La Gourmandine will take over the former Penn Avenue Fish spot on Forbes Avenue
The rusty basketball hoops, toward which sons and daughters of immigrants flung their line-drive foul shots (to avoid the low-hanging support beams and water pipes), remain in the cellar, as do the crumbling shower stalls and what once was a seniors' game room. In some first-floor spots, the original hardwood floors -- dating back a century -- are intact. A stone archway is the vestige of a massive fireplace that warmed the entirety of this red-brick school hall-turned-community center.
Of all the young distilling shops that have opened in the Pittsburgh area in the last few years -- there are only four of them -- the one at 810 Ravine St. in Munhall, called Stay Tuned Distillery, is most naturally imbued with a sense of civic history. Stay Tuned, which will be making and selling whiskey and gin, is the newest occupant of what was the John Munhall Neighborhood House, a former public school building that in 1939 became home to the United Methodist Church Union's community center programming. The center drew children, immigrants and the unemployed, teaching them cooking, English language, dancing, weaving, math, biology, driving, puppetry, even "Americanization" classes, and those educational and vocational missions carried on after the Methodist Union of Social Agencies took possession of the center in the 1970s.
Stay Tuned, working in partnership with Virginia's Copper Fox distillery, opened to the public last week. Today, the distillery is selling only Copper Fox rye (distilled in Virginia, but rectified and finished in Munhall), but by December the distillery also should be selling Wasmund's Single Malt, and in January it will be selling its own brand of gin, "PathoGin."
But back to the building.
"The people who had it let it go to the dogs," said Lee Ann Sommerfeld, one of Stay Tuned's co-owners. "So the people in this community were suffering" from the derelict property, she said.
Ms. Sommerfeld, who owned a wine distribution business before her distillery venture, and co-owner Peter Streibig (formerly affiliated with the East End Brewing Co.) secured a loan of $70,000 through the Steel Valley Enterprise Zone Corp., and bought the building last year after scouting a few other locations. The Neighborhood House had been empty for a decade, most recently used as administrative offices for Nathan Bilder lumber supply company.
After a year of renovations, much of the building remains unfinished, if not untouched. The rehab work focused on building a bar and tasting room, installing equipment in the distilling and rectifying room, building a kitchen and new restrooms, replacing broken windows, refinishing floors and walls, and generally bringing the structure up to code.
"We worked with what we had. We didn't have a ton of money," Ms. Sommerfeld said.
They've already had a few visitors -- neighboring business owners, one curious bartender, and several adults who remembered taking classes at the neighborhood house. One such visitor gave the new owners a "tour" of the building, explaining where everything used to be, right down to the placement of an old jukebox.
"The people that live here are salt of the earth," Ms. Sommerfeld said. "It's a phenomenal area. The entrepreneurs that are here are very devoted to community, to bettering this area."
The product now being sold at Stay Tuned was "finished" there, meaning Copper Fox sent its high-proof rye to Munhall, where Ms. Sommerfeld and Mr. Streibig rectified it down to bottle strength.
"It took us two days to cut down the first barrel of whiskey to proof," Mr. Streibig said. That process involves siphoning and filtering the rye, moving it to a mixing tank, measuring the whiskey with a thermometer and a hydrometer (to determine its proof), then adding water, a bit at a time, until the rye is at its finished strength. After that, the rye is bottled and stopped with a wax seal.
As for the gin, Ms. Sommerfeld and Mr. Streibig are hoping to create a "seasonal" single-malt barley gin.
"The fun thing about gin is that you can play with it" and turn around a new product fairly quickly, because there is no aging, Ms. Sommerfeld said. For example, it's the middle of winter, [so] let's make something with a little more spice ... [We can] work with our industry partners to parlay into what they've got going on in menus. I mean, how fun?"
The process of getting a product to market has been somewhat slower than expected, partly because Stay Tuned is both a distiller and importer of spirits, meaning the company needed both types of licenses before it could sell any product.
But "we're not in a rush to just throw something out the door," Ms. Sommerfeld said. "We really want it to be right."
The gin's label and logo were designed by local food and beverage photographer Adam Milliron, who also took the photographs of Copper Fox Distillery that are now hanging in the main hallway at Stay Tuned.
Tim Russell, owner of Maggie's Farm distillery at 3212A Smallman St. in the Strip District, now is producing white rum, and you'll soon be able to buy some. For now, the rum is being sold to Pittsburgh bars -- Franktuary in Lawrenceville already snagged a bottle -- but Mr. Russell said he plans to open the distillery on Black Friday, Nov. 29, for public sale. Doors open at 11 a.m.
As Mr. Russell spent the summer and early autumn dealing with licensing and construction, he also made a few serendipitous acquisitions that will allow him to boost production: a 300-gallon dairy storage tank that will be repurposed as a fermenter ("Dairy tanks are stainless steel and also insulated with cooling coils, so it's a great secondary market for quality, temperature-controlled fermentation," he said), a 400-gallon dairy tank and some single-walled storage tanks originally used by wineries.