IN GOOD SPIRITS Micro-distilleries growth ‘starting to explode’ from well-positioned Lehigh Valley

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Newly constructed stills await tour groups at Manatawny Still Works in Pottstown. (Contributed photo)
Newly constructed stills await tour groups at Manatawny Still Works in Pottstown. (Contributed photo)

County Seats Spirits’ announcement last month that it would join the Allentown Economic Development Corp.’s incubator program could be a glimpse of things to come for the burgeoning micro-distillery industry.

The launch is an indication that the industry is “just starting to explode,” according to Anthony Durante, an AEDC program manager. Meanwhile, a micro-distillery that opened several months ago in Pottstown is doing well, and a micro-distillery reportedly also is planned in Bethlehem along East Third Street.

The reasons for the coming boom, as Durante sees them, are two-fold: state laws governing who can distill small amounts of spirits have changed, and the craft industry is bringing the popular artisanal feel to distilling hard liquor.

Don Cunningham, president and chief executive officer of the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp., agreed.

The Lehigh Valley is poised to be a launch pad from which the micro-distillery industry can take off, he said, and though different from Durante’s, Cunningham also has two reasons for his optimism.

First, the Lehigh Valley has become a very strong area for food and beverage production over the past decade or so. The area is home to more than 40 food producers and 11 major beverage producers, he said.

“We live in a strong region for distribution,” Cunningham said, “so the area has emerged as a food and beverage production hub because of land prices and the location of the area.”

The U.S. is the largest consumption market in the world, Cunningham said, and 60 percent of that market exists along the East Coast and goes west to about Ohio, all of which are within a day’s — eight hours — drive of the Lehigh Valley.

“From here you can reach Boston, Virginia or Ohio in a day. It’s very cost effective for a manufacturing business to be located here,” he said.

The second part of his reasoning stems from the surge of interest in craft and small- batch spirits similar to the explosion of micro-breweries years ago.

“Who knows … a micro-distillery in one of our incubators today could turn out to be another Sam Adams,” Cunningham said.

Pennsylvania laws governing the distilling of spirits changed with Act 113 in 2012, said Stacy Kriedeman, director of external affairs for the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board in Harrisburg.

The new law features a limited distillery license, which includes lower fees for a company that produces fewer than 100,000 gallons of spirits per year. It also features a provision for a tasting component on the production premises, Kriedeman said.

Such is the case for Manatawny Still Works in Pottstown, which has seen solid success in the four months it has been open.

“The company was formed and construction began in 2013. … We got our final certificate of occupancy in March of 2014,” said Randy McKinley, vice president of sales and marketing. “We started bottling and putting whiskey in the barrels [this year].”

Food Truck Fridays are very popular among Still Works patrons, said Max Pfeffer, the company’s distiller. The tasting room, The Still Works at Manatawny, has “regulars” who show up every week to taste and talk and enjoy.

Manatawny’s most recent product, rum — and the warmer weather — have ushered in mojitos and other cocktails muddled with fresh fruit, Pfeffer said.

The first two product-into-barrels were Three Bitches Wheat Vodka and J. Potts Whiskey.

The name of the vodka sprang from an evening out with McKinley and his wife and his two partners and their wives. The ladies were not impressed that the guys talked business all evening, and when talk turned to what they should name the new vodka, someone suggested naming it after the wives.

McKinley said he chose to use dogs on the label because he is a dog lover. And a cautious man.

As far as sales go, “We’ve partnered with some great local bars and restaurants to launch our brand and have been extremely happy with the results we’re seeing,” McKinley said, declining to give sales figures.

It’s the kind of success hoped for by County Seat Spirits, which wants to open in October, complete with a tasting room, according to the AEDC.

It’s really karma, though, said LVEDC’s Cunningham, to have the up-and-coming distillery taking shape in a building that once housed the assembly of another Lehigh Valley staple.

“The distillery has to start somewhere,” Cunningham said, “and it’s great to have the old Mack [Trucks] building used in such a creative way.”

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