Even though it’s only 4:45 p.m., the after-five crowd has already begun drifting into the bar at Deep Blue restaurant in downtown Wilmington. From where I sit, near the bar’s corner, I can peruse the short row of gin bottles on the upper shelf, and, even though gin is not my drink of first choice, I take note of what’s there. In all, there are five labels, and all of the names except Tanqueray start with a “B”—Boodles, Bombay, Bombay Sapphire, and Bluecoat.
My interest is more than just killing time, as I am waiting to have a drink with Andrew Auwerda and Robert Cassell, cousins who make up two-thirds of the partnership that owns Philadelphia Distilling, the three-year-old company that produces Bluecoat gin in a business park just off I-95. Until a few months ago, theirs was the only active distillery in Pennsylvania, which is a little surprising as Pennsylvania was once a hotbed of spirits. In fact, it was in the western part of the state in the 1790s that distillers rose up in the Whiskey Rebellion against the young country’s imposing of high taxes on spirits.
As I”m thinking about this, the two men walk into the bar and order drinks.
“I”ll have a Martini up with Bluecoat,” says Auwerda, who takes care of the marketing for Bluecoat.
“Let’s see. I”ll have a Bluecoat Negroni,” says Cassell, who is the head distiller.
“Do you guys really like gin?” I have to ask.
“Love it,” swears Auwerda. “It’s my favorite drink.”
Cassell comes up from his first sip grinning and doesn’t bother to answer. Even though he is 30, Cassell still looks angelic enough that suspicious bartenders sometimes ask to see his driver’s license.
This appearance is deceiving. Talk with Cassell for a few minutes, and you can tell he is almost geekish in his knowledge of his chosen profession, unlike many people who decide to get into brewing, winemaking and distilling because it sounds like a neat thing to do.
After deciding he didn’t want to pursue his college major of nuclear medicine, Cassell took off to study at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland, which is to aspiring distillers what the University of California at Davis is to those who want to make great wine. There, Cassell received his degree as a master distiller, then came back to America and apprenticed at Victory and Harpoon, two premium craft breweries.
It was then that he approached Auwerda, a cousin in Delaware who is a dozen years older and who was a cosmetics entrepreneur. The idea was simple. Cassell thought the region was ripe for a small, craft distillery, and with his production know-how and with Auwerda’s marketing acumen, it would be as simple as downing shots.
“But you always wonder about the time and risk,” Cassell says, “if now is the right time and why someone hasn’t done it before.”
Auwerda bit, but first recruited Bloomberg alum Timothy Yarnell, who became the company’s vice president, and Bluecoat was launched in April 2006.
Now, three years later, Bluecoat as a brand is an artistic and business success, although Auwerda thinks the company has room to grow. “We’re not maximizing our production yet,” he says. “Right now, we’re selling in 19 states—and France—and we’re working on a deal to distribute more widely in Europe. But we still need to get more volume.” He says Bluecoat is big in San Francisco, which seems to be the center for rejuvenation of cocktails in the US. During the 2007 World Spirits Competition in that city, Bluecoat was awarded first place in the “Best American Gin” category.
The company has also branched out into vodka and absinthe—the popular wormwood-based drink banned for years because of health concerns, but now undergoing a resurgence. The vodka, named Penn 1681 after the date King George granted the colony a charter, was launched late last year. The Vieux Carre brand of absinthe began shipping last January in clear, square, decanter-style bottles to emphasize the product’s traditional, lightly green tinge. In addition to this trilogy of products, the distillery also does custom-labeled vodkas; a Pennsylvania rye whiskey is on the drawing board for some future date.
But it is gin that is putting Philadelphia Distilling on the map.
In the beginning, it took 17 formulations before a final recipe was settled on, and Cassell says he worked 37 hours straight to fill the first purchase order from the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board—one straight run that began with him doing the distilling and ended with his putting on the new labels.
The manufacturing facility on Woodhaven Road is an unromantic warehouse, but the process, as Cassell explains it on a tour around the building, is quite intriguing.
Using mainly rye grain purchased from the Midwest and purified water, Bluecoat gin is distilled five times, Cassell explains. The first four distillations are to produce a clear, clean spirit that is essentially vodka. “The fifth distillation is key,” he says, “because that’s when you add the botanicals that make vodka into gin.”
As anyone who has ever sipped a few Martinis knows, different gins have different tastes, which is based on the botanicals, or flavors, that are added to the brew—although the aroma of juniper berries is almost always the most pronounced. These botanicals are a combination of dried herb leaves, berries, citrus fruit peels, and roots, some quite familiar and others somewhat exotic.
Cassell says that he uses certified organic botanicals, which he keeps in a closet in the warehouse in bins like you might see in food cooperatives or other bulk-produce stores. Most distillers keep their recipes secret, and Bluecoat is no different. Cassell admits only to using “more than six and less than 20” different ingredients.
To make one batch of gin, enough for around 1,300 bottles of 94-proof nirvana, he lugs about 13 buckets of botanicals, each holding five gallons, up a short flight of stairs to dump them into the gleaming copper pot still. Cassell himself designed it, in cooperation with the manufacturer, so it would retain more aromas.
The next step is to stir and macerate all these botanicals before slowly turning up the heat in the still so as to keep the most fragrances that quick heating would lose. All in all, the run of one batch covers a span of about 14 hours. The result is a very smooth spirit with a velvety mouth feel, subdued juniper flavors, and a vanilla-like presence.
Auwerda says the name of the gin came from a visit to the Brandywine Battlefield, where the revolutionary guys wore blue coats while fighting the guys in red coats who represented the then-evil empire. He also designed the bottle, relying on his background in fragrance presentations, and has it manufactured in China where it is painted its distinctive rich blue hue.
Acceptance locally has been quite good, Auwerda says. Liquor store owners often tout the regional product, and many bars cover it.
In fact, the bartender at Deep Blue tells me, “We really like the product and make one of our cocktails with Bluecoat.” He whips out a drinks menu and points to French 77, a mixture of Bluecoat, St. Germain liqueur, lemon juice, and Champagne.
“It’s always cool when someone comes up with a recipe like that,” Cassell says. He says that going into a bar and just ordering a regular drink no longer is fun for him. He knows too much.
He also is amused at the urban legends he hears about Bluecoat. “One rumor was that I was a retired distiller from Great Britain,” he says. “But the best was that the three of us were classmates at Penn who made the gin in our dorm rooms and came up with this business plan for launching a distillery.”
And giving Auwerda such valuable marketing stories to play with is all part of Bluecoat’s gin game.