DISTILLED SPIRITS IS a big business made up of big businesses. Last year, Americans, thirsty bon vivants that we are, drank close to $65 billion of the stuff—and that doesn’t count wine and beer. More than three-fourths of spirits sold are made or controlled by fewer than 10 companies—half by just three multinational conglomerates. Let’s say you go to your local state store this month to stock up for the holidays. You fill your cart with Johnnie Walker Black, Crown Royal, Smirnoff, Captain Morgan, Ketel One, Tanqueray, Baileys and Bushmills. One company will collect the profits from all of it.
Cassell is aiming to change that, one bottle at a time. Philadelphia Distilling’s flagship brand is Bluecoat gin, a citrusy alternative to juniper-forward options such as Bombay and Beefeater. If you’ve been to any of the city’s better bars lately—say, Farmers’ Cabinet or Franklin Mortgage—you’ve no doubt seen it prominently displayed. “The bottle is very distinctive,” notes Oyster House bartender Katie Loeb. “We get lots of tourists, and they sit at the bar and ask, ‘Ooh, what’s that pretty blue bottle?’” Loeb’s reply: “Funny you should ask. Want to try some local gin?”
Like most roads that end in quixotic careers, Cassell’s journey to becoming a distiller was hardly linear. In the fall of 2003, he was working as the quality-assurance manager for Victory Brewing Company in Downingtown, and was out on the golf course with a friend when an idea popped into his head: Why not create a small boutique distillery to produce hand-crafted, premium spirits using local ingredients? If it worked for beer, why wouldn’t it work for booze?
Nice idea. But selling booze isn’t like setting up a taco truck or opening a bakery. Distilling ain’t cheap; the still alone can cost $250,000. And this is Pennsylvania, where if you want to be in the liquor business, you’d better have pockets deep enough to pay some of the country’s highest permit and license fees, not to mention the cost of navigating a mind-warping liquor code and distribution system. Cha-ching.
Enter the rich uncle.