Micro-Distilleries of North America

David J. Reimer Sr. mixed peanut butter vodka, black currant cordial and a healthy dose of moonshine to write the first book on North American micro-distilleries. 

    His book covers everything from smoked salmon vodka made in Alaska to prickly pear vodka from Arizona to absinthe verte made in Florida to dry gin from Philadelphia. The more than 160 micro-distilleries produce a fraction of the liquor compared to the big companies, but as laws have changed in the past decade, more people are making small batches of artisan liquor. But this isn't moonshine that will make you go blind. These distilleries are more like micro-breweries and make a higher-quality, often pricier alcohol with special ingredients, traditional methods and modern technology. 

    Reimer of Hamburg calls micro-distilleries a deja vu phenomenon. After taking a decades-long break after Prohibition, they're growing at an astonishing pace, he said. 

    Making alcohol has a long history in the U.S., and before Prohibition, there were thousands of distilleries. 

    After Prohibition ended, there wasn't a rush to start new distilleries. It wasn't until the early 1980s when the country's first new distilleries were started in California. 

    States on the West Coast were the first to relax old laws regulating distilling. 

    Since then, the popularity of micro-distilleries has exploded as more states change laws or lower fees for smaller-scale distillery licenses. 

    By the end of 2011, there were about 230 micro-distilleries in 45 states, according to the American Distilling Institute. 

    Micro-distilleries' output changes depending on state laws. Generally, these smaller companies make less than 50,000 gallons of alcohol per year, Reimer said. By comparison, Jack Daniel produces 75,000 gallons a day, he said. 

    Some of the new distilleries along with schools like Cornell University are offering extensive classes and workshops. 

    "People have giving up their jobs to pour everything they have into opening up a distillery," Reimer said. 

    The distilleries craft alcohol with quality, not quantity, in mind. Often, they use local or organic ingredients and produce gluten-free and kosher products. 

    In Pennsylvania, it can be difficult to buy a product from an out-of-state micro-distillery, Reimer said. Increasing distribution and changing legislation to loosen regulations would help the industry expand. 

    The spark for Reimer's book came in 2003, when he traveled to the Caribbean on a Rotary Club work-study exchange. He visited local businesses, including distilleries. He was fascinated by the distillation process. 

    When Reimer couldn't find a book about micro-distilleries in the U.S., he decided to write one. 

    The first edition of the book was published last year. The second edition, published in March, has dozens of more distilleries. The book lists the types of spirits each distilleries make, information about the management and company history as well as drink recipes. 

    At a recent talk at the Muhlenberg Community Library in Laureldale, Reimer encouraged people to visit local micro-distilleries. 

    Nearby, Subarashii Kudamono Gourmet Asian Pears in Kempton makes pear wines as well as an Asian pear eau de vie, or fruit brandy. 

    Philadelphia Distilling makes Bluecoat American Dry Gin, the only American-made dry gin. It also is the first East Coast distillery to distill authentic absinthe in more than 100 years. 

    On the other side of the state, there's Pennsylvania Pure Distilleries, north of Pittsburgh. The business opened in 2008 and makes Boyd & Blair potato vodka from locally-grown potatoes. 

    The Pittsburgh area also has Pittsburgh Distilling, which makes Wigle whiskey, named after Phillip Wigle, who helped the Whiskey Rebellion. 

    Micro-distilleries are great travel destinations, Reimer said. Often, you can tour the site, watch the liquor-making process, try a sample and meet the people in charge. 

    "The folks at these distilleries love what they do," Reimer said. "They are extremely passionate about it. They're not making moonshine in their backyard."

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