Friday, July 3, 2015

The Spirit Behind Philadelphia's Distilling Renaissance: Dean Browne and his company, Rowhouse Spirits!

Rowhouse Spirits' Brand
There have been countless stories about the new renaissance of distilling in Philadelphia, the ones where magazines and websites emblazon the numbers as if the true charm isn’t in the distillery themselves, but the sheer amount that are being added to the city and how pretty and clean their copper stills look. The ones where, like clockwork, the amount of distilleries becomes an obvious mention: Yes, every story about any of Pennsylvania’s distilling boom must mention this: the number of distilleries in the state has increased from 3 in 2005, to 39 in 2015, with another 18 pending approval by the Liquor Control Board.

But there are very few stories about the ones that started this: The spirits behind this amazing renaissance that is occurring in the city of Philadelphia. This is a story about Dean Browne, the creator and visionary behind Rowhouse Spirits. An entrepreneur, he is risking everything to do the work he loves and bring great local spirits to the city of brotherly love.

His love for the city started in 1993 and it stemmed from one word: Winters. The blistering cold winters in Canada were something Dean never enjoyed.  Lucky for Dean, the company he worked for at the time, Imperial Chemical Industries, moved one of their data centers over to Philadelphia. He’s never looked back since and started to fall in love with the city.

When we asked him for this three favorite places to attend in Philadelphia, he looked at us like we were crazy—"Just three?" He answered in surprise. “But there are so many."

But we eventually got him to cough up an answer.

DB: The Mutter Museum; any bar in old city where you can have a drink and watch the chaos during a summer rain storm (while preferably staying dry); get on the water in either the Delaware or the Schuylkill rivers - in a sailboat, canoe or kayak - it really gives you a different view of the city.

Dean was a former product manager for IBM, when he was laid off in 2013, he was faced with the choice: He could either work full time in the IT world again, or he could do something he loved: Distilling.

Glassware used at Rowhouse Spirits
Us: What made you change from the tech industry to the distilling industry? How did you make the change?

DB: I had been in IT since leaving college in the eighties. I've always had something going on related to brewing during that time. Although I constantly had my hand in something related to brewing, my real interest always focused on distilling. In 2013, IBM laid me off (along with about 2500 others). My wife, Traci, and I discussed our options - I had a few job offers back in the IT world, but we both decided it was time to make a change: We opened Rowhouse Spirits.

However, even though he worked in the tech-world for most of his life, he’s also had a love for alcohol and the industry that very few people have.  For about 17 years, he worked part time with the Philadelphia Brewing Company where he helped market and sell their product to bars all over the city.

The reason he didn’t start earlier?


DB: About ten years ago it dawned on me that Distilling was what I wanted to do. I started studying distillation and learning about different types of spirits, but up until recently, opening a distillery in PA was close to an impossibility for small businesses. In 2012, when the PLCB introduced the license that I now have - the Limited Distillery license, that really made the possibility of finally having my own distillery a possibility.

Yet, distilling is rough and gritty work. There isn’t a hint of softness left in his hands. On top of actually producing the spirits: he has to educate customers, seduce distributors, keep the building spotless, post on his social media, worry about the design of his products the branding, and making sure all the relevant paperwork for the government is done. Still, he couldn’t be more thankful for the opportunity to open a business in Philadelphia.

DB: Philadelphia is a great place to operate a business like this given that most people actively support locally produced products. What I really get a kick out of is the reaction I get when folks taste my products for the first time - especially the Gin - it's as though they are discovering something completely new.

To pay back the kindness shown towards him by the city, Dean does everything he can to make the city a better place. He sponsors charity events all over the city. He does free tours of his distillery and teaches people how his spirits are made. He make sure everyone that comes into his store is paid attention to. For Dean, Rowhouse Spirits needs to be as open and friendly as possible. It's this transparency and friendliness that makes Rowhouse Spirits, well, Rowhouse Spirits.

