Philadelphia sports fans are famous for their unabashed emotion, including that one legendary Eagles game where they pelted a Santa Claus with icy snowballs. So one might think it a bit dangerous to host Philadelphia Spirits Week at Citizens Bank Park, home to the Philadelphia Phillies. Luckily, there were no rowdy baseball aficionados to be found - unless you count the Philly Phanatic, but we’ll get to that later.
No American location is more fitting to host a week of events centered around distilled spirits than Philadelphia. It is claimed that Pennsylvania is the birthplace of American whiskey. In fact, the Whiskey Rebellion occurred in the western end of the state in 1794, when the young U.S. government began taxing whiskey to pay for the Revolutionary War. Post-rebellion, farmers distilled the surplus crops that grew well in local soil - in Pennsylvania it was rye, but across the state line in Maryland, corn was more plentiful. Even further south, Kentucky distillers began to produce a corn-heavy bourbon-style product, which has become ubiquitous with the Bluegrass State.
Fast forward to the early 20th century and the Prohibition Era, when the 18th Amendment all but decimated the whiskey and spirits industries. Production of the forbidden substances plummeted. As the regulations changed with the times, the ratification of the 21st Amendment repealed Prohibition, and more and more craft style distilleries have been established in the Keystone State. Spirits have become more creative, flavorful, and curated to fit the needs of the contemporary sipping connoisseurs. The quality and variety of grain beverages available today has never been better, and some would say, never more popular!
Two main events at the Park capped off Pennsylvania Spirits Week 2017. On March 23rd, the PA Spirits Convention (PSC) was devoted to Pennsylvania spirits of all varieties, and there was surely something to appeal to every palate and preference from the scores of distilleries and vendors who presented their wares. Each distiller’s booth offered a sample of their product straight up, and each was paired with a talented bartender from a local Philadelphia establishment, with unique signature cocktails of his or her own creation. The Cocktail Competition encouraged attendees to not only sample a pure sip of a particular item, they also had the opportunity to see what a particular brand would taste like in a mixed cocktail, and then vote on which ones they liked best.
Other vendors offered related paraphernalia and services including interesting crafts, ceramic vessels, custom suits, and straight razor shaves and haircuts. Tim, the founder of The Men’s Club Barbershop from Philadelphia was there cutting hair, trimming beards, and making even our founder look good. Described as “An olde fashioned barber shop owned and operated by local barbers. Mens’ and boys’ haircuts, straight razor shaves, beard trims, all at reasonable prices.” Another vendor shining shoes next day leant a warm feel to the event. There was even a table from University of the Sciences, staffed by students from the Brewing Science and Chemistry programs.
Each attendee received a tasting glass for sampling the spirits offered by the myriad of distilleries represented, including Hidden Still, Liberty Pole, Thistle Finch, Wigle, Dad’s Hat, Maggie’s Farm Rum, Five Saints Distilling, and Big Spring Spirits, to name only a few. We couldn’t help but notice the innovative flavors and subtle scents that are nudging their way to the front of the line with the more traditional recipes. Aromatic gins appear to be rising in popularity, as are flavored craft vodka and herbal infused rums.
The next night saw the American Whiskey Convention (AWC), billed as “by whiskey lovers, for whiskey lovers.” Like the PSC, it shared a relationship with local grain producers, and had the common goal of raising funds for the Delaware Valley Fields Foundation and increasing awareness of the small farmers who bring us malt, hops, barley, and rye. As with the PSC, distillers large and small were present - from the more familiar national whiskey brands including George Dickel, Rebel Yell, and Maker’s Mark to artisanal manufacturers such as Rittenhouse Rye, Rowhouse Spirits, and Breuckelen Distilling. This year, there seemed to be a rye renaissance in the air - and in the fermenting barrels. A number of distillers are offering a savory, heavily ryed whiskey in addition to their old standards and the public is loving it.
Bulleit Frontier Whiskey, whose rye whiskey is a smooth combination of 95% rye and 5% malted barley, set up camp with a custom 1940s-style Woody teardrop trailer, with a flat-screen TV in one end, cushy space to stretch out and relax in the center, and slide-out drawers at the other end containing a fully stocked (with whiskey, of course) “bar to go,” for the more discerning campers who like all the accoutrements and not into pitching tents in the wilderness.
In contrast to the more familiar honey-colored whiskeys, white dog whiskey, also known as moonshine, is growing in popularity. White dog is a clear liquid that has not yet been aged in the traditional barrels, but comes directly from the still, bringing a less mature, brighter taste.
Elsewhere, a digital photo booth with a multitude of fun props allowed attendees to document the evening with a whimsical touch. Even sillier was the roar of the crowd when, about halfway through the evening, the inimitable Philly Phanatic, mascot of the Phillies baseball team, ambled through the crowd, blowing kisses, giving hugs, and pausing for selfie photo ops. The Phanatic is most often found wearing a Phillies baseball jersey and red sneakers (nope, no pants) but arrived all dressed up for the evening, nattily clad in a pink plaid outfit with matching pillbox hat.
Both events aimed to raise the imbibing IQ of attendees, featuring discussion forums and educational sessions with noted experts including faculty from Moonshine University, the top distilling school based in Louisville, Kentucky. There was a master class on the sensual side of spirits, snappy cocktail demonstrations, and tasting meet-and-greets. The fabled Jimmy Russell of Wild Turkey was on hand one evening, enthralling guests with his knowledge of the distilling process, with a few Southern tall tales thrown in for extra entertainment. Harris even attended sessions from Moonshine University where the level of minutiae, chemistry, and recipes was revealing of the deep knowledge level of the students and attendees. Clearly, some attendees were feeling out if a career in distilling was a possibility, and with the variety of Pennsylvania based vendors, it would seem so.
A sensible and considerate option was the Designated Driver ticket available at each event at a reduced admission fee, that enabled non-drinkers to attend the educational forums, sample the catered tasting menu, and interact with the vendors, without raising their blood alcohol levels. We didn’t see too many folks wearing the DD wristbands - most attendees chose to fully partake of the sampling, and then opt for public transportation, cabs, or stay in a nearby hotel. Various food purveyors were on hand as well. John & Kira’s Chocolatiers offered creations made from the finest ingredients for sample or sale. (We had to taste quite a few before we could decide on our favorite!) D’s Nuts offers a variety of flavored and spiced American-grown jumbo Virginia peanuts, with a philanthropic twist:10% of all proceeds go to testicular cancer research.
The American Whiskey Convention and Pennsylvania Spirits Convention were both terrific venues in which to enjoy and learn about the nuances of distilled spirits available today. We were happy to have this opportunity to help support local farmers and enhance our knowledge of local spirits with the hope that the Philadelphia Spirits Week makes an annual return to our fair city for years to come.
Nancy Burlan, with additional reporting by Harris Fogel and Ken Kramar, posted 4/20/2017
Photos © Harris Fogel 2017
For more information on the American Whiskey Convention visit: http://www.americanwhiskeyconvention.com/
For more information on the PA Spirits Convention visit: https://www.paspiritsconvention.com/