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