Spirits: More new distilleries firing up in region

Bob Sechrist's mom was driving him to orchards when he was just a teen, the two of them buying up fruit that would later become homemade wine. Now a geography professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, he teaches a course on regional winemaking, among other classes.

So in a perfect world, he would have become a vinter. But the world has been an imperfect place since Eve ate the apple, so Mr. Sechrist -- along with his business partner, Bob Begg -- instead will be opening a distillery in Homer City, Indiana County, perhaps by this autumn, which would make it the third commercial distillery in Southwestern Pennsylvania.

The pair of IUP professors -- Mr. Sechrist still teaches, while Mr. Begg retired a year ago -- incorporated the business last year, calling it Disobedient Spirits LLC. The still (the piece of equipment that heats, separates and distills the spirits) is being custom-built by Hillbilly Stills in Kentucky and should be delivered in April, while the property that eventually will house the distilling operation should come into their possession in the next week or so.

"The biggest stumbling block was finding a building that would work for us," Mr. Sechrist said. The building they settled on was formerly a medium-sized grocery store (called Mazzoni and Runzo's), about 12,000 square feet, at 30 S. Main St. in Homer City.

"The roof is falling in. There's asbestos. The electricity hasn't been turned on in a couple of years," Mr. Begg said. "But that's part of the excitement -- [to] fix it up, and make it nice."

Like our other local distillers, Wigle (Pittsburgh Distilling Company, LLC) and Boyd & Blair vodka (Pennsylvania Pure Distilleries), the pair behind Disobedient Spirits got into distilling as relative novices, studying up as they moved through the process, consulting with experts, attending conferences organized by the American Distillers Institute.

And as with the other distillers, the process -- from property acquisition, to build-out, to licensing -- has gone slower than they imagined. The most recent hiccups were questions over whether Homer City's zoning code would allow a distillery to open up next door to a church.

"Progress is slow," Mr. Begg said. "The still is already late."

Better late than never, though, and both men say there's no turning back now, given the half-million dollar investment they are making. Best-case scenario, they'll have a product on hand by Christmas 2013.

Ah, yes, the product. Disobedient Spirits will make wheat vodka and rye whiskey, at least initially. "Vodka, that's the easiest thing to make. And it requires very little aging," Mr. Sechrist said. Future spirits, he said, might include a blue-corn whiskey, resembling a bourbon; a barley whiskey; and flavored vodkas.

Though state law permits local "limited" distilleries to produce and sell up to 100,000 gallons annually, Disobedient Spirits will start out making 5,000 gallons a year, the pair hopes. They are still working out the sourcing of their grains, bottles and barrels, but they eventually hope to buy as much of it as possible from within Pennsylvania.

Visit disobedientspirits.com for updates.

Two new distilleries for the price of one:

CMU students Doug Heckmann, Anthony Lorubbio and Casey Parzych have launched Midnight Madness Distilling, a Pittsburgh-based, Bucks County-made (for now) spirits line. Their sugarcane-based vodka, called Fortis Vodka, is not yet available through the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board's state store system, but learn more at fortisvodka.com. Next up will be Synthe, an entry-level absinthe.

The threesome met in autumn 2011 during an entrepreneurship class at CMU. Mr. Parzych had dabbled in home brewing, and is the engineering mind behind Midnight Madness's distilling and filtration systems. Mr. Heckmann is in charge of sales, and Mr. Lorubbio, the company's CEO, handles business operations and information systems.

Mr. Parzych is taking a year off of school to run the distilling operation, based in a warehouse in Milford, Bucks County, thanks to a family connection that offered the group some cheap space. When business picks up, Mr. Lorubbio said, they hope to move the still and related equipment back to the Pittsburgh area.

This week, the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board unveiled its new prototype store, called Fine Wine & Good Spirits, at the Village at Pine, 125 Towne Center Dr. in Pine. The redesign, the first one in the Pittsburgh area, puts a tasting bar at the center of the store, manned by employees who will field questions from shoppers.

Another redesigned store is now open in Indiana, Pa., and one more is set to open next month in Monroeville. PLCB board member Bob Marcus said the redesign was "the antithesis of the Russian commissary look, with the gun turret in the corner" that was panned by customers.

If the PLCB survives legislative attempts to disband, all of the state stores will eventually be rebranded, Mr. Marcus said.

Now open: Cavo, a restaurant, lounge and nightclub, at 110 20th St., Strip District. The address, empty for years, has been several clubs, but might be best remembered as Banana Joe's, the 18,000-square-foot maze of sports bars and dance floors that at one time was among the Strip's most popular college spots. The Strip, of course, is somewhat past its salad days as a nightlife destination, but Cavo doesn't seem to care -- it's defiantly opulent, dressed in lots of dark woods, plushes and candelabras. They call it "bordello-style;" given what I remember of the Dennis Miller vehicle, "Bordello of Blood," this seems accurate.

Soon-to-open: At the former Mantini's, 1209 East Carson St., the owners of Jimmy D's are working on a rehab job. Also under construction is the South Side night spot (and trouble spot) formerly known as Town Tavern, then District 3. District 3, in the 2000 block of East Carson, was shut down last summer after a shooting, and the license is now under control of "NPL Southside LLC," according to PLCB records.

NPL stands for North Park Lounge LLC, which owns several North Hills bars, including the eponymous lounges, Bonnie & Clyde's and the Cabana Bar.

According to news accounts from 2012, the Allegheny County district attorney's office came to a "preliminary agreement" with the owners of District 3 to "sell or transfer their liquor license to someone who will move it outside the tavern-saturated entertainment district." PLCB records suggest that the ID number on the Town Tavern liquor license is the same as the NPL license -- meaning that they are, effectively, the same license.

Downtown, the former Palate Bistro address (212 Sixth St.) is now attached to a liquor license owned by Imbibe Management Group, headed by Tolga Sevdik, the former partner at Nine on Nine who is now co-owner of Meat and Potatoes. Scheduled to open this summer, the new spot will be called Butcher and Rye.

And in Mount Washington, the former Havana Tapas and Wine Bar on Shiloh Street is being reopened as The Summit bar and restaurant, owned by veterans of Mario's and the Bigham Tavern.

Bill Toland: btoland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2625. Read more at post-gazette.com/food.


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