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Around Philly, micro-distilleries are lifting spirits to new heights

Contrary to some opinions, Pennsylvania can be a great place to create new liquors.

Steven Grasse Steven Grasse, founder of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction and a spirits designer. Credit: Quaker City Mercantile

Pennsylvania has a bit of a strained reputation for alcohol sales, all of which are monitored by one state authority, the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB). Some people even believe that the PLCB’s tactics “reek of socialism,” as blogger Albert Brooks, behind the site NOPLCB, puts it.

"The PLCB does not provide any benefits to the citizens that a private system won't do better. It doesn't provide the selection that private stores can - one only has to look at Joe Canal's, Moore Brothers or Total Wine to see that,” Brooks said via email.

But local distillers and spirits-blenders see it differently.

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“It blocks the big guys from dominating,” said Steven Grasse of the PLCB. Grasse is the founder of Art in the Age in Olde City, and the mastermind behind their unique 80-proof liquors: Root, Snap, Sage, and Rhubarb, each named after the ingredients they are made with.

“They’re really helpful to local businesses. If you get listed, you will suddenly have access to 607 stores," Grasse said. "Having a secure retail space in the PLCB stores was really key to the success of those brands."

Grasse, of Philadelphia, created spirits including Hendrick’s Gin and Sailor Jerry rum, and has the Art in the Age spirits distilled outside Los Angeles. He can't legally sell the bottles at his Art in the Age gallery store on 2nd Street in Olde City -- which sell clothes, art, publications, and Warby Parker glasses -- but they do give out samples at gallery openings on First Fridays.

Grasse believes that artisanal micro-distillers are the way of the future.

“There’s a handful of distillers in the whole country. Now there are hundreds; soon there will be as many as there are brewers,” Grasse predicted. “The thing with Captain Morgan’s is, why buy the industrial crap in a bottle when there’s so many new choices coming out?”

At Philadelphia Distilling, the first craft distillery in the state since Prohibition, president and cofounder Andrew Auwerda said their trademark Bluecoat American Dry Gin is still their best-seller, but they're distilling absinthe this month.

“PLCB has been supportive of us from concept through now,” Auwerda said. “There’s no favoritism, but they’re fair.”

Contrary to the state’s reputation, Auwerda said Pennsylvania is a fine place to distill spirits.

“I don’t think it’s any more difficult here than anywhere else. Most of the hurdles are fed regulations, capital, and then, the know-how,” he said.

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Follow Sam Newhouse on Twitter: @scnewhouse

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