STORY WRITTEN BY ERIC DEVLIN
@Eric_Devlin on Twitter
A sweet fragrance permeates the room as you walk into the Manatawny Still Works, as the art of distilling craft spirits is underway right before your eyes. Four rows of large, aging wooden barrels rest stacked on top of each other toward the back of the room, behind a wooden bar and small seating area. On the left are three tall, steel and copper, cylindrical distilling kettles, connected by a web of piping, on a concrete floor. Quick to welcome you at the door is Piper, the Pottstown distillery’s favorite canine mascot, who loves attention, followed by Randy McKinley, vice president of sales and marketing.
“The name Manatawny means the place we meet to drink,” McKinley said. “That’s what people come out here for. It’s a great gathering spot.”
The craft distillery on Circle of Progress Drive, which opened April 1, 2014, takes its cue from the history of Pottstown. It’s products like J. Potts Whiskey and T. Rutter Rum, named after John Potts and Thomas Rutter who founded the borough and the iron forge, respectively, are a hat tip to the borough’s origin. Not to mention Odd Fellows No. 214 Gin, named after the Manatawny Lodge No. 214 for the Independent Organization of Odd Fellows.
“When we give our tours its not necessarily just what’s going on in the distillery it’s actually a history lesson,” McKinley said. “When people leave they’re like ‘wow I never knew the Golden Gate Bridge was built here in Pottstown.’ So it’s nice being able to tie those things together.”
Manatawny is part of a rising trend of hundreds of emerging distilleries in the region. And that number is only growing by the day. Places like Bluebird Distillery in Phoenixville, Brandywine Branch in Chester County, Boardroom Spirits in Lansdale (scheduled to open as soon as it receives a license to distill), Five Saints Distilling in Norristown (scheduled to open this spring) and Midnight Madness Distilling in Quakertown are just a few of the craft distilleries popping up around our area alone.
The number of limited licensed distilleries in Pennsylvania has quintupled from just seven in 2012 to 36 as of today, according to the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. Each of these new distilleries has Harrisburg to thank for making it easier to set up shop. In 2011, Pennsylvania House Bill 242 (signed the next year by then Gov. Corbett) allowed the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board to issue limited distilling licences for craft distilleries to produce up to 100,000 gallons of liquor a year. That, along with the 2011 decision by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau to lower entry costs, helped attract a number of the craft beer brewers to dip their toe into the world of craft distilling. And consumers followed suit.
“What that did was attract a lot of people that were on the beer side and saw the movement coming. And it also brought in people like Max (Pfeffer, director of operations), a chemical engineer by education, a beer guy by trade,” McKinley said. “It was the perfect opportunity for him to do it.”
Now instead of heading straight for the Jack Daniels or Jim Beam, there are newer, local options available for consumers to try.
“It’s mirrored the growth of craft beer,” McKinley said. “The consumer was educated by those (beer) guys. Instead of drinking Miller or Budweiser, there were craft offerings in that.”
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Jared Adkins is another one of those early adopters. Down the Schuylkill River, in the heart of Phoenixville, sits his Bluebird Distillery, at the corner of Bridge and Starr Streets.
“Distilling was kind of a natural evolution,” he said of the craft industry that began with local wineries 10-15 years ago and continued through craft brewers. “I feel like it’s mostly people opening their palates. I tend to see the people who actually like craft beer are more open to trying whiskey and spirits and something new down the avenue.”
PHOTO GALLERY: BLUEBIRD DISTILLERY
Bluebird opened its doors last summer and Adkins has learned a lot over the past year.
“The first year was absolutely crazy,” he said. “There’s really something new every single day. I’m still trying to figure out the whole industry as a whole. It went from learning to make the spirits and make a good quality product, to all of sudden I’m learning how to run a bar and we do a full mixology bar, so we can make the best drinks we can.”
When you walk into Bluebird, the first thing you see is a warmly lit full bar with lots of seats resting on dark hardwood flooring. Unlike Manatawny, the copper Kothe hybrid pot stills, that look like widely shaped clarinets, are in the back of the 7,800-square-foot facility and the stacks of aging barrels are parceled off into a separate room on the right.
Bluebird gets its name from a term Adkins would use growing up to describe beautiful days.
“I was very big into skiing and snowboarding growing up,” he said. “It was Bluebird’s original term for the day after a storm, when it’s waist deep snow, perfect conditions, clouds are clear, blue skies and just a great day outside. Here the atmosphere that we have is Bluebird just means the quintessential nice day or that feel-good feeling.”
A relative newcomer to the game, Adkins opened Bluebird last summer after years of studying the business of distilling and the science behind it all. He came to the game with the intention of becoming a craft brewer, but soon became passionate about distilling once he learned distilling laws had changed.
“I started trying as much as I could and really fell in love with whiskey and different spirits,” he said. “My plan really started taking a curve from craft brewing, which there’s a million breweries already all doing a pretty good job, to this new emerging market, trying to get in front of something instead of tagging along.”
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Both McKinley and Adkins say they’re excited by the trend of new distillers and love the idea of partnering with other distilleries nearby to help create interesting group batches and work on other projects.
“A rising tide raises all ships for us,” Adkins said. “Nobody’s really in competition as of yet. Anything we can do together to raise awareness that there’s local spirits and there’s this whole entire craft movement going on (is a good thing).”
In fact, the goal, at least locally, is to create a Pennsylvania handcrafted spirit trail, similar to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Customers would get a passport that they can have stamped at each of the different distilleries along the spirit trail and at the end are rewarded with a prize.
“You’ve been to Bluebird, you’ve been to Five Saints and then at the end you get something,” McKinley said. “It’s definitely our goal to educate people that they have options. And whether you like our stuff or you like somebody else’s stuff, we highly encourage people to try everything. There’s something out there other than what you usually drink.”