by Sally Colby
There’s interesting history and folklore associated with those who followed guarded recipes to produce moonshine. Secret recipes, secret locations and sealed lips were the norm. One modern distiller who’s making moonshine today believes that it’s important to preserve and honor the rich history behind old distilleries.
Bill Mathias operates Old Republic Distillery in Seven Valleys, PA with his sister Denise and several family members. “The Old Republic name comes from a mid-1700s York distillery,” said Mathias. “It was called the New Republic Distillery, and they made a great rye whiskey that was talked about all the way down to New Orleans. They used whiskey to pay soldiers to join the Revolution because whiskey was worth more than money.”
According to Mathias, he’s been brewing beer for 25 years and his dream was to distill, “but it was illegal in Pennsylvania, so I never did.”
When Mathias learned that there was a possibility that changes in Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (LCB) laws would allow him to open a distillery, he found that a distillery in Philadelphia was working toward the same goal. “We joined their effort and it passed,” said Mathias, adding that they also had support from a distillery in the Finger Lakes region of New York. “That gave us an opportunity to fulfill our dream. Beer is fine, but when you’ve always wanted to make whiskey, beer is no longer fine.” Passage of Act 113 in early 2012 allowed Mathias to obtain a limited distilling license in Pennsylvania, but he also had to get a full DSP (distilled spirits plant) license from the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau). “We’ve been working with the state ever since we opened,” said Mathias. “We’re learning together and figuring it out as we go.”
As Mathias develops formulas for distilled spirits, he keeps careful notes and checks each step of the process. Every process must be scientifically sound, with a formulation approved by the TTB. “We send them the process, everything we’re using and all the steps, all the densities, weights and measurements throughout,” he said.
After approval, there’s a second process to undergo: COLAs (certificate of label approval) for label approval. “After formula approval, we attach a label to a bottle and send it back to them,” said Mathias. “They verify that the label reflects the formula. After that, we can make and bottle product according to the formula that we’ve turned in and sell it on the open market.”
Mathias enjoys product development and strives to understand the chemistry behind everything he does. Part of ORD’s business plan includes using as many local agricultural products as possible, so fruit from nearby Brown’s Orchard is included in several recipes. Last fall, Mathias created a peach brandy that will become an annual release. “It’s old-fashioned, as it was done in the 1700s,” he said. “There’s no added water, sugar or anything.”
In addition to their own labeled products, ORD makes a Chambourcin brandy for nearby Four Springs Winery. Mathias plans to make a blackberry brandy and will continue to work with plums and other fruits this year. Mathias believes it’s important to go through the distillation process one step at time, and to do as much of the process himself. For example, rather than purchasing corn that’s ready for a mash, Mathias mills it onsite. “Milling it gives us the ability to determine the size of the pieces,” he said. “If they’re too small, we have problems – the moisture doesn’t penetrate to the center of the dough balls. The larger pieces can be hydrated much more easily. Too much powder causes too many dough balls and you can’t convert all the starch. Unconverted starch is detrimental to fermentation. We really have to make sure the grind is good.” After milling to a suitable particle size, the corn is cooked. “We cook to gelatinize, then after we gelatinize the corn, we use enzymes to break down starches,” Mathias explained. “It goes back to liquid after the enzymes break down the usable sugars. Then it goes into a fermentation vessel and yeast is pitched. That’s when fermentation starts.” After fermentation, the liquid goes into one of two stills. The 50-gallon column still is designed to induce as much reflux as possible into the system. “That’s introduced by the condenser unit at the top,” said Mathias. “The recondenser at the top of the column sends everything right back. As equilibrium is reached in the column, lighter weight volatiles are condensed at the top. Everything below evaporates at a higher temperature. We pull all of the methanol, acetates and acetones and other things we want to remove from the fermentation process first. Then we make a cut and collect the hearts – that’s the good stuff. At a certain temperature, around 210 degrees, we start introducing the fusel oils that are also part of the fermentation process. We don’t want the fusel oils in the hearts – they can ruin a batch. So that’s the second cut. Then we run the rest out and redistill.”
The 26-gallon pot still involves a simpler process. “The first distillations were done with a pot still,” said Mathias. “It’s simple – you just heat it up and let things condense. There’s nothing causing a reflux like in the column still, so we get a lot more flavor and aroma. The column still is designed to give a high-proof alcohol – it’s what we use for vodka. Even though it looks fancier, it’s a much easier process. It strips all the flavors out. If we want flavor, we have to use a pot still.”
Once a batch is complete, bottles are filled, corked, sleeved and labeled. Denise designed the labels; all of which include a story about what’s inside the bottle. The bottles are offered for sale at ORD’s newly opened, off-site tasting room which Denise manages.
Future plans for ORD plans include purchasing larger stills. “I want to make a bourbon, so I’ll purchase a still specifically for that,” said Mathias. “We can make brandy and vodka with the equipment we have, but with the 26 gallon still, making brandy takes eight hours to run a batch. When we get bigger stills, we’ll have a separate line for whiskey. All of the grains for beer will be on one side, and fruits for wine on the other and it’ll all come together at the bottling line.”
In addition to adding larger stills, Mathias has a plan that will set ORD apart both in Pennsylvania and the nation. “We hope to buy a farm very soon,” he said. “We want to be seed to bottle – plant the seeds, grow and harvest the crop, and take it all the way to a finished product.”
Keeping tradition alive with farmer-to-bottle spirits
by Sally Colby