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Distiller's Journal

April 22, 2014

Whiskey Makers Hope To Make A Splash

Last month, the crew at Manatawny Still Works was so ready to make the first batch of rum, they filled the fermentation tanks just in case they got the green light after an inspection. They got the OK and started as soon as the inspector left.


Before the doors open, the blackboard already lists a drink menu.

The bar and tables made from reclaimed wood are ready for the first visitors.
The stacks of barrels in the back, the high-tech Italian stills and the two new employees all wait.

Last month, the crew at Manatawny Still Works was so ready to make the first batch of rum, they filled the fermentation tanks just in case they got the green light after an inspection. They got the OK and started as soon as the inspector left.

"I was waiting for the go-ahead," director of operations Max Pfeffer said. "Now that I have it, I'm not wasting any time."

By the time his first alcohol is ready to hit the bar, the Pottstown business will be the latest small distillery to open in Pennsylvania. Two years after the state created a new license for small-batch distillers, 20 have opened, and there are more in the pipeline. The new distilleries combine special ingredients, traditional methods and modern technology. They're also reacting to the demand for premium alcohol and locally-made products.

Distilleries Respond To Demand

As drinkers in the U.S. trade beer for other options, spirits sales continue to grow, according to Euromonitor International's latest report on spirits in the U.S. Drinkers are becoming more adventurous and are willing to try new brands that show differentiation and added value with things such as new flavors, limited editions, quality and a good back story.

People cut back during the recession but now are spending more on alcohol, especially high-end spirits. Vodka, fueled by myriad flavors, remains the largest alcohol category, but whiskey sales grew 23 percent in volume in 2012, according to the report. Whiskey makers, in particular, are capitalizing on the demand for authentic, premium products. Much of the growth comes from the craft distilling movement.

"Demand for craft, artisanal and high-end spirits is developing in reaction to the lower quality image of indulgent-tasting vodka," the report said.

Definitions of small distilleries vary by state, but the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States includes companies bottling less than 100,000 gallons annually. The number of small distillers more than quadrupled in the past four years to more than 400, according to the council.

And what does "craft" mean? It depends on whom you ask. It can mean small, independently owned, distilled on site or quality. Or it can be used as a marketing buzzword with no real definition.

David J. Reimer Sr. of Windsor Township saw the growth in small distilleries when researching his book "Craft and Micro Distilleries in the U.S. and Canada." The fourth edition will be available in May.

"You can just see in a matter of three years, the industry has exploded," he said. "A lot of that is the first pioneers who started craft distilleries, they were successful in changing legislation in their states. Now it's easier for folks to start a craft distillery."

Pennsylvania only had a few small distilleries when the state changed the liquor code in late 2011 to create a new, less-expensive license for smaller-volume distilleries. The law also allowed small distilleries to sell direct to the public at on-site tasting rooms, similar to breweries and wineries.

The state has two large distilleries: Charles Jacquin et Cie Inc. in Philadelphia, which makes Jacquin's cordials; and Pravda Vodka and American Beverage Corp. in the Pittsburgh area, which makes Daily's Cocktails, a line of pre-mixed cocktails, as well as Little Hug nonalcoholic fruit drinks.

There are 20 small distilleries, plus seven applications pending or not renewed. Distilleries opened in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and in smaller cities including York, Lancaster and Williamsport. They're making everything from potato vodka and organic rye whiskey to gin and absinthe. The newer companies might have spirits aging, but most make white or unaged spirits to sell now, said Frank Coleman, senior vice president of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, a trade group that launched a small distiller affiliate membership program three years ago.

Manatawny Waits For Its Whiskey

Great whiskey starts with great brewing. That's why Manatawny Still Works set up across the street from Sly Fox Brewing Co.'s production facility in Pottstown.

The business started when John Giannopoulos, one of Sly Fox's managing partners, brought together several investors, said Randy McKinley, Manatawny's vice president of sales and marketing.

They used upcycled wood to make the tables and bar, giving the new industrial space a weathered atmosphere. Starting a distillery is costly and time-consuming, McKinley said, but the now-open tasting room will help grow the brand while the alcohol ages.

Customers can tour the operation and sample the spirits. The bar will have drinks available at the bar as well as bottles of Manatawny's craft product.

"There's also the tourism aspect of these distilleries that should not be underestimated," said Coleman, with the spirits council. "People like to visit these places."

The company will focus on whiskey, but the first batch won't be ready for two years. In the meantime, Manatawny will make alcohol with quicker turnaround times: unaged whiskey, rum, gin and vodka. Aged whiskeys will be available by the end of the year, with the first batch of two-year Pennsylvania Whiskey available in early 2016.

Distilling starts at neighboring Sly Fox, using the brewery's base malts and adding Manatawny's own specialty malts such as wheat, oats or rye. That resulting "wash" will be brought back to Manatawny to be fermented and sent through the two stills, said director of operations Max Pfeffer. An automated system will remove unwanted compounds and collect the alcohol as it condenses.

Pfeffer studied chemical engineering at Penn State and brewing at University of California-Davis. He brings his brewing experience from Sly Fox and Victory Brewing Co. to the distilling process.

"Craft is starting with good ingredients and paying attention to all the quality points," he said.

A Taste Of Thistle Finch In Lancaster

Thistle Finch Distilling in Lancaster started selling its own unaged rye whiskey on Christmas Eve.

Owner Andrew Martin, who used to work in e-commerce, had been interested in the business for a while. He liked the idea of making rye whiskey, a liquor with a long history in Pennsylvania.

"I think it makes sense," he said. "It's a great product. It really ties into the history of Pennsylvania."

Martin had already planned to start a distillery before the limited license was an option. He chose the new license because it fit the small business' output, cost less and added the option for a tasting room.

The small batch white rye whiskey starts with ingredients such as rye from McGeary Organics in Lancaster and is distilled in equipment Martin built.

The unaged or white rye whiskey is clear and sells for $32 a bottle. In the tasting room, you can buy whiskey straight or a cocktail such as a whiskey sour or a Martin mule, his take on the Moscow Mule but made with rye whiskey.

It's a balancing act to decide when to divert the whiskey from the busy tasting room for aging, which he started in March. The first aged whiskeys will be ready in six months to a year. Eventually, Martin wants to age the whiskey two years, long enough for it to be called straight rye whiskey.

The white rye whiskey is available online through the state's Fine Wine & Good Spirits store. Martin sells to several Lancaster bars and restaurants and hopes his products will be available at the state's premium stores soon. He's considering flavoring whiskey with things such as caraway and may add additional products by the time the system is up to its capacity of 1,000 bottles a month at the end of the year.

Martin compares small distilleries to microbreweries. While there are more small distilleries opening, he considers that a good thing, not competition.

"I'm hoping that a rising tide will (lift) all boats," he said.

Reading Eagle | Business Weekly
By Erin Negley Tuesday April 22, 2014

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Manatawny Still Works, Pottstown, Pennsylvania

1603 E Passyunk Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19148
p: 267-519-2917

Passyunk Avenue Tasting Room and Craft Spirits Shop
Monday - Thursday (5pm - 11pm)
Friday & Saturday (Noon - 11pm)
Sunday (Noon - 8pm)

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320 Circle of Progress Drive
Suite 104
Pottstown, PA 19464
p: 484.624.8271

Tasting Room HoursMon - Wed (Walk-in sales only)
Thursday (5 - 9pm)
Friday (3 - 11pm)
Saturday (Noon - 11pm)
Sunday (Noon - 5pm)

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