In the late 90s, Andrew Auwerda was running his own cosmetic company, but he saw a very different business opportunity ahead — craft liquor.
“I saw a market opportunity in craft spirits,” Auwerda said. “I saw it as a coming culinary trend.”
Auwerda created Philadelphia Distilling, a craft distillery on Allen and Laurel streets, as the first craft distillery to be founded in Pennsylvania since Prohibition, he said.
“It was starting from, when I say scratch, I mean nobody knew nothing,” Auwerda said.
In Pennsylvania, a craft distillery is an independently owned business that discloses the ingredients, distilling location, bottling location and aging processes, and produces fewer than 100,000 gallons of liquor annually, according to the American Craft Spirits Association. Craft distilling was not popular when Philadelphia Distilling started, Auwerda said.
Philadelphia Distilling produces many signature drinks, including their ever-so-popular Bluecoat American Dry Gin, a smooth, aromatic gin made entirely from botanicals.
“We were launching a brand called Bluecoat that really is all about the founding fathers of our country and really plays on the incredible history that took place here in Philadelphia,” Auwerda said.
Bluecoat Gin is named after the Continental Army who fought against the British during the American Revolutionary War. The continental army wore blue uniforms while the British army wore red uniforms, according to the History Channel.
“We were talking about the American story through our brand,” Auwerda said. “We created a style of gin that was catered to the American palate.”
During Prohibition, low-quality alcohol called ‘bathtub gin’ was produced illegally with ingredients like corn sugar, beets, potato slices, glycerin and some juniper oil for flavor, according to the Mob Museum.
Today, juniper berry is a key ingredient for making gin. The berries Philadelphia Distilling uses in Bluecoat are softer and rounder, which makes the gin less pungent. Their gins also have citrus notes in it, which makes it different from London dry gin, Auwerda said.
Bluecoat’s influence is predominant in Philadelphia’s drinking scene, said Jack Wareing, a first-time customer at Philadelphia Distilling.
“I always love to check out local gins and what people are doing,” Wareing said. “It’s cool to see new brands, especially brands that encapsulate that local kind of scene as well, I think that’s super cool.”
Nick Sadowski, a 2011 broadcasting, telecommunications and mass media alumnus, started working as a distiller at Philadelphia Distilling in 2017 and enjoys the creative freedom he gets at the company.
“As long as we’re doing our work and getting everything done and making sure Bluecoat’s getting made, they encourage experimentation,” Sadowski said.
Aaron Selya, the head distiller has worked there for almost six years and uses his biochemistry degree from Indiana University of Pennsylvania in the organic distilling process.
“Creating alcohol for a living is a lot of fun,” he said. “There’s a lot of room for creative expression in what we’re doing, especially in the gin world, where there’s not as many rules about what you can or can’t do.”
Since 2005, the number of distilleries across Pennsylvania has increased, Auwerda said.
Selya hopes consumers are aware of their history and why their products are different from other styles of gin.
“Education is a big part of it for us,” Selya said. “Because we also truly believe that an educated consumer is going to gravitate towards the highest quality spirit, which we think that’s what we’re making.”