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Shaler boasts first local vodka distillery | TribLIVE.com
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Shaler boasts first local vodka distillery

William Loeffler
| Wednesday, December 3, 2008 12:00 a.m

They may never pin the tail on the Grey Goose or approach the iconic status of Absolut. But the makers of the state’s first locally produced vodka fully intend to uphold the local honor.

Pennsylvania Pure Distilleries of Shaler began producing the first bottles of its Boyd & Blair Potato Vodka in August. Their 80-proof premium vodka sells in more than 250 PLCB state stores for $29.49 per fifth. It’s also served in bars and restaurants Downtown, in the North Hills and Ligonier.

The distillery’s founders — and most of its labor force — are chairman Prentiss Orr, a marketing consultant, and president and CEO Barry Young, who has a bachelors in science and pharmacy degree from Duquesne University.

“He takes care of the chemistry and engineering and computational science,” Orr says. “I’m a marketing guy.”

With $1 million in private investment and a $165,000 state grant, the two opened their distillery earlier this year in a cold, cavernous warehouse off Route 8. The space, leased from the Glenshaw Glass Co., is dominated by hulking silver vats and a tall copper monstrosity known as a rectification column. The equipment was custom made near Munich. Young’s wife, Jennifer, helped clean and paint the facility prior to their opening.

“When we have bottling days, we need to bring in friends and family to help,” Young says. “We’re fortunate to have a lot of support.”

They ship 220 cases per week. The mega distilleries might ship 15,000 cases in that same time.

If the operation seems reminiscent of the micro breweries of the early ’90s, it’s because those beers, with their strong regional identity and intimate production scale, inspired Orr to try the same labor-of-love approach with vodka.

“I knew potatoes are plentiful in the state,” he says. “We wanted to make a vodka that was made locally from local producers.”

Vodka can be made from sugar, beets, wheat or corn. Boyd & Blair is one of a only handful of potato-based vodkas on Pennsylvania shelves. They use potatoes grown on farms from Somerset, Butler and Schuylkill counties.

“We’re actually one of the very few distilleries that start with original mash,” Orr says. “We actually buy potatoes and convert them into alcohol. Knowing we were going to start from scratch, that was inherent in our process.”

Young personally samples each batch to determine what part of the run to keep and what to discard. In keeping with the craft distillery philosophy, he also signs and numbers each bottle, which he has done an estimated 13,000 times.

Prior to their baptism as distillers, Young was president and CEO of RX Partners, an affiliate of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Health System. Orr headed the Outlook Advertising Agency on the South Side and served as vice president of the Greater Pittsburgh Area Chamber of Commerce.

Orr first approached Young in 2005 with his idea. Young crunched the numbers and declared Orr’s scheme to be sound. Over the next three years, they conducted fermentation trials, testing different potatoes and yeasts. They consulted experts at the School of Agriculture at Pennsylvania State University. They traveled to Harrisburg and met with Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board officials, whom Orr calls “enormously helpful.”

The distillation process produces three different phases of alcohol –the heads, hearts and tails. Boyd & Blair uses only the hearts, Young says.

“Tails kind of smell like a wet dishrag,” he says. “We don’t use any of our tails. I believe that gives it the exceptional smoothness it has at the finish.”

Six years ago, Bill Owens, president of the American Distilling Institute, a craft spirits trade association in Hayward, Calif., counted 60 craft distilleries in the United States. Today there are nearly 160, he says.

“I always say, ‘Keep your day job as you’re doing it,” he says. Turning a profit can take almost as long as a 15-year-old scotch takes to age.

But Boyd & Blair is slowly building a following.

Vinnie Trzeciak, general manager of the Tuscan Inn in Hampton, drinks Absolut, a grain-based vodka, but says he’s developed a taste for Boyd & Blair. His customers drink it on the rocks or in a martini. The inn moves about five to six bottles a week, he says.

“It has a sweetness to it,” Trzeciak says. “There’s none of that bitterness. Nothing’s overpowering as far as any of the berries or flowers like other vodkas.

Soba Lounge in Shadyside is one of several bars in the big Burrito Group that serves Boyd & Blair.

“It seems to be selling pretty well,” bartender Scott Kachmar says. “It hasn’t replaced Grey Goose or any of the big names, but it certainly has its following.”

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