Act fast and you might be able to taste the best whiskey made in Philadelphia right now.
The latest product to come out of Red Brick Craft Distillery’s tiny basement workshop in Kensington is called From the Woods. It’s a flavored whiskey, but it’s not a liqueur. At 82 proof, this is very much full-strength booze, so instead of being cloying and sweet (hi, Fireball), it’s rich and woody with a strong backbone.
But it’s not at all harsh, thanks to an enchanting aroma that seems familiar but is hard to place — until you know what it’s from.
Birch. Real birch. Like, twigs and bark and bits of tree.
Co-founders Brian Forrest and Zach Cohen collected the birch off a friend’s nearby farm and tossed it in five-gallon casks to infuse their carefully shepherded distillate with its minty, herbal essence. The end result is a brown spirit with a sweet vanilla nose that carries through each sip but finishes clean and sharp. Both serious whiskey drinkers and folks who usually find whiskey too harsh can happily meet at this middle ground.
Just about everything used to craft From the Woods is local, not just the birch. In addition to wildflower honey, which is brewed into mead and then distilled, the base spirit is made of malt that’s sourced from nearby Deer Creek in Glen Mills and Double Eagle in Huntingdon Valley. The spent grain is sent to Roxborough’s WB Saul High School of Agricultural Sciences for use as feed or garden compost.
In a pleasing turn of events, Red Brick’s marketing doesn’t smack you over the head with the local cred — unlike some “Philadelphia” brands, a few of which just truck in ethanol and then filter or flavor it here before bottling and slapping on a label. (Still other “local” spirits companies use the fact that they’re headquartered here to cash in on locavore love while outsourcing production to other states entirely.)
The only catch with this dream booze? So far, just 140 bottles have been made.
You might still be able to buy one if you visit the tasting room, which is open weekends for tours, and a few select Philly bars have snagged their own and have begun offering birch whiskey cocktails.
If you don’t get your hands on From the Woods this year, worry not. Plans call for the sophomore run of birch whiskey to produce at least 400 gallons — more than a dozen times the first-edition batch. After all, Red Brick has only been around a little over a year.
The two friends behind the biz first conceived of the micro-distillery five years ago, then bootstrapped their idea with a Kickstarter ($27,641 in pledges) and investments from friends and family. Forrest only recently left his job as a contractor to concentrate on distilling full time, and Cohen is still working on his clinical psychology PhD at Penn. They’re happy with the reception their spirits have been getting — the Inquirer’s Craig LaBan published a story raving about their pineapple rum last September — but are still content to keep growing slowly and organically.
One limiting factor is the size of the distillery.
Red Brick’s entire footprint takes up less than 900 square feet in the bottom of a warehouse that newly-hired part-time sales rep Matt Gendaszek likes to call “the Building of Bad Decisions” (other tenants include a tattoo parlor, a boudoir photographer and a now-shuttered film studio that was rumored to be producing low-budget porn).
Forrest’s construction background came in handy outfitting the small space. There’s a front tasting area with an attractive four-seat bar equipped with everything needed to make cocktails. Through windowed interior walls you can see the rest of the place, where local grain piled on pallets takes up one side, and brew kettles and stills take up the other. At the back is the best spot of all — the cellar.
Filled top-to-bottom with barrels, the room smells like a whiskey-drinker’s dream. “I would put a hammock in here if they let me,” Gendaszek says.
Across the top of the room are pipes that send hot and cool water used during the distilling process through the space, which helps keep the cellar at proper humidity. The casks, made of new white oak, are purposely small. That’s why Forrest was able to have a whiskey ready in its first 12 months, thanks to the high ratio of wood surface area-to-liquid. It takes more effort to age liquor this way, compared to the much larger barrels used in commercial distilleries, but — in addition to the speed boost — it does impart the end product with a super-distinctive smoky flavor, pulled from the deep char given to the the cask interiors before they’re filled with booze.
The char flavor isn’t very prominent in From the Woods, but it does come through intensely in Red Brick’s classic and barrel-strength whiskies. These can also be picked up at the tasting room, along with the Simply Shine rum and pineapple rum.
The rums are something of a bargain at $29. The whiskies, on the other hand, aren’t cheap — a 750-ml bottle of From the Woods will run you $55. But if you’ve got the funds and the desire for a drinking experience like nothing you’ve tried before, this local birch whiskey is well worth it.