In the beginning, Year of Our Lord Two-Thousand And Eight, there was vodka, in Shaler. And we saw that it was good. And then there was whiskey, in the Strip District. It, too, was good. And soon there will be another light in the darkness, a rum distiller in the Strip's eastern fringe, and -- fingers crossed here -- it also will be very good.
The man behind the dream for a rum distillery in the Strip, Tim Russell, is better known on the local beer scene as the publisher of Craft Pittsburgh quarterly. But while brewing has been a passion, distilling will become his profession once William Pitt Distilling opens, perhaps this summer or fall, in Smallman's 3200 block.
The Bloomfield man says his rum -- and, later, brandy and perhaps other spirits -- will go by the trade name of Maggie's Farm, after the Bob Dylan song. The name conjures bluesy Americana and pastoral landscapes, and it seems to fit, given Mr. Russell's Avett Brothers beard and his appreciation for pearl-buttoned shirts.
His warehouse rental is raw for now, an underlit pile of cinder block and dust, but he has big plans for the space. In the front, there will be a retail area and a small cocktail bar; in the back, storage; and in the middle room will be the 400-liter copper pot still and condenser, now resting on pallets, sent to Pittsburgh by way of Spain's Hoga Co., a manufacturer of distilling equipment.
"I'm pretty much putting my retirement into this," joked Mr. Russell, who used to work for defense contractor Argon ST before turning his full attention to alcohol. Recently, he obtained his certification in craft distilling operations and technology from Chicago's Siebel Institute of Technology.
The most obvious question: Why spirits, instead of beer?
"It's kind of late to get into the brewing game," said the 30-year-old. The Pittsburgh market has plenty of small breweries, with new ones opening every year. Distilling, on the other hand, is wide open, and judging by the rapid success of both Boyd & Blair (the vodka distillery in Shaler) and Wigle Whiskey (also on Smallman Street in the Strip), the demand for locally crafted spirits exceeds the supply. Meanwhile, a 2011 change in state law makes it easier to operate a distillery, and permits the sale of distilled spirits on-site, directly to the public, which breweries and wineries have been allowed to do for years.
But why make rum and brandy, rather than whiskey, given that he's a self-proclaimed "whiskey guy" and bourbon junkie?
"Both spirits are pretty good white," without any barrel aging, he said. That means he can sell some of the product right away (just like the Wigle team is doing with its white whiskies), while holding back the rest for aging. There's also no grain-mashing to worry about, since rum is made with sugar. Mr. Russell said he's now in the process of scouting sugar suppliers, looking at both darker sugars (primarily molasses, which creates a sweeter rum) and raw cane sugar, which would produce a West Indies-style rum, common to the French-speaking islands of the Caribbean.
Before he distills a drop of rum or brandy, Mr. Russell first has to complete the build-out of the space. For a distiller, that means complying with all of the local building codes, as well as meeting the requirements of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), a bureau under the Department of the Treasury.
That's the agency that looks for excise tax violations, and makes sure whatever is produced at the distillery stays in the "bonded" area until it is taxed, and before it is barrelled or bottled in another room. The inspection process can be unpredictable, and has delayed more than one distillery opening. Mr. Russell, though, seems unfazed.
"It's been a two-year plan," he said. "And I'm probably about a year behind."
Looking ahead, he recalled a recent trip to Distillery Row in Portland, Ore., home to five distillers within a mile and a half of each other, and said he hopes to manufacture a similar experience in Pittsburgh.
Perhaps a tour bus that stops at Maggie's Farm, Wigle, Church Brew Works, the Arsenal Cider House, Roundabout Brewery in Lawrenceville, Pittsburgh Winery, Engine House 25, R Wine Cellar, and Carlo's Garage Winery?
Say, speaking of staying tuned: Also aiming for a late summer or early fall opening is Stay Tuned Distillery in Munhall, at the red-brick John Munhall Neighborhood House along Ravine Street. The former church and religious school is about a mile from the Waterfront shopping complex.
