating the feat in Kentucky.

Flush with success, Philadelphia Distilling has branched out to vodka that uses local rye. "Farmers, who use it mainly as a cover crop, were happy to sell it to us," Cassell says. And absinthe. Banned for nearly a century because of supposed hallucinogenic properties, their Vieux Carré Absinthe, bowing to New Orleans not Philadelphia, uses traditional grand wormwood. "I'm very particular about my herb and botanical sections," Cassell says.

Indeed, that was paramount. "King Charles II gave William Penn his charter in 1681, and my family purchased land from him in the early 1700s. We have long, deep roots in Pennsylvania. It's something we take pride in. We wanted to show that we could make premium products right here."

OK, laddie, you've whipped the Brits at the gin game. How about going head-to-head with malted barley? Do you think you could make something that could snap the Scots' hold on the single-malt market?

"In time," Cassell smiles. "In time."

Abby Mendelson's latest book, End of the Road, a collection of short stories, is available at amazon and bn.com. Send feedback here.

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Bottles at Boyd & Blair

Barry Young over Prentiss Orr

Copper still

Rob Cassell with his Vertical Column Still design

Penn1681 Bottling

Photographs of Boyd & Blair by Heather Mull

Photographs of Rob Cassell by Michael Persico
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