Sean Tracy loves wood. Especially old wood. White oak, hickory, black birch, cherry, sycamore. For over 15 years his company, Bucks County Timber Craft, has reclaimed antique barns and given them new life in the form of custom homes, commercial buildings and, even, new barns. He has access to wood hundreds of years old, some from trees that are even extinct, like the chestnut.
Several years ago, Tracy started getting intrigued by micro-distilling. He wondered if there was a way to use this unique, old wood in a new way. After much research, including a workshop in the Catskills, he decided it was time to give it a try.
Micro-distilleries all over the place
Over the last five years, micro-distilleries have been popping up all over the country. Think of when craft beer started to get traction over two decades ago. This is now happening with hard liquor.
In Pennsylvania, state laws governing the distilling of spirits changed with Act 113 in 2011. The new law allows for a limited distillery license, lowering fees for a company that produces less than 100,000 gallons of spirits per year. The distillery can also have a tasting room on the production premises. This opens the playing field to small producers.
For Pennsylvania consumers, this is wonderful news. Bucks County got its first distillery in 2010 when Dad’s Hat started making rye whisky in Bristol, PA, bringing back a very old Pennsylvania industry. Now Bucks County has its second distillery, Hewn Spirits, which opened March 2014 in Pipersville.
Hewn Spirits is currently distilling rum, rye, single malt whisky, bourbon, and moonshine (which is just the pure distillate with no aging).
The distillery produces two types of rum: a golden rum, that is aged in white oak barrels, and a white rum. Come to the tasting room, and you can not only sample it, but purchase some interesting rum cocktails, like a White Squall (rum, ginger ale and lime).
Or try one of the moonshine-inspired cocktails: Ain’t That a Peach (moonshine, peach tea and lemonade) or a Moon Julep (moonshine, spearmint and sugar). It’s a very nice way to pass an evening.
You’re doing it how?
I’ve done the Bourbon Trail in Kentucky, visiting such venerable distilleries as Maker’s Mark, Four Roses and Jim Beam. The distillate goes into 53 gallon barrels of new white oak, briefly charred on the inside (by law, all American whisky must be aged in charred white oak barrels) and is aged four years or more. Of course, each of the distilleries stores and ages their bourbon a little differently and swears their way is the best way.
So when Tracy said he was making whisky in five gallon barrels and aging them for only months, I was wary. But then I thought, where is innovation going to happen if not in micro-distilleries? The big spirit producers have a good thing going (and powerful marketing organizations behind them). Why would they change?
Let me step back a moment. Whisky science—or lore—says as the distillate ages in the charred oak barrels, and expands and contracts over time due to temperature, it “picks up” both taste and color from the barrel. Traditionalists say you don’t mess with that, and insist you have to give the whisky time.
Smaller barrels and secondary aging – with a twist
Others—like many of the new micro-distilleries—say, why not try something new and see what happens? A smaller barrel, scored or honeycombed on the inside, provides more surface area for the distillate to interact with the charred surface and might quicken the aging process. Some say it gives the whisky a more “woody” taste. You be the judge.
This is how Hewn Spirits is doing it. Tracy distills the spirit five times in his 130 gallon copper still, and then puts it into the barrels for 1 – 4 months.
The time varies due to the proof of the specific spirits as well as the time of the year. The summer definitely speeds the aging up as warmer temps move the spirits in and out of the barrel staves much quicker.
After aging the whisky in the barrels, Tracy does a secondary aging in stainless steel vats—with a twist.
He puts charred staves from his collection of antique woods into the whisky, and lets it sit for no more than two weeks. “More than that overwhelms the oak,” he explains. “I want just a taste.”
One shelf in the distillery is filled with small bottles of brown liquid. This is Tracy’s “laboratory” where he tests different kinds of woods in the whisky. I was privileged to taste one of those experiments and it definitely got my attention. The whisky was complex and surprising. Traditionalists say what you will, this is fun.
Hewn released their first single malt whisky, “Reclamation American Single Malt Whiskey,” in two releases in 2014.
The first uses 300 year old, reclaimed hickory which imparts a buttery and subtle maple character to the whiskey. “It’s very smooth, with a touch of sweetness,” says Tracy, and it packs a 90 proof (45% alcohol) punch.
The second release uses very old, extinct American Chestnut for the secondary aging. Tracy describes this 86 proof whisky as having hints of lemon, pepper and vanilla.
The first limited release of the Chestnut Reclamation sold out quickly but the second release is already laid up in barrels. Other unique and rare woods Reclamation Single Malt Whiskeys are in the works.
“We’re getting incredible feedback and reviews,” he says, “And we’re trying to ramp up production to keep up with that demand.”
Keeping it local
A big part of what both Tracy and Andrew Knechel at Bucks County Brewery (who shares the building with Hewn) are about is a love of local community.
For instance, Hewn Spirits sources its rye and corn from local farmer, Nevada Meese of Meadow Brook Farm in Springtown. Tracy’s old friend, Mark Fischer, grinds the grains at his mill in Doylestown, Castle Valley Mill. The spent mash goes to Dave Johnson at Beech Tree Farm in New Hope, who feeds it to his cows and pigs (which you may see one day at one of the barbecues being planned at the distillery).
Every Friday night is Food Truck Friday at the distillery and brewery. Tracy and Knechel want to create a space for people to enjoy themselves, and for local food producers and musicians to get the exposure they deserve. In fact, Tracy’s vision is to one day create a destination, complete with restaurant, distillery, brewery and an event space, in Upper Bucks County.
Update: In 2015, Hewn Spirits opened a tasting room in Peddler’s Village.
Check Facebook page for special events and hours—typically Friday and Saturdays during spring, summer and fall
Hewn Spirits Tasting Room at Peddler’s Village
Street Road, between Routes 202 & 263, Store #42
Lahaska, PA 18931
HOURS: Sunday through Thursday 10 am–6 pm; Friday & Saturday 10 am–11 pm
You can sample up to 1 ½ ounces of liquor, buy mixed drinks, and buy the spirits by the bottle.
Hewn Spirits shares a roof with Bucks County Brewery. Read about the new brewery here.