by Sally Colby
Yianni Barakos has always been a hands-on kind of guy and his life-long passion for tinkering and gift for being mechanically inclined has paid off.
While recovering from a serious accident and considering his future, Yianni thought about conversations he had as a child with his grandfather, who had immigrated from Greece.
“I started asking him questions about this thing he was describing as a pot and he drew a picture on a napkin,” recalls Yianni, who was 11 at the time. “I went home and built a still.” Yianni says he built several working stills over the years and became interested in the process of converting grains to alcohol. “You have to make alcohol before you can distill it into spirits,” he said. “There’s the first part where you’re making something and manipulating the yeast to produce alcohol then the second step to pull the flavors out.”
While Yianni always knew he’d have a small-scale distillery, he didn’t foresee where he is now. As he became serious about the process of opening a distillery and searched for a place to start his business, Yianni considered Lancaster County, the Philadelphia area and Gettysburg. “Tourism to me was something to develop,” he said, “and it would be the icing on the cake. My goal was to develop this as a place for locals.”
Yianni decided Gettysburg was an ideal place to settle and narrowed his search for a location. “My buddy called and said there were some ag leases available at the park (Gettysburg National Military Park),” he said. “I thought, cool, we can grow some of our own grains and make some special edition spirits.”
Yianni was awarded 47 acres of park ground to grow grain and since he didn’t have experience as a grain farmer he hired a custom operator to handle the logistics of that aspect as he continued to search for a distillery location. He found an abandoned building which had once been a thriving furniture factory and went to work to fulfill local, state and federal requirements for establishing a distillery.
“The place was in shambles,” said Yianni. “We sandblasted the painted brick and pressure washed the ceiling to expose the natural wood and had to bring in electricity and running water.” During the restoration process, Yianni planned the layout for the distillery equipment and determined how to optimize the flow of grain from outdoor bins to a hammermill inside and eventually into the tanks.
“You can buy a book on how to open a craft brewery, but there was no such book on how to open a craft distillery,” said Yianni, adding that the process took about two years. “We opened with a rum and a vodka, then added a corn whiskey.” At the same time, Yianni started filling barrels for aged whiskies and brown spirits while working on his restaurant menu.
“We have a huge emphasis on local,” he said, explaining that an on-site garden is one source of produce for the full-scale kitchen headed up by his father George. “Raw grains are coming from within five miles and malted grains are coming from a malt house near Philadelphia. The only ingredient that comes from any distance is molasses, and that’s only because it comes from sugar cane which doesn’t grow anywhere near here.”
Keeping it local means spent grain is picked up by a local beef cattle farmer — the same farmer from whom Yianni purchases beef for the restaurant. “It’s a perfect example of our core values and beliefs,” he said. “He picks it up weekly. With the new still, we’ll have even more spent grain.”
All liquor sold in bottles or in mixed drinks is made on the premises. “My goal is to make all of it ourselves so people can see where it’s being made,” said Yianni. “I’m putting Adams County in a bottle every time I bottle. It’s deeply personal — everything I bottle goes by my palate. If I don’t like it, it doesn’t go out. It’s the same with the food. We cook what we want, but we keep in mind what everyone else wants.”
Because Yianni wants Mason Dixon Distillery to be a place where people come to socialize, there are no televisions or wi-fi and the background music is unobtrusive. “My dining room is set up like a German dining hall,” he said. “It’s meant to be loud on a Friday night. But it’s loud with conversation because we’re providing an experience. When it’s running full tilt, it’s a boisterous, friendly atmosphere. Your entertainment is the people around you.” Yianni says the first several months the distillery was open, people were reluctant to sit at the long community tables, and if they did they often kept a seat between them. But now it’s elbow-to-elbow in the indoor dining room and guests often spill out onto the high-walled outdoor patio area which has a friendly, cozy European atmosphere without the noise of traffic.
As for recipes, Yianni comes up with ideas then tweaks them until they’re where he wants them. Everything is made in full batches because Yianni’s experience is that fermentation with grain doesn’t scale well. “Fermentation is creating an environment for yeast, and yeast is a living organism,” he said. “When you change its environment, everything is going to change. There has been nothing that I have accepted the first version of, even if I loved that first version. Every time I’ve made my first batch, I think, here are the notes I like but I want more or less of these notes, and how am I going to get there? The base of what I do is science, the final execution is an art.”
One of the specialty liquors Yianni will soon add to the shelves is spiced rum. He has already produced very small amounts of his custom recipe, which is a more complex procedure than his other offerings. “I have to dial in the recipe then submit the recipe to the federal government for approval,” he said. “Once they approve the recipe, I need to create a label, then send the label in for approval. Then I can have labels made, make the spirits and bottle it. For something like bourbon, where there’s a clear set of rules, as long as you follow the rules for making bourbon, you would only need to get a label reviewed. But for flavored bourbon or bourbon that’s finished in a barrel other than American white oak, I have to add a formula review.”
For now, Yianni’s goals are to establish himself in the area, attract seasonal tourists, develop a strong local following and become known for good food and good liquor. He is aware that creating flavorful products brings strong opinions and for those who don’t like liquor, he offers a selection of Pennsylvania-made beer, wine and cider.
“We took massive bites to get this started,” said Yianni. “We started three businesses in one: a small tourism shop, a restaurant/bar and a manufacturing plant where we make our spirits. Everything we’ve done after that has been very slow and deliberate. It’s about relationships and laying the groundwork for something long-term. I plan on doing this for the rest of my life.”
Visit Mason-Dixon Distillery on Facebook and at www.masondixondistillery.com.
Mason Dixon Distillery is using hands-on science to create art
by Sally Colby