DB: My entire distillery is visible from the retail/tasting room. Anytime I'm open I offer tastes and can explain everything that that I do to make the products including pointing out the various equipment that I use - like my shiny still. I'm really relying on tastings and word of mouth right now, but I do post to the internet quite a lot - Facebook, Instagram, Twitter.

Another reason his distillery is so unique?

The amazing mural in front of his distillery.

The Mural Outside Rowhouse Spirits

Us: Can you explain the mural you’ve created at Rowhouse Spirits distillery?

DB: First - I didn't create it. Phillip Adams is the artist and he is fully responsible for the creation of the mural - working with the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program. The mural is appropriately named "Rowhouse Spirits" and is part of the Mural Arts series called "Industrious Light". Murals in the series reflect the historical and current uses of industrial properties around Philadelphia. So given that the distillery sits on what was once the brewhouse for the Weisbrod & Hess Brewery, and the larger property is now occupied by my distillery and PBC, the mural depicts equipment and ingredients used in both brewing and distilling. The mural on my distillery is the second in the series- the first one Phillip created is on the wall of the Ortliebs Bar at 3rd and Poplar. Both murals were created using the same technique - painted with charcoal dissolved in alcohol - I love the fact that my distillery has a mural painted with alcohol.

Bear Trap
A Photo of Dean himself

Rowhouse Spirits’ currently sells three products. Bear Trap, an herbal liqueur with a caricature of Dean Browne on the bottle’s label. Poitin a white whiskey made with 100% barley, fermented with beer yeast. And, their flagship product Rowhouse Spirits Gin—An absolutely delicious spirit that is more bodied flavored than most other gins. It has a distinct nose that is different than the taste which gives it a layered flavor. Finally, it’s over-proof. 96 instead of the standard 80. However, you’d never know it was that strong as there's very little alcohol burn. The gin is one of the smoothest gin you’ll find on the market and it’s taking Philadelphia by storm. Despite not being in a single Pennsylvania Liquor Store, it’s already in over thirty bars in Philadelphia alone, and a few weeks ago started being distributed by Hunterdon Brewing in New Jersey.

Not so bad for a company that hasn’t been operating for two years!

Related: Learn to be a bartender at Bartending School

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Warren Bobrow, Craft Sprits Enthusiast and Professional Author, Talks Bartending Chops at Aqua Vitae Institute

Interview with Warren Bobrow: The Cocktail Whisperer

Warren Bobrow

Who is Warren Bobrow: Warren Bobrow is a brand ambassador for Stroh Rum, bestselling author on Amazon, Tales of the Cocktail Nominated Writer,  and one American's biggest proponent of what he calls "indie spirits"--which he describes as focusing his career on showing how the little guys make the biggest splashes in flavor.

1) How did you start writing about cocktails?

I was writing about food and wine and I found it really difficult.  Even though I’m a train chef, and even though I know a great deal about wine, the world of food writing and the world of wine writing are very insular worlds. They don’t take to newcomers easily. The first magazine I got published in, Saveur Magazine and I wrote about a Tuna Melt I had in Charleston South Carolina, a sandwich. But still it got me in Saveur magazine.

And that changed my career. It literally changed my career.

But where that went was, people were less likely to give me chances. Here I was first thing out of the gate I was in Saveur Magazine rather than coming out from the blogosphere. So for two years after that I blogged, and  I never liked the idea of blogging. I  really don’t like the idea of the word blogging. I think it’s trite and I think I’m more well known as a columnist and a blogger. But being a blogger got me a book contract. My publisher, the executive editor, found me because of my blog cocktail You can’t make this up.

I was fascinated by mixology because of my time spent as a chef and I knew that I could do as well or better than anyone on the marketplace because I was a trained saucier.  Because I understand food. Because I traveled the world.  Because I’ve eaten great stuff and not so great stuff. Taking that knowledge, putting it into work my head made think:

Everyone loves to drink because they love to get intoxicated. That’s just the bottom line. They don’t drink just for pure flavor. They drink to get buzzed.

