Buy Local Booze (Philadelphia Distilling Can Help)

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

IT’S A SUNNY autumn morning, and Cassell and I are trudging through a 180-acre farm near West Chester, where he’s raising a plot of corn for an upcoming distillation. We squeeze into the front seat of the farmer’s tiny electric tractor and zip out to the corn patch. As we walk along the first row, farmer and distiller inspect individual ears, more closely than I’ve ever seen anyone eye an ear of corn. We all gnaw on the chewy, unripe kernels. The farmer tells Cassell the crop should be ready in a few weeks.

On our way back home from the farm, Cassell confesses he’s elated to be out of his “office,” the factory where he spends anywhere from 60 to 80 hours a week. “I just went out with this chick,” he tells me when we stop for a beer. “She told me I needed to find some balance in my life.”

That’s hard when you’re running a company that’s experienced double-digit annual growth since its founding in 2005. Cassell will fill close to 120,000 gin bottles this year. He’s also since concocted three other spirits that have made it to market. There’s Penn 1681 vodka, distilled entirely­ with Pennsylvania-grown rye, not the usual wheat or potato, which gives it a rounder, less rubbing-alcohol flavor and aroma. There’s a domestic absinthe, Vieux Carré Absinthe Supériere, now the company’s second-place seller nationally. And there’s XXX Shine, a moonshine-inspired un-aged white-corn whiskey introduced in May. Cassell just personally harvested­ the heirloom corn that will go into the next batch of Shine. “It’s kind of an awesome job that I have,” he says. “I planted the corn, I harvest the corn, and then I’m making fucking whiskey out of the corn. Dude, you can’t beat that.”

For all his success, Cassell knows his biggest battles still lie ahead. While getting Bluecoat distributed through the LCB proved oddly easy, big roadblocks loom for his next two goals: starting production on aged rye whiskey, and locating new, bigger, more tourist-friendly headquarters near the Philadelphia waterfront. The two go hand in hand: To age whiskey, he needs a lot more space, both to accommodate new stills and because whiskey barrels need to sit, and sit, and sit some more. The big boys in Kentucky have been building up their reserves for more than a century; Cassell will be starting from scratch. Given that, the only business model that makes sense is agri-tourism—selling whiskey directly to customers who take a leisurely stroll through the casks and leave with a bottle autographed by the distiller. Just one problem: That’s currently against the law.

So Cassell has gone back to Harrisburg. He got the bug for political engagement last year, while volunteering at a polling place in Chester County. “That day, there was, like, seven or eight percent voter turnout,” he remembers. “And I realized that if I got everyone from one block in that town to come out and vote one way, I could swing the election.”

Working with State Representatives Tony Payton (who’s based in Frankford), John Taylor and Steven Barrar, he’s managed to get through the assembly an act that would amend ye olde liquor code of 1951 to allow craft distilleries to sell their products on-site, just like wineries and breweries can. It’s now with the state Senate, where Cassell testified in October, in tactical words he knew the senators would understand: “As a company, we currently procure the raw materials, equipment and services of 127 different Pennsylvania-­based companies.” The message: Pass this bill and there’s more where that came from.

If passed, H.B. 242 could wind up on Governor Corbett’s desk at the beginning of 2012. That means Cassell’s waterfront whiskey distillery could become a reality as early as next summer. Cassell is also lobbying hard for two other pieces of legislation—one state, one federal—that could substantially lower taxes and permit fees on small distillers. The annual tariff to operate a distillery in Pennsylvania is more than $5,000; for wineries, it’s $700 (and they can sell on-site). In October, Cassell went to Capitol Hill—stopping with a group of fellow distillers in Mount Vernon to make a little moonshine magic on George Washington’s brandy still—to visit the offices of Senators Toomey and Casey to drum up support for H.R. 777, which would lower the excise taxes on small distilleries. “I think a lot of people would be surprised to know that the federal taxes on my spirits, per gallon, are literally three to four times the cost of a gallon of gas at Wawa.”