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5 Pittsburgh Craft Distilleries Earning a Place on the Shelf

Uncovering the hidden gems of western Pennsylvania’s craft spirit world.



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The newest craft distillery in the region looks the part, with a stylish monochromatic tasting room and bar with décor resembling a laboratory.  Proprietors Ryan and Sarah Kanto moved to Pittsburgh in 2011 from Dallas, working in the energy industry before deciding to launch their own entrepreneurial distilling venture. Ryan is a chemical engineer who wanted to take his homebrew hobby a step further. Sarah majored in history, but she says Quantum Spirits will leave historical associations to the more established distillers and instead focus on the science of spirits.
 

That’s evident in a cocktail called the Schrödinger’s Cat — the name comes from a famous thought experiment in quantum physics — which combines spiced cider and orange with Quantum’s first product, a rye vodka. Their next mission is gin, a considerably more complicated alcohol distilled with array of botanicals including piney juniper berry and floral orris root.

To assist them, the Kantos have assembled an expert panel conducting a battery of tests to pin down what Ryan labels the “organoleptic data” — terminology for how people respond to tastes and smells of his various experimental gins. The objective is to identify a new niche flavor profile for the spirit, and then have it in bottles by the springtime.
 

Bottle to Buy: Quantum Vodka
This vodka has a slight hint of dried fruit on the nose and a shade more grain on the tongue than one would expect, which the Kantos say comes from the rye it’s distilled from.  ($24)
 


 

Ed Belfoure has a lot of experience with alcohol, though not the kind that you drink — an industrial chemist, he distilled butanol and propanol for plastics.  He also is well versed in winemaking owing to his Italian roots. His Washington distillery is in a Main Street shopfront, but Belfoure perfected his formula distilling fruit liqueurs in his garage. He ferments peach, blackberry and cherry juices into wine, then distills those to make eau de vie, a clear spirit that retains some of the fruit’s characteristic aroma and taste.

Mixing that eau de vie with water and more juice yields his flavorful 40-proof fruit liqueurs.
 

Having mastered those, Belfoure moved on to stronger stuff. His Farmhouse Whiskey, which has a picture of the house where Belfoure grew up on the label, is aged in an old rye barrel to acquire some of that spirit’s peppery zip.

A former Marine, Belfoure also taught chemistry at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. But his favorite chemistry class was in high school, where he met Judy, now his wife of 49 years. Ed handles the distilling, while Judy takes care of bottling, labeling, and, she adds with a smile, quality control.
 

Bottle to Buy: Rebellion Rye
Red Pump’s strongest tipple is 95 proof, made from locally grown organic grains in true Monongahela rye fashion, with no corn in the mash bill. It’s double distilled and aged in 5-gallon barrels.  ($40)


 

Kim McLaughlin seems happiest around wood. He used to be a dairy farmer in upstate New York, where the countryside is blanketed by thousands of acres of thick forest.  Now, the former Marine has a distillery hidden among the trees just off the Mount Nebo Road exit on Interstate 79. In it, besides distilling, he hews and coopers his own oak barrels from lumber culled from his New York land. McLaughlin has an old rocking chair with an oak cask in his tasting room that’s rigged up with a motor to keep it going for three weeks straight; sloshing around provides more contact with the wood, which rounds off the harshness of the young spirit. It’s a tribute to his dad, who made moonshine and always had a barrel tied to the back of a rocking chair. The resultant Grandma’s Rocking Chair Whiskey has a nose and taste like a whiskey-drenched woodshop.
 

A bourbon man, McLaughlin crafts a spectrum of expressions, including a toasted applewood version, a buttery premium aged in 2.5-gallon baby barrels, and his smoky Devil Juice #5. He also offers a line of naturally flavored moonshines, including a pickle juice produced as a one-off for the Picklesburgh festival and discovered to have lasting popularity.

McLaughlin is an affable fellow, which is reflected in the logo on his labels — a giant “MD” — and if you bring up the fact that it looks a lot like the logo for the cheap jug wine known as “Mad Dog,” it just makes him grin even more.
 

Bottle to Buy: Devil Juice #5
McLaughlin is proudest of this aggressive whiskey flavored with smoked hickory. It starts with a youthful bite accompanying a complex and vaguely bacon-y nose, then goes on changing and developing, with notes such as cigar and leather and vanilla long after you swallow.  ($55)
 

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