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How Kensington’s Federal Distilling grew from a Breaking Bad basement lab to your favorite craft vodka

Yes, it’s vodka. It’s still cool.

On October 15, a new craft vodka called Stateside will hit the shelves of select Fine Wine & Good Spirits stores. It’s made from Midwestern corn and mineral-enriched water, and is distilled up to a dozen times on a German-made still before being aerated with oxygen for an extremely clean finish (read: a clear head the next day). Even better: It’s made right here in Kensington.

Fort Washington natives Matt and Bryan Quigley are the brothers behind Federal Distilling, which will soon begin operations at 161 Cecil B. Moore Avenue. Their distillery shares a warehouse building with a cool collection of tenants: Elixr Coffee Roasters, Keystone Mini Golf and a forthcoming barrel-centric brewery called Form.

As soon as the Health Department approves it, the building will also be home to the Stateside tasting room and bar, a sleek, high-ceilinged room outfitted with a marble counter, a handmade marquee sign and a kitchen for preparing food.

Federal Distilling's Bryan and Matt Quigley in their future bar/tasting room

Federal Distilling's Bryan and Matt Quigley in their future bar/tasting room

Danya Henninger

Taking over the basement

Matt Quigley has run restaurants before. After college, he lived in California, where opened a Wawa-copycat store and then introduced Los Angeles to great hoagies at a shop called Fat Sandwich Company (with Amoroso rolls and Taylor pork roll shipped in). While on the Pacific Coast, he got an itching to open a craft brewery, but when he returned to Philadelphia, he realized craft beer was already a crowded field. Why not try spirits?

To get started, he enlisted the help of his younger brother, Bryan, a securities trader. Best friends their whole lives, the pair had always wanted to get into business together — their first venture was at ages 7 and 8, when they ran a racket buying and selling baseball cards and candy at various grade schools around the area.

So Bryan and Matt, now 30 and 31, had a friend make them a miniature still, and set up a small test distillery in the basement of their family’s house — unbeknownst to their parents. For 5 or 6 months, testing went well, each batch getting better and better…until their father discovered the operation.

“What the hell is this?” read Mr. Quigley’s text message, accompanied by a photo of the makeshift stillworks. “This has to be gone by the weekend.”

The next morning, Matt confronted his dad. “What’s wrong with it?”

“You are not making drugs in my basement!” roared the elder Quigley, who most likely saw the contraptions and tanks and tangles of water lines and thought his sons were cooking up meth. Even though his misconception was quickly corrected, the basement days were done. Time for Matt to take his tinkering to the next level.

He sent some samples of his vodka around to distilleries in search of an apprenticeship, and got “hired” (paid in experience) by a distillery run by Michigan State University. It did mostly R&D contract work for large commercial liquor companies, and the pace was intense, with three giant stills running non-stop. It was a crash course in how to make good booze.

That experience in hand, Matt came back to Philly and began searching for investors for his own project. He and Bryan met with nearly 50 parties before they finally made a connection — a partnership incited by having a mutual friend bring a copy of the business plan to the potential investors’ Christmas party and nonchalantly leaving it sitting on the house toilet.

Whether or not they actually read the plan on the pot, businessmen (and brothers) Clement and Zachary Pappas were interested, and 3 days later, they invited the Quigleys in for a meeting. It took nearly 6 months of vetting, but the Pappases eventually signed on, and the project was a go.

The stillworks on which Stateside vodka is made

The stillworks on which Stateside vodka is made

Danya Henninger

Oxygen filtration

Vodka was always the plan for Federal Distilling’s first spirit — it’s what the Quigley brothers like to drink themselves, plus it’s a less-played out segment of the growing craft distilling market. Artisanal bourbons are all over the shelves these days; small-batch vodkas much less so.

And then there was Matt’s innovation to filter his spirits with gas.

He’d been playing around with bubbling different gasses through his distilled product — ozone, nitrogen, carbon dioxide — because he found they removed odor-causing molecules that couldn’t be filtered out any other way. When he took some samples of aerated vodka to a meeting with Sky Cooper, CEO of longstanding Philly-based liquor company Charles Jacquin, the booze executive was blown away by their quality.

“It was like 9:30 in the morning, and he popped open my bottles and tasted them, and said, ‘This is phenomenal.’” Cooper had his assistants bring samples of every other vodka in the building, and he and Quigley sipped and compared tasting notes for the next several hours.

Then Cooper said, “OK, I’m going to give Federal Distilling its first contract. I want to fly you to Poland to do what you did to your vodka on our product.”

“Cooper was pivotal in my growth as a distiller,” Matt told Billy Penn during an interview in his Federal’s Kensington space. He spent more than a year as a consultant for Pravda vodka and other Jacquin holdings, refining his aeration gas-filtering method (he decided oxygen worked best) and learning the ins and outs of the trade.

Those connections in hand, he was then ready to launch his own brand. The Quigleys ran a naming contest for their vodka online, and received upwards of 2,000 submissions. They pulled their top 50, and paid for a survey to determine the popular pick. Happily, there was one that easily pulled out front, and it was the brothers’ own personal favorite: Stateside.

Stateside will be distributed to bars and restaurants by Southern Wine & Spirits. The first chance to buy a bottle to take home will come when it lands on limited shelves as part of the PLCB’s new program for start-up small distillers that allows them to test out new products on 12 hand-selected stores. A 750-ml swing-capped bottle will retail for $27.99 — not bad if you consider that many local artisanal spirits go for $35 to $50.

“We 100 percent stand behind our product, we think it’s absolutely delicious — if we could sell it for more, we would, but vodka hits a threshold,” said Matt. “And we really want people to buy it.”

Matt Quigley next to his original test still

Matt Quigley next to his original test still

Danya Henninger
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