by Sally Colby
The Mid-Atlantic region is home to numerous wineries and breweries, and distilleries are joining the list of places people deem worthy of their leisure time. Wycombe Vineyards is a popular stop on the Bucks County, PA, wine trail, and is also home to Sator Square Distillery.
Vineyard owners Rich and Debbie Fraser started planting vines in 2000. The entire family helped as Rich perfected his grape growing and winemaking skills. Their son Justin has been involved in his family’s winery business from the start, shadowing his father and learning vineyard work, pressing and processing. As Justin learned the intricacies of the fermentation process, he became interested in wine chemistry and eventually, distilling.
“I’ve always had an interest in distilling,” said Justin. “The vineyard is in an agricultural zone, and with changes in Pennsylvania laws about limited distilleries, there was an opportunity for me.” He added that farm distilleries – distilleries located on a farm property rather than in an industrial zone – are relatively new. Justin became a licensed distiller in 2016 and went to work developing test batches.
Justin’s concept was unlike that of most start-up distilleries. Because the family vineyard was already a good source of wine grapes, his plan was to make gin by distilling wine. “My idea was to use grapes as the base,” he said. “There are a few other places that do it, but it isn’t common. I thought there might be a niche to cross-market with the winery. When people come here, there’s wine, but there’s also a gin made from the same grapes grown here.”
However, wine is a relatively expensive product to distill. “There’s more money to be made with wine for the same volume that goes into making a spirit,” Justin explained. “But they always had more than they needed for the year, so there would always be grapes to start with.”
To learn all the aspects of a relatively uncommon process, Justin relied on a large online community of distillers who were generous with their time and expertise. “I connected with them through message boards, and found there’s a lot of free information available to learn all the processes involved,” he said. “It saved me an enormous amount of time, and I learned how to do everything the right way instead of fumbling through it. It helps to find out what others are doing – what works and what doesn’t.”
While in the planning stages, Justin had to determine how to best use the space available. “I had to size my equipment to something I can work on myself,” he said, adding that the distillery had to be located separately from the winery. “Then I asked for opinions on what size equipment would work and which vendors to check out.”
There was also the matter of selecting a name for his distillery. Inspired by his interest in ancient culture, Justin settled on Sator Square (a mosaic word puzzle discovered in Pompeii). “It’s a word square based on balance,” said Justin. “It matches up with my goal of making a balanced gin.”
Since Wycombe Vineyards harvests, presses and makes wine on the premises, it seems logical that plenty of wine would be available for distilling. However, Justin didn’t need finished wine. “There are extra steps for clarifying and cold stabilizing to put it in a bottle and sell it as wine,” he said. “That isn’t necessary for distilling. I’m looking for a full-flavored, fermented wine. It’s turbid and not something you’d put in a bottle to sell.
“Gin is really just a flavored vodka, a flavored neutral spirit with the primary flavor of juniper,” he explained. “Beyond juniper, I can use any other flavors I want. First, I make and distill several batches of wine. The stripping runs go through the still for clean up, then I distill that again very slowly to make a neutral spirit.”
The process results in a separation of alcohols, which Justin collects in a row of jars numbered according to when that liquid came off the still. “When you get good at it, you can go down the row, sniff them and tell which are good,” he said. “Mixed in with all the distillate are lighter and heavier alcohols. In the tails, there are fusal oils, or undesirable bitter compounds you may not want to keep. On the head side, there are more astringent harsh alcohols. I just want the hearts – the best part in the middle.”
Once Justin isolates what he wants to keep, he dilutes it to 20 to 25 percent alcohol. “Then I weigh all the botanicals and layer them in the gin basket,” he said, adding that some botanicals require crushing. “When I heat the still, all the ethanol comes out of solution. The vapors pass through the botanicals and carry the essential oils to the distillate. I collect that, let it rest for about a week, then it’s ready to go.”
Each wine at Wycombe Vineyards features a unique label created from old family photographs, and Justin wanted labels that would distinguish and complement his product. “People have a choice,” he said, adding that premium products should have well-designed labels. “They’re going to pick something up if it looks interesting, and if it doesn’t look like it’s worth what they’re spending, they aren’t going to buy it.” After selecting bottles and creating labels, Justin released his first gin in September 2017.
In addition to a selection of wines, the tasting room at Wycombe Vineyards now offers Sator Square gin. Although many gin aficionados enjoy the spirit in a simple gin and tonic or a martini, farmstead distilleries have the opportunity to offer a unique flavor experience. Justin said while people often enjoy straight spirits, one popular mixed drink is a wine float featuring wine and gin. “There’s a lot to be said for finding the right mix that complements the gin,” he said. “People can enjoy the flavors without drowning them. It’s all about finding the right balance with the ingredients.”
In addition to gin, Justin is making rakia, a fruit brandy similar to Italy’s grappa. “When we press the wine, I save the skins,” he explained. “I rehydrate and ferment that.” Justin has also started making whisky using malted barley.
Although he’s just getting started, Justin’s gin has already garnered awards, including a double gold medal at the 2018 New York World Spirits Competition and a bronze at the 2018 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. However, he’s quick to point out his primary goal in entering the contests was to find out how his spirits compared to others. “You think you’re doing well, and everyone around you is saying nice things, but it feels good when impartial judges also like it,” he said, adding that contests draw spirits from around the world. “It’s a bit of affirmation that what I’m doing is worthwhile.”