Philadelphia Distilling Company

I finally got a chance to tour a distiller that's right here in my backyard, Northeast Philly's Philadelphia Distilling Company, home of Bluecoat American Dry Gin, Penn 1681 vodka, and Vieux Carre absinthe. No they don't make whiskey, but they do make some very fine spirits and they have a beautiful Scottish-made copper pot-still that looks just slightly out-of-place in the ho-hum industrial park that Philadelphia Distilling calls home. That's more than enough for me to be interested.

I've been drinking Bluecoat Gin as long as I've been drinking gin. By that I mean it's a gin that appeals to non-gin-lovers and, in my case, eventually eases you into a taste for gin in general. It's a citrusy, crisp spirit that has become quite popular in the Philadelphia area since it was introduced in 2005. Enough about Bluecoat though, this entry is about the distillery where it's made and the highly educational tour I took on recent afternoon.

Step one of touring Philadelphia Distilling Company was finding it. It's tucked away in a bland multi-tenant industrial building off Roosevelt Boulevard in Northeast Philadelphia. Not necessarily a place where you'd expect to find truly innovative distillers plying their craft, but it seems to work just fine. They don't offer regular tours, but if you watch their facebook page you'll see occasional opportunities to tour the facility. On the day I went only two other people besides myself and my friend showed up, making for an intimate group of four that had the full attention of the tour guide, company founder, and master distiller Robert Cassell.

The tour at Philadelphia Distilling is really more of a lecture on the art and science of distilling (they definitely seem to incorporate more science into their approach than most craft distillers I've visited). Mr. Cassell is well qualified to give the tour since he spent time as a micro-brewer, studied distilling in Scotland, and knows every single nut and bolt of Philadelphia Distilling's operation. We were seated at a table in the 'one-big-room' production area, facing the two-story tall distillation set-up. Behind us sat the bottling line, pallets of raw materials, and cases of finished product waiting to be shipped out - we could easily observe and discuss the whole production process from grinding the grain to bottling without leaving our seats. In front of each seat at the table were five shot glasses, as well as some promotional information about Philadelphia Distilling's products. After a quick introduction and company history we made use of the shot glasses to compare Bluecoat Gin and Penn 1681 Vodka to their more mainstream competitors - Tanqueray and Stolichnaya. This side-by-side tasting does a lot to highlight the unique flavor profiles of Bluecoat and Penn 1681. The Vieux Carre absinthe was tasted without comparison to a mainstream competitor since there really aren't any on the market yet, but it stood up just fine on its own.

After the head-to-head tastings Mr. Cassell broke out samples of the various ingredients that go into making his spirits. We had a chance to sniff juniper berries, lemon peel, anise, and the other botanicals that go into Bluecoat Gin. We also got to see the raw rye grain used to distill the Penn 1681 vodka. Since many of Philadelphia Distilling Company's ingredients are sourced from local organic farmers, we also got a good education on the some of the more obscure crops that can be obtained in the Philadelphia area. Overall the tour lasted almost two hours, and along with sampling plenty of product we dove in depth into many of the details of distilling and the distilling industry which was very interesting for me, but might bore a less nerdy crowd. It is also a very relaxing tour, the only strenuous part is climbing up a flight of stairs to peek inside the still, with the rest of the time spent sitting and sipping. To cap the tour off we each got to mix a gin and tonic with Bluecoat poured straight from the bottling tank. It doesn't get much fresher than that.

Philadelphia Distilling strikes me as a craft-distiller that has the potential to grow into a much larger operation over the coming years. Their products are already distributed in 26 states, and if you're looking for high-quality gin, vodka, or absinthe at a competitive price point you absolutely can't beat this stuff. Now, if Pennsylvania would just allow them to sell product on-site maybe that would incentivize them to offer more frequent tours.