Go Mad for Gourmet as the three-day event includes all the elements that drive us crazy-in-love with Philadelphia’s creative sector. Suds and spirits prescribe the mood for both the preview and the weekend fair, with tastings hosted by WhistlePig Rye, Siembra Spirits Tequila, Tito’s Vodka, among others on Friday, and a fully-stocked beer tent courtesy of Philadelphia Brewing Company on Saturday and Sunday.
Rowhouse Spirits Distillery gives gin an identity crisis – in the best way. Founder Dean Browne reinvents flavor and smoothness in his Fishtown location, and answered a few questions about his upcoming appearance at the Friday night preview.
Why don’t you start out by giving me the history of Rowhouse Spirits? How you started it, etc.?
I started opening Rowhouse Spirits in July of 2013 and leased this building [2430 Frankford Avenue] off of Philadelphia Brewing Company in November that year, and started renovating it, and submitting all my applications to the federal government and the state government to get all of my licenses into place. And all that came around in August of last year. In 2014 I sold my first bottle of booze, which was poitin, to [Atlantis,] the Lost Bar across the street. Then I started making booze on a regular basis, I started my gin next. Released that in September of 2014 and then Bear Trap in October 2014.
Did you have any experience making different spirits before then, or was this completely new to you?
I’m self-taught, from book reading for about ten years. 2003 I decided this was what I was going to do. It didn’t come about till about ten years later, but in that time I did a lot of research and studying. I spent some time at about five different distilleries here and there, just to see how things worked for a week at a time here, a week at a time there. I’ve got brewing experience as well. I’ve brewed professionally part-time since the 1980s, both in Canada and down here. I’ve brewed for PBC, I’ve brewed for a pub in Bucks County called Porterhouse Pub. So brewing and distilling have a lot of things in common, especially when you’re making whiskey. All the alcohol you drink is at one point made by yeast, and so fermentation is a key element. But one of the things which was really crucial was just learning how to maintain equipment and clean. No matter what the tank is used for – a tank is a tank is a tank- and you can’t jump inside them when you’re my size.
Even if you want to.
Some of them you can, they have big ones over at the brewery that the guys jump into, but I’m not fitting in those. So there’s processes and technologies that are common with brewing. A lot of it was very intuitive to me. The side that I had to pick up and learn from reading was the distillation side. And the recipe formulation I just worked on at home by doing different tinctures anyone can do. You can buy vodkas and start adding herbs. The thing you can’t do legally at home is distill. As soon as you distill your own alcohol you’ve broken federal law – not just state law – and there’s some pretty stiff penalties associated. But you can figure out what flavors are all about. My products lean towards the herbal side, and my whiskey is basically just fermented beer, just like all whiskey is. I make an all barley wash, and I run it through my pot still twice after it ferments with beer yeast for a week. The gin and the Bear Trap are both recipes that I developed just by doing tinctures and mixing different combinations of herbs together with vodka. Drinking them, dumping them – hopefully mostly drinking them.
I read on your website that you did a lot of traveling and took different experiences from it, to intersperse culture with your different flavors that you create. What’s your favorite story that you’ve taken away from a travel experience?
The traveling, I was just very lucky. Out of college I started working for a British chemical company and then after that I did a lot of global network design…I traveled a lot to continental Europe, and one of my regular travel companions was a guy named Daniel Lembrick – he was a Belgian fella – and I used to meet him in his office in Lueven. Lueven is a small town outside of Brussels that was the original capital of Belgium. It’s a cool little medieval-looking town where everybody drinks…And we would go to his house before going out for dinner. And his house beer was Duvel, 8%. And he would make those, and his wife would make us waffles…And then afterwards I’m like, I don’t think I can drink any more. And he said to me, No, one more drink. And we got Calvados, which I had never had before. And Calvados is cider distilled and then aged into apple brandy, and it’s made in the Calvados region of Northern France. He told me a story about how there’s these roving distillers that would go with a still or cart on their truck and travel from farm to farm, and the farmers would have their cider fermented already. They’d put the ciders in barrels, get paid, move on to the next farm. And I remember thinking that whole idea – first of all, the connection to agriculture. It would be a common thing to ferment apples, distill it into something and then put it in barrels so you’d have something better.
As far as traveling around the city goes, where can people go to find your products?
There’s about 30 different bars here. Here in my neighborhood, Fishtown/Kensington, I’m in Johnny Brenda’s, Kraftwerk on Girard, Fishtown Tavern’s about to pick up my stuff, Cedar Point, Loco Pez, Memphis Taproom, Cook and Shaker, Green Rock Tavern.
You’ve got all the good ones in there.
In center city I’ve got the Ritz-Carlton, Juniper Commons, Bridget Foy’s on South Street, there’s Local 44 in West Philly, Strangelove in center city. The Abbaye and 700 and Blind Pig.
They’re somewhat popular.
