It’s a chilly autumn midweek morning, when the sun is warm and the shadows are cold. Riannon Walsh walks into her newly opened Brandywine Branch distillery, a reconverted barn with wood and stone siding. Across Route 23, there’s still protected farmland, helping to preserve the rural atmosphere just outside of Elverson in northern Chester County.
It took a long time to get Walsh from whiskey to gin. Since the 1980s, the entrepreneur has made a living by understanding all the nuances of whiskies—Scotch in particular. She served as a brand ambassador, sought out barrels of aging Scotch for independent bottlers, founded a major whiskey expo and competition in San Francisco, and consulted for an Irish whiskey distiller. She even created a special glass for “nosing” to better extract the aromas.
In the end, it was a combination of serendipity and a love of garden aromas that dates back to her childhood on the Emerald Isle that lured Walsh to try her hand at
gin. Not as a drinker, but as a producer. Although the name “Brandywine Branch” reeks of whiskey—and there are some barrels of bourbon stored in the facility that began their lives in Kentucky—Brandywine Branch is, first and foremost, a gin distillery. From its very tall and gangly copper stills made in Germany come five different expressions of Revivalist Botanical Gin, all owing their existence to recipes conceived by Walsh. “I’m the creative end,” she says, pointing out that she has on staff at two professional distillers that produced the aromatic spirits. “It’s so much fun. I’m a cross between a perfumer and a chef.”
The distillery opened its doors to the public in the summer of 2016, inviting visitors into a tasting room and a high-end bistro. The gins are already in wide circulation in bars and restaurants throughout the region,and a nationwide rollout is underway. A cask-strength bourbon is also in distribution (although it’s only being aged at the distillery), and a brandy made with local apples is in the works.
A petite woman in her early 50s, Walsh is leading a life in full. Born in Wales and raised in Ireland and England, she came to the U.S. at 18 as a student in psychology and business in Boston. Graduate school brought her to Philadelphia, where she met her former husband. In 1988, the two bought an old farmstead near East Coventry, which Walsh has used as both a base of operations and a retreat from her heavy travel schedule in the years since.
The 42-acre farm has served Walsh’s two domestic passions quite well. She’s an accomplished gardener and an expert horsewoman. One of the drawing points of the farm was the charm of its 300-year-old farmhouse, although Walsh says it was “completely derelict, essentially uninhabitable” when they bought it. Another was an arboretum of trees and plants the former owner had collected, plus a nice farm pond.
Walsh begins a tour of the distillery, which visitors can see in operation through a large window separating it from the tasting room bar. Prior to opening Brandywine Branch, she’d been tired of traveling and had pared her outside interests with consulting. “My lawyer in West Chester introduced me to another client of his who’d been successful in his prior business and wanted to start a new career,” says Walsh.
That introduction led to a partnership in the distillery. Walsh has the title of managing director of production and master blender, while Don Avellino serves as president and CFO and Scott Avellino is national sales director. The first step was getting the regulatory permits, as distilling can be environmentally challenging. “There’s lot of water involved,” Walsh says.
She and her partners devised a closed-circulation system that reuses the water rather than discharging it into local streams. Then there was the problem of what to do with the spent grain, as the distillery is a “grain to bottle” operation. “Now we have two farmers from Lancaster County who come every Friday to pick it up to feed it to their cattle, sheep and hogs,” Walsh says.
If a gin begins with grain, it’s flavored by aromatics—usually dried plants. “There are nine to 12 botanicals in every gin,” says Walsh as she shows off the gleaming Carl stills and wooden “washbacks” used in preparing the alcoholic liquids that fill them. She sources most of these botanicals through two companies in the Pacific Northwest.
While the signature flavor of every gin is, to some degree or other, juniper, gins are made distinctive by the variations and proportions of other ingredients used. “I feel like I’m cooking when I’m working on a recipe,” says Walsh, who not long ago authored the cookbook Whiskey Dreams.
Each of Brandywine Branch’s gins is different. The Revivalist Equinox Expression is similar to a traditional gin, with its fresh spring flavors, whereas the Summertide Expression has “seasonal florals in a sea of summer grasses.” Harvest Expression has aromas of cooking spices, and Solstice Expression has dried-fruit flavors and is the only one of the four “finished” in a barrel before bottling.
A fifth expression, DragonDance, has a spice base of hot peppers that’s ideal for forming the backbone of a Bloody Mary. In fact, one of the tasting room’s attractions is cocktails made from the five gins and Brandywine Branch bourbon. The latter is cask-strength, which means it hasn’t been diluted with water after the aging process has finished. So even though it’s very smooth, it’s definitely intended for slow sipping, as its alcohol content is 118.4 proof —or 59.2 percent.
“We’re just beginning to make our first brandy usingapple cider we buy locally from Weaver’s Orchard,” Walsh says. “We’ll age it in neutral casks that we’ve bought from Canton Cooperage in Kentucky.”
Walsh and her partners have even started a small orchard at the distillery to eventually serve as a source of cider.
There is also a cooperative effort with the cheese makers at the Farm at Doe Run to integrate the flavors of the barrel-aged Solstice gin into one of their products, and Walsh is proud of the attention paid to nearby providers and partners. She points out that most of the ingredients used at the bistro are locally sourced. “This is first and foremost a Chester County distillery,” she says.
Now that Walsh has such a short commute to work, she has more time to enjoy life on her nearby farm. She still takes part in dressage competitions with her Morgan horse, Mythic Asara, though she admits she’s largely given up competing in the more rigorous eventing category. She has recently added a miniature donkey, Sofia, to her menagerie of a 31-year-old Shetland, two bullmastiffs and two cats.
In the future, Walsh sees a distillery expansion,perhaps in a larger building elsewhere. She also envisions the addition of a garden to educate visitors in the use of botanicals. And don’t be too surprised if you see her adding locally distilled whiskies to Brandywine Branch’s repertoire.