A spirited operation in Gettysburg
Mason Dixon Distillery, which opened three months ago in Gettysburg, is one of only three distilleries in York and Adams counties.
And even though 27 distilleries opened in Pennsylvania in the past three years, distilling is still a relatively new undertaking in the state.
Opening a distillery was not legal in Pennsylvania until 2012, and it's still illegal to distill at home.
"It's generally not something people have experience with," said Yianni Barakos, who co-owns Mason Dixon Distillery with his father.
Barakos took an early interest in distilling when his grandfather showed him a still he used to maintain when he worked as a coppersmith in Greece. Barakos built his first still — at 11 years of age — and later took distilling classes and apprenticed at Smooth Ambler Spirits in West Virginia.
At Mason Dixon Distillery, he is committed to distilling all spirits from scratch.
"We're not bringing in alcohol from other distilleries and trying to pass it off as our own," Barakos said, explaining that it's not the most common way start-up distilleries will function. "A lot of time they'll bring in spirits from other places as they start to get their production up and running."
Barakos offers rum and vodka-based cocktails, including the vodka-based "Lavender Lemonade," made by juicing lemons and making lavender simple syrup, with added lavender flowers steeped and strained into the mixture. The rum-based "Not Your Mother's Margarita" is mixed with house sour mix, orange juice, bitters, and a salt rim.
"Our rum has a lot of flavor, so it works in drinks where traditionally rum wouldn't work, and this is one of them, " he said of the margarita.
Though "locally-sourced" has a loose definition, which can mean ingredients as far as 350 miles from the site, all of Barakos' raw grains used for alcohol come from within a couple miles of the distillery. Mason Dixon has 47 acres on which they grow grains in Gettysburg National Military Park, in addition to local farming by Josh Ramsberg.
Glass doors lead from the restaurant to Barakos' on-site distilling equipment.
"I like to tell people it's our physical manifestation of our philosophical commitment to transparency," he said. "You can see everything we do."
"The room's pretty much set up left to right, start to finish," he said, explaining the distilling process.
Distilling begins at the mash cooker, which is filled up with water, heated and put into the grain mill. The mill takes whole grain, grinds it up, and produces coarse flour. The mixture is then heated and cooled to 130 degrees, at which point malted grains are added. These grains produce enzymes that will break down the starch into simple sugar. After a 1-2 hour rest period, the mixture is cooled and pumped into one of four fermenters. Once inside the fermenter, yeast is added to produce alcohol and carbon dioxide.
"Essentially the first part of our operation here is actually just making beer," Barakos said. "It's not gonna be beer as you know. It's gonna be different than beer you'd have at a brew pub."
The beer is made of raw grains instead of malted grains, contains no hops, and has a higher alcohol content.
"Perfectly drinkable," he said. "Maybe just not as palatable as one may find a beer to usually be."
The beer will sit for a couple of days before it is transferred to the still and heated. Ethanol vapor will rise up, impurities will be removed, and it will be put into a condenser, which releases cool product.
"Depending on what it is and what we're making, that will dictate what we do (next)," he said. "If we are making, you know, rum or a whiskey, it's done."
"If we're making vodka, we're actually gonna take this distillate, bring it over to our small still, and distill it again."
Vodka must be distilled at 190 proof, and then it is mixed with reverse osmosis water — a pure water with no taste — to bring it down to drinking strength. The pure water mixes more evenly throughout the vodka and creates the final product.
"It's not the easiest thing to pull off," Barakos said.
He plans to expand his offerings to include a clear whiskey by the end of the year, and he's in the process of barrel aging a whiskey as well.
The distillery is also a restaurant, and it provides small plate options based on a similar commitment to local ingredients, and also made from scratch.
Barakos is proud of everything that has come together to make his distillery unique, but, "at the end of the day (it's) our spirits," he said. "Our spirits are really, really good, and we provide them in a warm, friendly social environment."
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