In 2011, Governor Tom Corbett approved new legislation changing sections of the liquor code and approving Limited Distillery Licenses. This granted license holders the ability to manufacture and sell their bottled products, own and run satellite locations, open restaurants and hotels, with the option of distribution.
Distilled spirits can now join the boundless success breweries and wineries are experiencing throughout Pennsylvania. In order to facilitate this new opportunity for success, Bill Mathias of Old Republic Distillery contacted the York County Convention and Visitors Bureau, where the Mason-Dixon Wine Trail and Susquehanna Ale Trail were conceived in the hopes of creating a distilled spirits trail.
“There was a strong interest so we took all of the steps necessary to begin to put a trail together,” says Louise Heine, York County Convetion & Visitor’s Bureau destination marketing director. “[The trail] really is a way to give people a tasting journey and an experience.”
Old Republic was the first distillery in York since prohibition and one of the first in the state since the new law was passed. “It’s been a dream to rebuild the culture that once was very prevalent here in Pennsylvania and see if we can’t bring it back to that type of status,” Mathias says.
The trail incorporates 12 distilleries from York, Lancaster and Montgomery counties, and even extends into Maryland. Two local distilleries are among them, including Norristown’s Five Saints Distilling. Owner and founder, John George, spent the majority of his career in the pharmaceutical industry. He took an interest in distilling and after just three days at Moonshine University, a distilling school based in Louisville, Ky., he called his wife to tell her he was opening his own distillery.
Built in the historic Humane Fire Engine Company No. 1 firehouse, Five Saints is named after George’s five “fathers.” His own father died at the age of 36, but his three uncles and a close family friend made him feel like a son. To celebrate these men, he dedicated the distillery to their legacy and keeps their photos above the whiskey bar.
The firehouse has been a gathering place for the Norristown community for over 150 years. “They have entrusted us with their building, their home, and all of their belongings are on loan to us so that we can tell the story of Humane while we’re doing our distilling.”
Visitors can find a bevy of handcrafted distillations, including small batch vodka, mash bill white whiskey, Tuscan-style gin and blood orange liqueur.
Photo courtesy of Brandywine Branch Distillers.
Also joining the trail is Elverson’s Brandywine Branch Distillers, headed up by Don Avellino. He had a similar journey to distilling, though his initial vision involved beer. An uptick in distilleries piqued his interested and a new vision was born. “It all just seemed to come together,” Avellino says.
Today, Avellino makes his clear spirits, under the name Revivalist Spirits, in a restored 19th century barn on eight acres of farmland. “The craft of distilling is in a revival mode. Gin, also, is in a revival mode,” Avellino, the distillery’s president and CEO, explains. He takes pride in their vast array of gins, including seasonally inspired ones.
Joining the spirits trail was a natural fit for him. “There are wine trails all over the place—why shouldn’t there be a craft spirits trail?” he says.
Despite the proximity and similarities, the trail has brought the distillers and their companies together, rather than created a competition. “What we’re trying to do as a whole is bigger than any one of us,” says Old Republics’ Mathias.
He hopes one day the trail will expand beyond Southern Pennsylvania and become statewide. “I don’t see any reason to stop at any one hemisphere of Pennsylvania—why not the whole thing? Who knows where it could go from there,” he says.