They won't be doing end-to-end whiskey distilling -- that is, no grains, no mash, no wort, no fermenting. The company instead will be "finishing" the bulk distillate supplied by Copper Fox distillery in Virginia, which makes whiskeys and whiskey-style spirits.
"We'll rectify it, cut it down to proof," said Lee Ann Sommerfeld, owner of Stay Tuned. Some of the product will be distributed under the Copper Fox name (Copper Fox also will be a part-owner of Stay Tuned, its first such partnership outside of Virginia), and the rest will be sold under the Stay Tuned label.
The first Stay Tuned offering is expected to be a gin, called PathoGin. Ms. Sommerfeld said she'll be using home-grown botanicals to create her small-batch gin. For now, Stay Tuned is working with a small, 13-gallon still, made by Hillbilly Stills in Kentucky. Stay Tuned also will handle some of the aging and bottling for Copper Fox, said Sean McCaskey, an employee at Copper Fox.
As with Maggie's Farm, Stay Tuned plans to have a tasting bar in its retail area. And, like Mr. Russell, Ms. Sommerfeld said the build-out, licensing, permitting and label-approval timeline is hard to predict.
"We've got most of our ducks in a row," she said.
Again, stay tuned.
The former Lawrenceville funeral home on Butler Street, the Beinhauer-Lutz Funeral Home (also known as the Remembrance Tribute Center), soon will be converted into a bar, restaurant, deli and coffee shop, called "The Abbey."
The Abbey Group LLC has a liquor license pending for the property, and has been working with Lawrenceville United and the Lawrenceville Corp. to mitigate noise and parking concerns. The Abbey Group is operated by the same people who run Spin bar and lounge on Ellsworth Avenue in Shadyside.
Lauren Byrne, director of Lawrenceville United, said the Abbey will have a church theme, and is being modeled after a bar of the same name in Los Angeles. The coffee house will be on the southern side of the building, and the bar and restaurant on the right.
Also in Lawrenceville, Industry Public House, the popular bar and burger joint, is looking to add about 30 dining seats by expanding into an adjacent building, a former doctor's office on Butler Street.
Wigle Whiskey -- it just last week issued its first batch of aged, "finished" rye (meaning it's been aged in oak, but finished in maple, cherry or hickory) -- also is working on its first smoked whiskey. That means the wheat grain actually spent time in the smoker at Union Pig & Chicken; it has since been barreled, and won't be available for several months.
Wigle also is making a distilled honey spirit and a bitters, both of which are awaiting FDA approval and should be released sometime this summer.
The group that runs the local Walnut Grove restaurant chain now has a liquor license in place for its Bakery Square venture, according to PLCB records. The bar and restaurant, to be called Bakery Social, will be on the first floor of the Bakery Square building, along Penn Avenue in East Liberty.
• In the north, Bonefish Grill -- the seafood chain that just opened its first Pittsburgh location in the South Hills -- has applied for a liquor license at McCandless Crossing Town Center, along McKnight Road. That restaurant will be next to Carrabba's Italian Grill; both brands are owned by Florida-based Blooming Brands.
• South Side Lebanese and Middle Eastern stalwart, Kassab's Restaurant, has long been a favorite BYOB spot, but it now has a liquor license. The inter-municipal transfer was approved by Pittsburgh's city council in March.
• Best name for a new spot? That has to go to Dorothy 6 -- named after the famed Duquesne blast furnace -- that has a liquor license pending for 224 East 8th Ave. in Homestead, site of the former Alexander Graham Bell Cafe. (Second place goes to Grist House Brewing, a brewery pub planned for Sherman Street in Millvale.) Also in Homestead, Burgatory -- the upscale burger chain run by the Fuel and Fuddle folks -- has applied for a liquor license at the Waterfront, in the restaurant space formerly known as Red Hot & Blue (among other names). Burgatory also is planning to open spots in Market Square and Murrysville.
Bill Toland: email@example.com or 412-263-2625. On Twitter @btoland_pg.