This past winter, when I drove out to Harrisburg for the 100th Pennsylvania Farm Show, I passed a brand new distillery that was just opening its doors to the public. Midstate Distillery opened on January 9th, 2016 to coordinate with the first day of the grand event. It’s been 2 years in the making, but they are now a part of the rapidly growing Pennsylvania distilling scene.
Brian Myers and Dan Healy are part owners and brothers-in-law. They bought the building, which used to be the Smith Paint building, to house the first distillery in Harrisburg since Prohibition. Brian’s manufacturing and business experience and Dan’s chemistry background pair well. They were enthusiastic home-brewers, but found after visiting distilleries in Colorado, that their future lay in spirits.
Interesting things are happening in this 7,000 square foot space. One of the most visually interesting things in the building is their double diamond, all copper pot still. The idea to use this type of skill came from their visit to Downslope Distillery in Centennial, Colorado. The 220 gallon pot still was made by Copper Moonshine Stills in Arkansas after a design by Colonel Vaughn Wilson. It is employed at Midstate as the stripping still to create their low wines. The double diamond shape creates a lot of reflux and refines the spirit. Each chamber is packed with additional copper mesh/packing to create even more interaction with the spirit and less sulfur in the end product. It is the only still of its kind in Pennsylvania.
Midstate’s process is different than most. They are sourcing their non-GMO corn from Haldeman Mills in Manheim, Pa and their rye from Snavely’s Mill in Mill Hall, Pa. They use a no cook recipe to create their corn mash. Pennsyltucky Corn Whiskey, their moonshine, is 80% corn and the flavor is balanced with rye grain. (I’d love to taste an aged version of this.) After pitching their distillers’ yeast, the mash is lautered and loaded into the double diamond pot still for the first run. The second distillation run (spirit run) goes into the Brazatek stainless steel still whose column is packed with copper. The resulting new make is a light, sweet spirit. “Maybe in the future,” Brian explained, “we’ll consider using a column still to strip and then use the pot still for a spirit run.” Coming soon is a 240 gallon boiler/mashtun which will pair with the 220 gallon pot still nicely for direct transfers of distillers’ beer. As it turns out, Harrisburg water is lower in pH and makes for good whiskey production. This was a happy discovery for the distillers when production began.
Midstate distillery is currently producing their Pennsyltucky Corn Whiskey, Shakey Jake’s Premium White Rum and their Iron and Ice Grain Vodka. I love the name Pennsyltucky (only for affectionate use by locals) because as anyone from Pennsylvania knows, Harrisburg is located somewhere out that way. Shakey Jake’s is named after Dan’s grandfather and there is a picture of him in his WWII military uniform next to his motorcycle on the label. The Iron and Ice Vodka is named for the Walnut Street Bridge which was damaged due to a blizzard’s aftermath of flooding and ice flows on the Susquehanna River in 1996. Some of their rum is aging in 53 gallon barrels and the distillery has plans to produce a bourbon, rye whiskey, and eventually a single malt.
The name “Shakey Jake’s” is tongue-in-cheek, of course, but it also refers to a common neurological disorder called “jake leg” that was caused by ingesting bad moonshine during the Prohibition era that caused partial paralysis. Those affected might walk with a jerking or shakey stride. Jake, the common term for a homemade liquor that was cheaper than whiskey, sold between 1920 and 1930 caused no health problems. In the spring of 1930, however, the manufacturers of jake decided to add a new ingredient, an industrial chemical called tri-ortho-cresyl phosphate. It was added as a means to water down the jake without adding taste, but turned out to be toxic and damaging to the spinal cord.
There’s a lot to be said about being the first. Harrisburg is the capital of Pennsylvania, and Brian and Dan were to first to successfully launch a distillery within the city. They have been working a lot longer than we’ve had access to tour or taste their hard work, but it’s paid off. It’s good to see them grow their brand and experiment with new ideas. I look forward to tasting their contributions to Pennsylvania spirits in the future!