Rob Cassell takes his booze seriously.
The barriers to getting started with a micro-distilling operation aren't easily surmounted. Unlike making homebrewed beer in the basement, an aspiring distiller needs to apply to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives for a permit. And, if you don't know what you're doing, there's always the risk of what Rob Cassell, Master Distiller at Philadelphia Distilling, describes succinctly as "spark ... then kaboom."
Luckily for cocktail enthusiasts around Philadelphia, Cassell found a way to get past the challenges of licensing and training, allowing the distillery to start turning out Bluecoat Gin in April 2006. That blue glass bottle has since become ubiquitous wherever inventively facial-haired mixologists turn out labor-intensive cocktails: think APO Bar + Lounge, Franklin Mortgage & Investment Company and SouthwarK.
And deservedly so, for the gin has much to recommend it. After 16 trial batches, Cassell hit upon the right combination of botanicals, including juniper, coriander, orange and lemon peel, and angelica root, that produce a gin with compelling aromas of orange and earth, but surprising smoothness on the palate.
Buoyed by the success of Bluecoat, Cassell, a Boyertown, Montgomery County native now living in East Falls, aimed to expand the range of offerings from the 8,000-square foot distillery just off Roosevelt Boulevard in far Northeast Philadelphia. In the last year, he's tackled both perhaps the most unavoidable of spirits, vodka, as well as one of the most esoteric, absinthe.
The absinthe, named Vieux Carré, in an homage to New Orleans' French Quarter, is made in the same hand-hammered copper still that's also used for the gin. Banned in the US in 1912, the spirit was only re-allowed in the country in 2007. Cassell's rendition is the first to be distilled and bottled on the East Coast of the US in almost 100 years.
For a self-proclaimed geek like Cassell, this is a thrill. "You get to make something that hasn't been made ... that's fun." There was no shortage of trial and error to hit on the formula that ultimately included 9 herbs, some of which are grown in Pennsylvania, while others are brought in from France and Switzerland, the original hotbed of absinthe production.
"All the individual ingredients are ...eh. But when you combine them and bounce them off each other, it takes off," says Cassell. There's no real analogue to absinthe in the world of spirits. Vieux Carré is an unusual, murky, dark yellow in color. The nose is earthy and deep, but then it's lush on the palate, with an undeniably rich mouthfeel. Dillution with water almost makes the spirit dance, first revealing smoky characteristics that, when neat, yield to nuanced minty notes. One thing this absinthe doesn’t invoke is Scope. Thankfully.
When he starts talking about the minute details of the distillation process, Cassell's voice begins to speed up, like a school child discoursing about his latest cartoon obsession. To the uninitiated, the effect is largely the same: general befuddlement.
This phenomenon is especially pronounced in front of the column still that he installed to produce 1681 Penn Vodka, named after the year William Penn received the charter to found the state. Luckily, there's little mystery about the ingredients. Cassell uses nothing but unmalted rye from Lehigh, York, Somerset, and Lancaster Counties, all within a roughly 200-mile radius of the distillery.
"I wanted to show that you can mke a quality product with locally grown stuff and sell it at a fair price," says Cassell. If those were really the only criteria, this is a resounding success. The state stores have it at $24. That's a lot cheaper than much of the flashy stuff. And it does what vodka's supposed to do—stay out of the way. There's a clean, pure nose, plus a little flash of character on the finish, when the rye kicks in to provide a bit of spice.
But evidently for Cassell, there's one overriding value at play behind all three of these products. It entails finding a way to unite quality and creativity with serious steps to minimize the environmental impacts of his efforts. "If there's one thing I like, it's the ability to put my own personal views into practice." This is taking booze seriously—in a good way.
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