Handcrafted vodka … in Kennett Square?12/01/2020 12:36PM ● By Steven Hoffman
While an upsurge of craft breweries and profusion of area wineries have been welcomed by many beer and wine fans, those who favor alcohol with a bit more punch can also enjoy their favorite beverages produced locally.
West Branch Distilling Co. in Kennett Square currently makes small-batch handcrafted vodka, said owner Kevin Roberts, and a selection of other spirits are not far behind.
“A lot of craft distilleries are really focused on whiskey,” Roberts said. “We want to do every product, and so we've got [bourbon] whiskey going and will be releasing gin soon. Then we’re moving into rum.”
But right now, the focus is on West Branch Vodka. This spirit, unlike the typical odorless and tasteless variety, has a very slight flavor. Roberts said that’s because it actually starts out as a mixture of corn and rye. Yes, the vodka begins as bourbon mash that is distilled to vodka proof.
Roberts explained. “So the difference then, between bourbon and vodka, is when vodka comes out of the still, it comes out at 95 percent purity or higher that we just dilute and bottle. When bourbon comes out at 80 percent alcohol or lower it leaves a lot of the taste in there. The bourbon then has to go into an oak barrel for a while to mature color and gain taste.” West Branch bourbon is maturing in charred oak barrels which Roberts will release later this year.
As for the vodka taste? “It’s by design,” he said. “We like it that way and a lot of our customers drink it just straight or on the rocks because of that. It’s something I take some pride in.”
The gin product West Branch is working on is the result of Roberts’ research.
The base of the gin is the same as the vodka. “We just take that product and re-distill it on a smaller scale with juniper berries and fun botanicals.”
Those botanicals include those traditionally used in gin, such as cardamon and coriander, combined with what Roberts calls “unique botanicals found along the banks of Brandywine Creek.
“The best way that keeps all of those flavors together and really gets the most out of them is [a process] called maceration. You throw it all in the kettle and let it sit for a day or two in all of that alcohol and let all those oils release. Then you boil it and it pushes all of those oils out. You just have this really thick flavor when you pull out all of those botanical flavors. It’ll be tasty.”
It’s all about the chemistry
Entering into the world of distilling was kind of a natural for Roberts, who also works as an environmental compliance consultant to the natural gas industry.
“I got interested distilling a long time ago,” he said. “I kind of learned as a hobby. People were doing a lot of home brewing, and that piqued my interest. But distilling is a lot different from home brewing and home winemaking; you can't really distill at home. It's not very safe.”
After applying for -- and a year later -- receiving the necessary permits from the state and federal governments, in 2016 he made the decision to move forward with his project. “We were able to test the equipment and test our recipes. We really started selling very locally to restaurants and bars, friends and family.”
Roberts compared the processes to oil and gas refining. “It’s very similar. A refinery separates hydrocarbons like a distillery separates alcohols; the ones you can drink and the ones you can’t drink.
“[Like a refinery], that’s essentially what we do here on a much smaller scale. And obviously the end product is a heck of a lot more fun,” he said, smiling.
The pre-COVID sales to restaurants, which accounted for most of West Branch’s business, have unfortunately dried up. “It’s a shame because we had such great restaurant partners that are struggling right now,” Roberts said. However, like many other savvy entrepreneurs, he’s been able to pivot his business: “We’re focusing on direct-to-consumer sales [via website, phone or walk-in]; pickups, deliveries and shipping.”
Roberts was pleased to say obtaining a limited distillery license has allowed West Branch Vodka to be found in up to 10 state-run Fine Wine & Good Spirits stores across Pennsylvania.
“We're in Glen Mills, Longwood and Avondale, soon to open in West Chester. The state, to their credit, has done a great job pushing locally made spirits and that's something that's very central to us.”
There’s also another venue where West Branch products are available. And it’s a bit of a revelation for some. In 2016, a change in the state law allowed distilleries and breweries to sell their wares at Pennsylvania farmers markets.
“A lot of people are surprised that we can sell our spirits there. We do a lot with Kennett and I'm trying to hit others in the area. It’s fun to be there with all those other local vendors. I’ve really enjoyed the camaraderie. I’ve been to a thousand farmers markets, but I’ve never been ‘behind the scenes.’ It’s a cool place to shop, too. My kids always go for the cookies,” he said with a laugh.
West Branch previously operated out of a smaller building on West Cypress Street before moving in May to its current location across town on Birch Street. “Once this space became open, we jumped on it,” he said. “We had a challenge obviously with COVID, like getting the construction work done here. Also, there was a lot of the equipment that we had on order that was delayed, things like that. We were able to make ends meet for a while and get up and running here.”
A different kind of alcohol
Moving West Branch during the pandemic also underscored a need that the firm was uniquely qualified to fill.
“We started making hand sanitizer. When there was a massive shortage for a while, people were in a panic and rightfully so, so we shifted a lot of our time to making it. “
The main ingredient of their sanitizer is ethanol, which is also at the base of the spirits West Branch manufactures. “But there are other components to it: hydrogen peroxide, glycerol.” Also, the ethanol had to be denatured, which Roberts explained meant to include additives that make it undrinkable. “We started to denature it with isopropyl alcohol,” he said.
To be allowed to produce the sanitizer, West Branch Distillery had to follow the “very specific formula by the World Health Organization. And that's all we're allowed to produce.”
But production of the alcohol wasn’t the only area of the business affected by the pandemic. There were other shortages too.
“Sourcing ingredients were really tough to come by, like even plastic bottles. You'd be surprised we couldn't find them. They were at a premium for a long time,” Roberts said.
“So we started a kind of a bottle recycling program with essential businesses that were trying to reopen, so they had access [to hand sanitizer] that was fairly priced or below market. We would refill those bottles and keep them going. We donated a lot locally and to a couple fire companies, senior care facilities, the Chester County Historical Society, and to Kennett and West Chester food cupboards. We took donations from the community and dropped off as much as we could.
“I've had to learn a lot about hand sanitizer. It's something we felt we could do to help, so it was kind of no brainer. It was an easy decision.”
The distiller’s connections to the community run deep. Although he, wife Jenna, daughter Charlotte or “Charlie,” 13, and son Harry, 10, live in Pocopson, it’s for no idle reason that Roberts named his venture West Branch Distilling Co.
He grew up in Embreeville, near what is now the ChesLen Preserve on the West Branch of the Brandywine Creek. “It was pretty much my backyard,” Roberts recalled with obvious fondness. “I spent my childhood fishing, hiking … we used to ice skate when the fields flooded and froze back there in the wintertime. We’d pack some sandwiches and spend all day there.” A later job at Northbrook Canoe Co. cinched it. “I spent my entire childhood and early adult life on the West Branch.”
When asked if he considered using water from the Brandywine in his distilling process, he laughed. “I’d probably have to talk to someone from the Brandywine Conservancy and then test the waters. That’d probably be a pretty substantial project.”
In reflection on West Branch, Roberts’ speaks ardently about his craft. “We make everything from scratch,” Roberts said. “We don’t source spirits. A lot of distilleries will bring other spirits in and repackage them. That’s just not something we’re going do here.
“I feel like it's a little misleading to the consumer sometimes … I just think if you're doing a real small-craft distillery and you say things are really handcrafted that they should be handcrafted. Maybe I'm a little stubborn that belief, but I think it's important and I think the consumer does, too.”
Natalie Smith may be reached at [email protected]