Maria S. Young

Slicker liquor: Walter Palmer, one of the latest entrants to Pennsylvania’s craft distilling scene, at the W.P. Palmer Distilling Co. in Manayunk, where he makes gin.

WHILE IT’S CERTAINLY not apparent from the archaic state of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB), Pennsylvania has a deep-rooted history when it comes to spirits. From Colonial times when Old City saw ships filled with barrels of imported rum coming ashore, to pre-Prohibition days, when the state led the country in whiskey production, Pennsylvania has been a major booze player for many years.

Slowly but surely our craft distilling scene is making a comeback. No one knows more about that than Andrew Auwerda, who founded Philadelphia Distilling in 2005. Passionate about spirits and history, the North Jersey native incorporated both of his loves into a business and opened a 7,500-square-foot distillery complete with a custom-made Scottish still in Northeast Philadelphia.
When asked why he chose to open up shop in a state with such puritanical liquor laws, Auwerda explains that he was at an advantage getting in on the ground floor.

“The [PLCB] didn’t know what craft distilling was, generally, and they hadn’t been approached by other craft distillers to get their product in Pennsylvania. Based on the historical aspect of our brand, it was very palatable to them.”

Despite the state’s support, Auwerda was pretty sure that his company was going to be something of a flash in the pan. Yet, more than a decade later, Philadelphia Distilling boasts an internationally distributed product line that includes Bluecoat Gin, Bluecoat Barrel Finished Gin, The BAY Seasoned Vodka, Vieux Carre Absinthe and Penn 1681 Vodka.

That’s hardly the end of the road for Auwerda.

Philadelphia Distilling is moving into a 15,000-square-foot space at 1000 Frankford Ave. at the end of 2015. It’s a giant former factory complex that will be home to the Fillmore music venue, the Foundry club, a bowling alley as well as a production, retail, dining and education space for the distillery.

“It’s like a little Sin City, from Delilah’s to Yards and the casino,” Auwerda says referring to the new digs. “We’ve got to be there!”

Along with the larger space, Philadelphia Distilling has plans to add new products like whiskey and rum — a nod to Philadelphia’s heritage as a major rum port back in the day.

The success of Philadelphia Distilling has been a catalyst to other craft distillers to open up around the state. The newest addition to the local distilling scene, W.P. Palmer Distilling Co. in Manayunk, is breaking into the booze business in the same fashion as Philadelphia Distilling: with gin. Palmer’s Dutch-inspired Liberty Gin draws its flavor from organic botanicals like cardamom, coriander, angelica root and lemon peel. Founder Walter Palmer bases his gin on a replica of an 18th-century recipe.

Palmer began the licensing process a little over a year ago, and now his Shurs Lane operation is up and running, bottling limited runs of gin for in-store sampling. The gin is slated to be in wine-and-spirits stores in September.

Palmer opens his distillery to the public on Saturdays from noon to 6 p.m. and has plans to expand the retail space to host live music and sell a selection of artisanal tonics. A Palmer whiskey, now in development, could be for sale as soon as fall.

Across the state, in Pittsburgh, whiskey is already flowing. Wigle Whiskey, founded in 2011, produces whiskeys, gins and honey spirits. Wigle (pronounced “wiggle”) recently introduced Pennsylvania’s premier bourbon, something that hadn’t been distilled in the state since 1974. The distillery uses locally grown corn milled at the distillery to make the bourbon, which comes in two strengths, a smooth 92 proof and a more potent cask-strength version that clocks in at 108.

Wigle has just hit state store shelves. You can also sample the distillery’s bourbon at The Fat Ham, Oyster House, Petruce et al and Barbuzzo.

As distilleries proliferate, the godfather of the Pennsylvania craft distilling movement, Auwerda, sees a bright and boozy future for the Keystone State.

“Distilling history in Pennsylvania runs deep. The knowledge, the acceptance of craft beer in Pennsylvania bodes well,” Auwerda says. “The consumer is there and willing to pay a little more and try something new, not only for us but for other craft distilleries. The [P]LCB has started to recognize that and it’s now matching those suppliers with the consumers, ’cause they’re out there.”

DRINK LOCAL //

• Philadelphia Distilling is lo­cated at 12285 McNulty Road and occasionally runs tours of their facilities. Check philadelphiadistilling.com for info.

• Liberty Gin is available to sample at W.P. Palmer Distilling Co. on Saturdays from noon to 6 p.m. at 376 Shurs Lane. Info at palmerdistilling.com.

• For some Jersey spirits, Cooper River Distillers in Camden offers a line of rum, whiskey and rye that is available to taste during happy hours on Fridays from 4 to 8 p.m. at 34 N. Fourth St. More info at cooperriverdistillers.com.