Sometimes necessity is the mother of invention. Other times it's less necessity, and more the want of a good drink.
After all, Gaston and Josephine Oria did not set out to be in the booze business. But the versatile dulce de leche -- the caramel-and-vanilla milk spread popular in South America, and produced locally by the Orias under their La Dorita brand, based on a grandmother's recipe -- practically begged to be turned into a light liqueur, then mixed into a cocktail.
That's the short version of how Pittsburgh's newest spirits creation, the viscous La Dorita Dulce de Leche cream liqueur, came to be. The long version, and by far the more interesting one, involves an online fund-raising campaign, the purchase of a high-shear homogenization mixer, and, naturally, the rehabbing of the old Etna Elks lodge. Getting the liqueur from Mr. and Ms. Oria's brains to the state store's online shelves took more than two years.
"This is how long it takes to get a product to market," Ms. Oria said.
We'll work backwards, starting at the old Elks lodge, at 2312 Main St. in Sharpsburg. The Orias bought the building this summer, and have spent the past several months renovating the bar area and building a new kitchen. The bar, now airy and modern, is meant for private rental, and to hold events to market their new liqueur.
That could be for anything, or anyone. Want to cater an event, but don't have the kitchen space? Looking to perfect your cupcake recipe and launch a part-time baking business? The Orias hope their 300-square-foot kitchen will turn into a community resource, where food entrepreneurs can work in a professional kitchen without making a capital investment.
The money for the bar rehab and community kitchen construction came from an online fund-raising campaign, via Kickstarter, the website that allows artists and entrepreneurs to raise money from strangers. La Dorita raised $50,000 for its expansion.
The building, eventually, also will house the company's new industrial kitchen, which is separate from the community kitchen and will be used for making the company's signature milk spread. Right now, the Orias' dulce de leche is made in their O'Hara home, which is too small to accommodate the growing business, and its growing equipment needs.
One of those pieces of equipment is the $17,500 homogenization mixer, which is used to blend the dulce de leche and the spirit at high speeds. Without the intense mixing process, the cream liqueur loses shelf life.
"After two months, it would separate," said Ms. Oria, explaining the trial-and-error bottling process that led them to the mixer. They've been bottling different recipes since 2011, trying to find the precise mix of cream and spirit.
That spirit, as you may have guessed, comes by way of Shaler's Pennsylvania Pure Distilleries LLC, the maker of Boyd & Blair vodka, the local favorite with a growing international reputation. Bottling its own brand of vodka is the company's primary business, but in the last year it has sealed two "contact distilling" deals, meaning they blend and bottle a spirit for somebody else's product label.
The La Dorita contract was Pennsylvania Pure's second; the first was Hum botanical spirit, a Chicago-based product whose co-founder, bartender Adam Seeger, was in Pittsburgh last week for the opening of the new speakeasy in the Omni William Penn, Downtown.
La Dorita (named after Ms. Oria's grandmother, 93-year-old Maria Dora Germain, who lives in La Plata, Argentina, and whose middle name gives rise to the nickname "Dorita") is now selling its liqueur via "special order" through the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, meaning you must buy a minimum of three bottles (PLCB No. 528028, 34 proof, 750 ml, $26.79). Soon, by way of the PLCB's new home-shipping pilot program, you should be able to buy it online and have it shipped directly to your house.
La Dorita and Pennsylvania Pure (where the dulce de leche liqueur is being bottled) have produced 3,100 bottles to date. That may sound like a lot for the buying public and, particularly, the bar-and-restaurant industry to absorb. As a niche product, "you're not going to make [the bar] a ton of money."
But given the hospitality industry's appetite for locally made products -- consider the response to Boyd & Blair and Pittsburgh's Wigle Whiskey -- 3,100 bottles probably won't last long. The first hospitality order, in fact, came this month, two cases bound for the Fairmont Pittsburgh.
As the food business evolved into a liqueur product that begat an ambitious community kitchen, each new project -- and its attendant expense -- concerned Ms. Oria in a professional sense. In addition to her "part-time" job doing marketing for La Dorita, she is the chief financial officer at Med Health Services in Monroeville.
And CFOs don't like seeing big risks on untested products.
"Some people may think we're crazy," she said. But, "As entrepreneurs, you sometimes have to take risks that sometimes don't make sense."
And in so doing, the Orias hope their rental kitchen -- and their series of crash courses in product labeling, health department licensing, Department of Agriculture vetting and the like -- will help relieve some of the risk for the next Pittsburgh food entrepreneur who comes along.
"We had so many hurdles," she said. "There are so many things we know now."
There is at least one other dulce de leche cream liqueur on the market, but Dulseda cream liqueur, distributed in California, is blended with rum, not vodka. It is not available in Pennsylvania.
• One of the winemakers at Enginehouse 25 winery Lawrenceville, Tim Gaber, has moved just a few blocks away, to 2815 Penn Ave. in the Strip District, opening his own winery. The new name? Pittsburgh Winery. The bottle's new label features at least three shout-outs to Pittsburgh and its history: the city skyline, the pentagonal outline of Fort Pitt, and the city crest. The venue, with a velvet-red tasting bar upstairs and a larger rental hall in the wine cellar, is now open noon until 7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Call at 412-566-1000.
The good news: Mr. Gaber's former home, the Enginehouse, continues to make wine in the former Penn Avenue fire station. The winery/photography studio/party hall/Roberto Clemente museum venue, owned by photographer Duane Rieder, remains open. Note: An earlier version of this column said, incorrectly, that Enginehouse was no longer in the wine-making business. It still is, and Enginehouse 25 is still reachable at 412-621-1268.
• Clique Vodka, imported from Latvia but marketed by Pittsburgh-based Premier Innovations Group, has redesigned its bottle -- out with the clear, in with the sleek new black and pink design. Clique Vodka is available in 17 states.
• The year-old Pittsburgh chapter of the U.S. Bartenders' Guild has a new website (usbgpgh.blogspot.com) and a new calendar of events, which includes classes taught by USBG members. Next up is a whiskey primer offered by Erika Joyner and Wes Shonk at noon, Jan. 6, at Wigle Whiskey distillery. USBG members attend free, and for the rest of us, a donation is suggested.
2 ounces La Dorita cream liqueur
1 ounce Cointreau
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Combine dulce de leche liqueur and Cointreau in an ice-filled shaker. Shake, pour over ice, float Angostura on top. Garnish with an orange slice.
-- Josephine Oria
2 ounces La Dorita cream liqueur
1 ounce Disaronno Amaretto
1/8 teaspoon vanilla extract
Combine dulce de leche liqueur, amaretto and vanilla in an ice-filled shaker. Shake and pour over ice into tumbler.
1 ounce La Dorita cream liqueur
1 ounce Patron XO Cafe
3 ounces creamed coffee (or latte)
Combine dulce de leche liqueur, Patron and coffee into an ice-filled shaker. Shake, pour over ice and enjoy. Patron XO Cafe is a new coffee-flavored tequila liqueur, available through the PLCB (No. 9618, 375ml, 70 proof, $13.99).
Bill Toland: email@example.com or 412-263-2625.