I wanted to make drinks that get people buzzed and taste great too.

I didn’t realize I had a talent until the major bartending figures in the world started paying attention to me. So I realized I had a talent and I started working and getting paid. Which I didn’t for a long time. I worked for free for a long time. Which is something that people want you to do when you’re a writing. They want you to work for free.

But my electric company doesn’t work for free and my mortgage company doesn’t work for free, so I don’t work for free anymore.

2) What do you drink when you’re by yourself that you find that other people that are not in the industry don’t know about yet?

I drink bitters and soda water. I love bitters and soda water. And I’m saying like Angostura. Angostura was originally invented in the 1830’s to cure Simon Bolivars troop’s stomach aches. They were down there in Venezuela.

They had dysentery. They were going to die. They weren’t fighting, they weren’t killing. They were squatting.

And that wasn't a good situation. An army on its feet was a much better army than an army that’s sitting.

So Dr. Benjamin Siegert  an enterprising young gentleman, came down to Venezuela and he had his magical bitters in his hand. And these magical bitters were called Angostura bitters. They introduced these bitters to the soldiers and they mixed them with cool water. Within one or two hours of drinking this they were not squatting any more. They were standing. Then they could go out and fulfill their tasks of soldier.

Angostura is powerful stuff. I don’t use just for mixing cocktails. I use it for healing my gut. I guess it’s the jewish guys problem, I always have problems with my stomach.

Really, at the end of the day, Angostura with a cup of seltzer water is the best soda you can drink.

Tastes like nothing you ever had before.

It’s refreshing, it gives you great breath, it heals your stomach. It’s the best soda. Less expensive than soda. 

3) Can you tell us a little bit about your relationship with Tales of the Cocktail?

Tales of the Cocktail is a yearly gathering of the tribes—like the rainbow festival for the hippies. This is a cocktail convention for all of us who are in the industry. For bartenders, for mixologists, for liquor companies, for restaurants and we all fly down to New Orleans for five days. It’s a lot of fun. I think it’s like summer camp and at the end of the event I usually cry.

But now I’m starting to travel a lot. I’m seeing people at more of a global basis than the New York Metro. About a month ago I was down in Miami for a rumfest and the rum that I’m brand ambassador for a rum called Stroh. And Storh is an Austrian rum and we won the gold medal of Rum XP for the best spiced rum. So I get to travel a lot more and it’s not as bad.

But New Orleans is the gathering of all things bartending and it’s not to late to make your reservations. It’s not too expensive to stay there. The tickets for the events are not inexpensive, but where else do you get to see people, interact with and taste drinks from creative bartending, unless you have unlimited access to airline tickets, train tickets, to visit bars, which most people are never going to do.

You can go down to New Orleans during and really enjoy yourself like I’m doing.

4a) What is your biggest pet peeve in the bartending world today? I know you've mentioned somethings about using simple syrups instead of using shrubs?

I like simple syrup. Don’t get me wrong, I love simple syrup. I think there’s room for every bar with any ingredient.

4b) You also mentioned using Rose’s lime juice instead of sour mix…?

It’s sloppy. It’s just sloppy. It doesn’t show that you care. I think the ingredients are the most important thing.

5) Where do you think everything (in the cocktail world) is going?

Ginger and apples. Apples are so hot. I mean you see cider, cider, cider, cider all over the television.

So look to the media, and see what they’re advertising and see where things are going. It doesn’t have to be necessarily sparkling apple cider in a bottle, because that’s everywhere. But also don’t be afraid of looking towards calvados or apple ice wines or all different types of amalgamations. With ginger we can make it into ginger ale, or ginger beer, or make it really spicy by keeping it concentrated.

6) What is your favorite Hangover Cure?

