Buy Local Booze (Philadelphia Distilling Can Help)

Baby-faced distiller Robert Cassell, of Bluecoat Gin fame, is changing the way Philadelphians drink.

In 2004, Andrew Auwerda, Cassell’s maternal uncle, had sold his cosmetics company for a nice, though undisclosed, chunk of change. “I spent the following summer vacationing while at the same time putting the word out there that I was looking for entrepreneurial opportunities,” remembers Auwerda. “And then Robert came to me with a one-page proposition.­ He started talking about it, and for maybe 20 minutes, I thought he was talking about distilled water, because my wife and I drank a lot of distilled water. I was like Eh, whatever. But then I realize, No, no, no … he’s talking about liquor.

Cassell told him that craft distillation was, in 2004, where craft brewing had been in 1985, when Jim Koch was selling Sam Adams out of the back of his car. And everyone knows how that story turned out. “That pretty much sealed it,” says Auwerda. Other investors followed.

Cassell went off to distillation school at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland, the Harvard of the industry. (“He’s one of maybe five people in America who went there,” says Bill Owens, an industry expert.) Soon thereafter, he and Auwerda went to Harrisburg to convince the PLCB to green-light their new distillery. All alcoholic beverage business in Pennsylvania goes through the state: The Liquor Control Board buys spirits from manufacturers, markets them, then sells to customers via its state stores.

But where others saw roadblocks, Auwerda­ saw opportunity. “I don’t really want to say this, because I don’t want a bunch of other craft distillers in my market,” he says. “But the LCB was really what I based potential success on. There’s one buyer: the LCB. And if they give the green light, then bam, we’re in a couple hundred stores. We don’t have to go door-to-door like we do in New Jersey, Delaware and New York.”

The LCB did green-light Bluecoat—after the bureaucracy’s legal department came up with the appropriate paperwork, since they had only issued one other license to a spirits manufacturer since the days of Millard Fillmore. Within six months, bottles were on the shelves. In its first year, the company did four times the business the LCB had expected. “I looked at the numbers and said, ‘Okay, this company is going to make it,’” Cassell recalls. “All I have to do is put stuff in the bottle that people like.”

And people sure do like it. Six years after its founding, Cassell’s company ranks in the top 10 of 300 smaller distilleries now operating nationwide, says Owens, founder of the trade group American Distilling Institute. “Their gin is available in 37 states,” he marvels. “You’ve got to deal with finding contacts in each state, getting distributors, state licensing, ­permits … that’s a lot of hard work.”