When selecting a bottle of booze, do you buy local or buy affordable?

The folks behind Faber Craft Spirits are trying to eliminate that choice.

Compared to most labels produced by Pennsylvania’s newly-booming craft distilling industry, Faber is downright cheap. One-liter bottles retail for $13.99 to $15.99 (at least half the price of many other local spirits); and as of this month, they’re available in state stores all over Philadelphia. There’s a vodka, a gin, a white rum and a whole line of flavored vodkas, from orange to chocolate to cherry.

All this is excellent news for area drinkers, because there’s one more crucial quality Faber liquors possess: They’re good.

“Consistency is the toughest part of the business, and we’re vigilant about it,” said Anthony Lorubbio, 25, co-founder and CEO of Midnight Madness Distilling in Quakertown, Bucks County, where the Faber line is made.

Great taste, less filigrée

Anthony Lorubbio pours a taste of Faber vodka
Anthony Lorubbio pours a taste of Faber vodka Credit: Danya Henninger

Distilled from milled corn and filtered over 40 feet of activated charcoal, Faber vodka is smooth and supple, with a clean taste and zero hangover. The gin is brightly spiced and full of juniper, without the cloying floral aroma that can make it feel like sipping after-shave. As for the rum, well, let’s just say it’s dangerously easy to drink (pay attention or you’ll be halfway through the bottle before you realize what’s happening).

There’s also a line of flavored vodkas made with natural oils and extracts. The orange is slightly cloudy thanks to the essential oil that provides a serious burst of citrus, and the chocolate is dry and earthy. Only the grape was off-putting, with a taste reminiscent of Hubba Bubba.

If you were served a sample of just about any of the non-flavored Faber spirits, you’d never guess their price…unless you caught a glimpse of the bottle. Plain shape. Simple, non-varying label. Plastic screw-cap. The look screams “Bargain! Economy! Budget!” — basically the opposite of what you’d expect for an artisanal producer entering today’s locavore-loving climate, where the more twee the design, the more hype something seems to get.

But Faber’s stripped-down style is very much a calculated decision.

“We decided to go after the affordable end of the market,” said Lorubbio, explaining that when he and business partner Casey Parzych first introduced their vodka, they were offering it to bars for $25 a bottle. “Bar managers kept negotiating the price down, so in 2014 we decided to go all-in on buying inputs [i.e. grain, bottles, labels] in bulk.” The wholesale price these days is around a third of where it started out.

‘What’s the catch?’

Gin, vodka and white rum are the core Faber products
Gin, vodka and white rum are the core Faber products Credit: Danya Henninger

That Midnight Madness could sell their product direct to taverns and pubs at all is thanks to a relatively recent change in the Pa. liquor code. Enacted at the end of 2011 after intense lobbying efforts by pioneers like Rob Cassell (then of Philadelphia Distilling, now of New Liberty Distillery), the new law has been credited with helping jump-start the state’s fledgling craft distilling industry.

It’s certainly flourishing in the Philadelphia region, where we can now choose from locally-made Rowhouse Spirits gin, Stateside vodka, La Colombe rum, Dad’s Hat rye, Hewn Spirits bourbon, Manatawny Still Works rum, Bluebird Distilling whiskey and more.

“The craft spirits industry in Pa. right now is very similar to how it was in craft beer 20 years ago,” Lorubbio said. When he and Parzych met while studying entrepreneurship at Carnegie Mellon University, they were avid homebrewers, and they first considered starting their own brewery. But, “then we looked at the craft beer market, and realized it was getting saturated.”

The pair taught themselves distilling, and rounded up investors, securing a small space in a warehouse in a Bucks County industrial park for the stills and a 500-square-foot bottling room. Once they were happy with the product, they hit the streets, cold-calling bars to try to convince them to carry the new line. Turns out it wasn’t a hard pitch to make.

“It’s an easy sell,” said Annamarie Viola, an industry veteran recently hired as Faber’s first sales rep. “With the price and the quality and it being locally-made and us being able to sell direct, people usually think it’s too good to be true — all the time I get asked, ‘So, what’s the catch?’”

Midnight Madness now has around 500 wholesale accounts, to which they deliver Faber spirits directly with their “fleet” of two trucks. Their customers include bars on all levels of the spectrum, from inexpensive dives like Oscar’s Tavern to more luxurious boites, such as Oyster House right next door. The only places Viola gets turned down, she said, are drinkeries where even the “well liquor” — the stuff poured when people don’t ask for a specific brand — is already high-end (think Hop Sing Laundromat, for example).

Start with bars, then go statewide

Chocolate is sales rep Annamaria Viola’s favorite flavor
Chocolate is sales rep Annamaria Viola’s favorite flavor Credit: Danya Henninger

It was the brand’s popularity in bars that made it a shoe-in to be approved for retail sale, Lorubbio suggested.

Introduced by the PLCB in 2015, something called the PA Spirits Program allows in-state distilleries to apply to have up to 10 different products in up to 10 different stores. But when they were rolled out on January 11 of this year, Faber spirits became available in 26 stores, and the number is expected to increase — cases are shipped to all three LCB distribution centers, so theoretically any liquor store in the state can carry them

How and why did Faber get into so many locations? “I don’t exactly know,” Lorubbio said. “I think a factor was that we already had some brand awareness among consumers. [LCB chief of product selection] Pam Bernd and category manager Ron Murphy were great to work with.”

At a tasting held recently in the 21st and Market premium Fine Wine and Good Spirits shop, a customer was pleasantly surprised to discover Faber’s price point.

“Oh my, only $16? And made in Bucks?” said the man, who was African American and looked to be around 60 years old — in other words, not the stereotypical craft-spirits-buying hipster.

Lorubbio looked over at the store manager, a 28-year Wine & Spirits veteran who seemed thrilled to have this new local product on his shelves, and beamed.

“We’re pretty much running at capacity,” he said, “but we’ve already expanded three times since starting, and we’re certainly willing to do so again.”

Danya Henninger is director and editor of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the membership program. She is a former food...