My absolute favorite (hangover cure) is Underberg. Underberg is magic. I always bring it down to Tales of the Cocktail with me. As much as I say I’m not going to sick this year… Well, I’ll see great rye, I’ll see great gin, maybe there’s some sherry over, there’s a tiki bar going and suddenly the room is messing with my head.

What Underberg does is make you feel right is right.

7) Do you have any advice for our students?

When I was in culinary school, and was ready for graduation they told me that there were two jobs that they were filling: Cruise ships and prisons.

You can get a job at a cruise ship like that. You can get a job in a prison like that because they can’t fill those jobs.

There are a lot of jobs that are just for shot and beer bartenders. That’s ok. That’s where a lot of people are making their money. Where those places succeed, is they succeed in numbers. Pure numbers. They don’t have time to be mixologists—they’re straight bartenders. They make a living, it’s a great job.

When you start growing up in the business and getting more creative then you branch out to higher level of property, places where you get paid benefits and allow you to be creative. Those places are few and far between, but with talent the skies the limit.

As I said there’s nothing wrong with getting a job as a bar back. There is nothing wrong with going in there and knocking on the door and asking, "I want to be a bartender, but I really don’t have a lot of experience. Are you hiring for a bar back slot? Do you have any bar back slots?"

Now, there is two answers they can say:

The first answer is no. Ok, go some place else.

The second answer is yes. And you’re in. And the in is worth more than anything else in the world.

I’m sure you know what’s going on in Philadelphia.  I’m sure you know who’s doing what. There’s fabulous places to drink and they all need people who are not afraid to bar back.

It’s not easy lifting buckets of ice, fifty pounds a piece.  It’s not easy being still the bar when everyone else is going home then having to do the floors. It’s not easy.

Listen to Warren Bobrow at Aqua Vitae Institute as he talks about Shrubs and other cocktail ingredients!

Here are some of Warren Bobrows books on Amazon.

Here is Warren Bobrow's Blog: The Cocktail Whisperer

Related: Learn to be a bartender at Bartending School

Monday, June 1, 2015

Rob Mullane: Lessons on Irish Whiskey

Some background: Rob Mullane is a brand ambassador for Jim Beam and spent a few hours at Aqua Vitae Institute giving the public a lecture on Irish Whiskey.

Unfortunately a lot of the whiskey lecture with Rob Mullane had audio issues while recording. This is what remains of the lecture. I hope you enjoy it!

Part 1)

What Is Irish Whiskey with Rob Mullane:

Background information about Kilbeggan
Rob Mullane’s Background
Information about Grenoire Single Grain Irish
What makes Irish Whiskey different than bourbon?
What is White Dog?
What is the Red Line?
How to understand whiskey taste

Part 2) Kilbeggan Irish Whiskey

How Kilbeggan got bought
History of Kilbeggan
General Characteristics of Irish Whiskey
Characteristics of Kilbeggan

Part 3) Tyrconnell and the Downfall of Irish Whiskey

SOL and PA Liquor Laws
Single Malt
History of Irish Whiskey — How Irish Whiskey became the most popular whiskey too almost being eradicated.
How Tyrconnell got its name.
What Age means on Irish Whiskey

Part 4) What Is Peat, How To Taste Whiskey

How Irish Whiskey is made.
Differences between Scottish Peat and Irish Peat
How to smell peat in Irish Whiskey

Related: Learn to be a bartender at Bartending School

Thursday, May 21, 2015

An Entrepeneur, a Writer, and a Damn Good Bartender. Meet Derek Brown from Drink Company

Derek Brown is an American entrepreneur, writer, and bartender. He is the owner of the bars Columbia Room, The Passenger,  Mockingbird Hill, Eat the Rich, and Southern Efficiency in Washington D.C. A leader in the classic cocktail movement, Derek Brown devotes himself to teaching people to drink better and offers cocktail classes through his own Drink Company website.
Photo taken from Drinkcompany

1) One of the favorite things I love about reading your articles is that you always examine the benefits involved with people who drink alcohol responsibly and the amount of fun you’re having, even using terms such as “Drynuary."  If you could give one piece of advice to a person who inspires to create a positive drinking culture what would it be?

