One thing you’ll quickly learn while visiting Philadelphia: buying alcohol here is a little complicated. Thanks to the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB) and laws enacted right before the repeal of Prohibition, beer is sold separately from wine and liquor. The former can be found at independently owned, by-the-case distributors and specialty bottle shops, while the latter can only be purchased at state-run stores that have a poor reputation (some of it deserved) for less-than-stellar selection, service and prices.
Fortunately, a revolution is quietly brewing—or rather, distilling—in Philly.
“There were some beneficial changes that took place at the state level that ultimately allowed distilleries some new liberties and reduced the barriers to entry,” said Matt Quigley, who opened Federal Distilling with his brother, Bryan, in Old Kensington earlier this year. “It’s an exciting time to be a new distillery in Philadelphia. The scene is growing and the city is producing a lot of good products. It’s a small group of talented companies all doing something a little different.”
The Quigley brothers’ flagship spirit is Stateside Urbancraft Vodka. The bell-clear spirit, made with Midwestern corn and mineral-enriched water, represents years of experimentation in a basement laboratory and professional research on vodka blending and purification. Their gleaming German stillworks looks like a Wonka contraption, all towers and pipes and nozzles and spouts of hammered copper. In this system, Stateside is distilled a dozen times.
Federal Distilling is not the only must-know distillery in Philadelphia. Rob Cassel is really the man to credit with the renaissance’s first flicker of life in the mid-2000s. As the co-founder of Philadelphia Distilling—and its cobalt-bottled flagship Bluecoat Gin—he put the city on the craft-spirits map and has since moved on to a new project in Federal’s neck of the woods, New Liberty Distilling. At this distillery, school and event space Cassel is doing four styles of whiskey under his Kinsey label, including a cask-strength aged seven years. Nearby, Rowhouse Spirits puts out white whiskey, fragrant gin, rum funkified with a Basque strain of yeast, an herbal liqueur called Bear Trap and another called Le Coeur Noir (The Black Heart) made with coffee from local roaster ReAnimator. Distiller Dean Browne only does runs of 100 bottles at a time.
In Fishtown, Philly’s oldest coffee roaster, La Colombe, has also gotten into the distilling game with their coffee-flavored Different Drum Rum. “The rum was born out of this puzzle that I did myself which was, what would be the best way to experience sugar and coffee?” said Colombe founder and chief tinkerer Todd Carmichael. “I came up with a process where I infuse the flavors of the coffee—they're in the mitochondria actually, the cell wall of the bean—and I suspend them in the rum, which is basically distilled sugar. So it's coffee and sugar, but the best way I can think of having it.
This vibe of upstart entrepreneurs, of experimentation is really powering the movement. “When you spend as much time in coffee growing regions as I do, one of the things that you realize right away is that these isolated farmers are all moonshining,” said Carmichael, who also hosts Travel Channel’s Dangerous Grounds. “Through osmosis, I picked up the craft myself, and began doing cognacs, Armagnacs, brandies and I was doing just about everything until I finally landed on rum which I really like.”
“I think this strong maker’s mentality in Pennsylvania has spilled over from [the craft-beer world] into the distilling sector and is only starting to gain traction,” said Quigley. In one case that’s happened literally: Across town in the Cedar Park district of West Philly, Dock Street Brewing just got into the distilling game with the recent launch of their Vicio Mezcal. Billed as a ‘voluptuous habit’ this floral, gently smoky sipping spirit is made from 100% espadin agave, a breed prized by Oaxacan mezcaleros.
You could pick up many of these elixirs at the nearest PLCB Fine Wine & Good Spirits store, but it’s way more fun to visit the distilleries, tasting rooms and on-site retail shops. “Philly is a city with a lot of pride that welcomes products made here,” said Quigley. Why not bring a bottle home?