I try to focus in on customers that will actually feature my product in a cocktail, at least on a menu somewhere, so it’s not just sitting on a shelf, and people will actually think about it…Standard Tap has a gin cocktail, Johnny Brenda’s has a poitin sour that they have on the board, Juniper Commons will push it as a local gin, the Ritz-Carlton has gin and prosecco that they make – it’s really awesome.
You’re planning my next bar crawl with this interview.
I’m a person that drinks my stuff straight quite a bit. I might put some ice in it. I try to make my booze so that it is very drinkable that way. You’ll find things like the poitin, you’ve got some burn but it’s smooth going down. It’s there but it just warms you up. The gin is exceptionally smooth, to the point where I have non gin drinkers actually enjoy it. So that’s the way I make things. I want to make them really full flavored and unique. Structured taste lingers there, but it also should not be difficult to drink. You can always tone things down if you want but why should you have to? So the way I distill it and the ingredients that I use help to make that happen. Like the herbs that I put into the gin contribute to the mouth feel, and the distillation takes away some of the heat of the alcohol. And it’s 96 proof, which is over proof for a gin. So the fact that you can drink it straight is a pretty good statement of how smooth it is. It smells like gin right up front, there’s no mistaking that. And you can get the heat of the alcohol if you really inhale. You’ll get some alcohol burn on there, it’s really strong. But once you taste it…
There’s no kick. I like this one.
It makes a great cocktail as well. It’s got a lot of flavor. If you sip it, as you breathe, you’ll notice the flavor on your tongue will change. You can sense different things and then it lingers. So the fact that you’re not scorching your tastebuds contributes to that.
It’s probably the first gin I’ve ever had that didn’t taste like I was swallowing a tree needle.
That’s the thing, there’s so many gins out there that are just the traditional one-note gins. You smell the juniper, it kicks you in the face, and then there’s nothing. What you get really is slight flavor and then the burn. I don’t like any of that stuff. I love wood flavors. I used to spend a lot of time in the woods in Canada. I grew up in Canada, canoe tripping, cedar tea, it’s got lots of good vitamins in it. Vitamin C. Explorers and Indians used to stave off scurvy by drinking cedar tea in the winter. And so I used to drink it all the time. As long as you don’t get the wrong kind of tree you’re okay.
It’s pretty cool how everything in your life has inadvertently led you to this.
Best result ever. As far as the tastings you’ll be hosting at AFTCP, what are you hoping guests will take away from experiencing your products?
I’m really happy when people taste my gin and then really like it. Especially when they taste my stuff for the first time. They say, I don’t want to try that I don’t like gin. And then the best feeling for me is when they do taste it and then they buy a bottle and leave, and then they come back the next week and get another one. It’s sort of changing their idea of what that product can be. It’s the same thing for the tastings – I’ve done one other InLiquid event – and it’s the same kind of idea – for me I treat it the same way as if I’m talking to someone across my bar here and I’m assuming most people have not tried my product. I offer a taste of it, and for this event I’ll be making a cocktail. Not sure quite yet what it’ll be but it’ll have something that exhibits the flavors of the gin as well as some way to alter it. Last time it was a gin fizz with my Bear Trap- it’s a gin citrus. That was a fun night. That’s what I really look for…If they try it, it was new, and they enjoyed it, it means a lot to me.
I saw on your site how you were laid off just before starting this business, and it gave you your opportunity. If you could give any advice to someone going through a rough patch what would it be?
Do the bold thing. The worst thing that can happen is you’ll trip. And the best thing that can happen is you’ll be doing what you want to do. Do the thing that you’re afraid of. Because half the time it’ll work out. And if you want it bad enough, I’ve failed many times since I got laid off…it isn’t a kick in the face because I’m still doing what I want to do every day. It’s dramatic even to say it that way. Because it’s not a kick really. It’s just a bump. But when you look back, if I had the kind of hurdles that I’ve had in the last year, when I was just working for IBM and doing the software thing, I would have taken it a little bit harder, and I would have been looking for something else to do. But this I just wake up in the morning and I think at least I’m going to the distillery today. So if you’re faced with the opportunity to do something in life – this is such a cliché to say this – and you have two paths and one of them happens to be the rough road, and it leads you to somewhere you want to be, at least try to take it. The worst thing that happens is you just fall back on your original path.
There’s a reason clichés exist, because they’re true to life. What are you looking forward to most about Art for the Cash Poor?
I actually enjoyed the time I was there for the last InLiquid event. I like the people that were there. It’s a very diverse crowd and it’s the kind of person I don’t typically meet in my shop, or in the kinds of places I usually go. I meet a lot of artists…but it’s different when you’re in that kind of environment. People seem more free to talk to the guy who’s pouring the drinks.
I’m sure everyone appreciates that. It’s very reciprocal.
The weekend-long fair invites attendees to navigate the Crane Arts space, which will be bursting with art vendors, live musical performances, culinary curiosities, and an outdoor beer garden. The addition of a Friday night ticketed preview party on June 12, 5:30 – 9 pm, serves as a meet-and-greet with the artists and a fundraiser for AIDS Fund, offering guests an exclusive sneak-peek at the festivities to follow.