Drinking is all about context. If you want to gain positive and lasting experiences with alcohol, open a good bottle with close friends. To me, that's where drinking finds its apogee. People have asked me if I collect special bottles. I will on occasion but with the sole intent of sharing them. Truth be told, with the right people, I could drink almost anything.

2) On your Drink Company webpage you said that that you’re “story tellers” at heart.  Do you have a cocktail that you think embodies the story of your life?

Ostensibly my favorite cocktail is the Dry Martini but, like Bernard Devoto, the only other "cocktail" I drink on a regular basis is a slug of whiskey. Neither one by itself really tells the story of my life. One is sleek and modern, the other one rough and old fashioned. Let's just say that together they explain me well and, I'll try not to give a beauty queen answer here, but I appreciate both the progress of mankind and a longing to live in the past. To me cocktails tell the story of humanity well and our story is one replete with contradiction. I'm no different.

3) Do you mind sharing the recipe?

Dry Martini
1 1/2 oz. London Dry Gin
1 1/2 oz. Dry Vermouth
Dash Orange Bitters

Stir with ice until very cold and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Express the oils of a lemon peel on top and discard peel.

4) Drink Company offers cocktail classes that change seasonally and reflect the emerging field of craft cocktails. What is your favorite part about teaching those classes?

Ever heard the saying that teaching is learning twice? For me that's part of it, recalling the stories. But I also love the interaction with students. Nowadays most people who attend my classes are familiar with the basics of cocktails, some even with how to make bitters and the history of obscure Pre-prohibition cocktails. It keeps me on my toes but it also keeps me learning. More than anything, I feel like a perpetual student. I'm very lucky to get the chance to share what I've learned.

5) Mockingbird Hill is focused on offering Sherry.  Southern Efficency is devoted to Southern Whiskey.  What kind of personal connection do you have to Sherry and Southern Whiskey? Why not just offer a Whiskey or Wine Bar?

I think that's the point. I love very particular things. I don't see any need to offer every bottle in the world. That's like a musician trying to play all the notes at once. I prefer a well curated program. Maybe it means that it isn't for everyone, but it also hopefully gives people a broader depth of products. We love for people to discover something they've never had before or something they never thought they'd like. Discovery is half the fun.

6) You’ve won a long list of recognitions from being a James Beard Semi-finalist and being mentioned as the best Martini in America by GQ.  What does it feel like to be so regarded in the field?

The short answer is: great. But the recognition is not mine alone. I work with some really incredible people and they deserve the credit as well.

7) Do you have any tips for bartenders who want to follow in your footsteps and be recognized for the work they do?

Drink a lot, read a little. That's advice I once got from a mentor. Try everything, but make sure to put it in its proper context.

8) You’ve given advice on professorcocktail, and are a proponent for bartenders to not be afraid to learn as long as they show they care and want to be better. However, one of the challenging parts about aspiring bartenders is that there is so much competition in the market. Are there any standout experiences you’ve had where you were willing to hire a bartender with no work experience over a bartender with much experience?

I would definitely hire someone with no experience but not necessarily to be a bartender. Its important to work your way up. Maybe a barback, server or some kind of bar apprentice. That's where they'd have to start.

9) Are there any cocktails you like drinking much more than making?

I suppose there are a few, especially some kind of frozen drink. They can be delicious but it's considerable more work than stirring a drink.

10) Are there any upcoming bars that you like to hang out in the Washington D.C. area?

There are plenty of bars I like to hang out in DC. Two of my favorite are Bar Mini  and 2 Birds 1 Stone. 

11) Finally, any plans for a new restaurant in Philadelphia?

Not yet, but I love Philly.

Derek Brown's Drink Company Website:

Related: Learn to be a bartender at Bartending School