Personal Day Hard Seltzer and Goodlander Cocktail Brewery Launch Just in Time for Summer Celebrations
PM Dining Critic Hal B. Klein has the scoop on the locally made portable potables that will perk up your Pittsburgh summer.
Prepared cocktails and boozy seltzer have been on the rise for the past few years and they’re pretty easy to acquire for a backyard barbeque, boat outing or trip to the beach. There are national brands galore, and a growing number of regional restaurants, craft cocktail bars and breweries offer cocktails on tap or in bottles; plus the COVID-19 pandemic gave rise to a new generation of bottled and to-go cocktails. But a cocktail brewery that caters to neighborhood pubs? A hard seltzer produced and canned in Pittsburgh that’s legitimately delicious? I’m here for it and, if you imbibe, I think you ought to be, too.
Personal Day Hard Seltzer
“We’re bursting at the seams here,” says Tim Russell, founder and distiller of Allegheny Distilling, better known as the producers of Maggie’s Farm Rum.
In addition to winning another pile of awards for its celebrated rum, including a haul two months ago where Maggie’s Farm was named Best Rum (overall), a Double Gold medal and Best-of-Class (White Rum) for its Hidden Harbor white rum (as well as more prizes for spirits in other categories) in the prestigious San Francisco International Spirits Competition, Russell and company recently launched a spin-off brand — Personal Day Hard Seltzer. “It’s like an alter ego. Our Ziggy Stardust to our David Bowie,” Russell says.
If you’re already a fan of hard seltzer, you’re in for a real treat. If you’re new to or have been hesitant to try this beverage category, Personal Day might be the prompt you need to get you there. Allegheny Distilling currently offers four flavors, and all are exemplary: Lemon is softly refreshing; Lime, my favorite, pops on the nose and hits with a zingy lime flavor; Grapefruit (a close second favorite) is full-bodied and easy drinking; Pineapple, the most popular flavor so far, draws out some of the fruit’s sour notes.
“Even though the hard seltzer market is getting saturated, we thought we could make something special in Pittsburgh. Because we’re a distillery, we could do something different than a brewery could and make a really clean product,” Russell says.
Hard seltzer is, basically, booze-and-flavor-infused bubbly water. But there are various ways to make it. Mainstream brands such as White Claw and Truly, as well as brewery-based offerings, use fermented sugar cane juice or fermented malt syrup as a base, which allows them to sell the product anywhere it’s legal to sell beer. Personal Day instead uses a base of what essentially is vodka. What this means is a cleaner flavor, without the lingering aftertaste common in most hard seltzer brands (but that also limits distribution to locations where spirits can be sold). “Fermenting sugar cane juice to five percent [ABV] is going to leave fermentation byproducts that come along with the process,” Russell says.
The funny thing is, as big as the product could (and should) be for the distillery, Personal Day Seltzer is a happy accident.
Allegheny Distilling sold out of its bottled Maggie’s Farm Rum supply early in the stay-at-home orders because of a run on inventory when the Commonwealth closed its Fine Wine and Good Spirits stores but allowed local distilleries to stay open. Russell didn’t want to dip into the rum aging in barrels, so he ordered bulk rum from the Virgin Islands as a way to have something to sell. He bottled it under a different label, Forbes, so as not to confuse it with his own brand.
The distillery sold out of the first tote of it and Russell ordered a second. When the liquor stores reopened, sales went back to normal, and Russell and his team brainstormed about what to do with the leftover spirits. By running it through the distillery’s copper stills, they could purify it into vodka. But they didn’t want to sell straight-up vodka; it’s not their brand.
“The hard seltzer stuff is still going around. I didn’t get it. But, I think maybe it’s because I am in my late 30s and I can’t drink session beer like I used to, maybe there’s something to this,” Russell recalls.
The distillery’s team then spent a few months trying to formulate shelf-stable fruit essences that begin with real fruit juice and don’t incorporate any added sugar to the final product. “It’s challenging to find those formulas,” Russell says.
It’s working. What started as a hand-juiced operation packaged on a small canning line inside the distillery is about to become a full-blown operation in a separate production facility. And, as of this weekend, Personal Day Hard Seltzer is for sale at 25 PLCB Fine Wine & Good Spirits stores, as well as at the Strip District distillery.
3212a Smallman St., Strip District; 412/709-6480, instagram.com/personaldayseltzer
Goodlander Cocktail Brewery
Wes Shonk believes he’s onto something novel with his new business, Goodlander Cocktail Brewery.
“What if I make kegs of cocktails for local pubs? Places that get really busy and don’t have time for, or specialize in, mixed drinks. Bubbly cocktails are hard to get right consistently. But they’re popular, crowd-friendly drinks,” Shonk says.
To that end, Shonk is batching sixtels (5.6-gallon kegs) of highball cocktails, as well as a small selection of alcohol-free sparkling beverages for distribution. He says his challenge is to make the drinks taste freshly made, even if they’ve been sitting in storage for several days, or even weeks. “When it says ‘ginger’ in a cocktail, it needs to taste like freshly juiced ginger today and a week from now, too,” Shonk says.
Goodlander’s process begins with spirits such as vodka and gin, which are bought in bulk. Shonk then works with Lex Haynesworth and Jay DeNat to blend highball-style cocktails using techniques such as preparing super lime juice —a low-waste, high-taste recipe popularized by tiki bartenders — to maximize flavor. In that case, lime is zested, and it rests in citric acid and malic acid, which extracts the essential oils from the lime. Then, fresh lime juice is added, and the whole thing is strained. “It ends up tasting like the brightest lime juice ever,” Shonk says.
Kegs are cold-stored, which keeps it fresher than a canned or bottled cocktail that’ll sit on a shelf at room temperature. Keeping the kegs counter-pressured with CO2 helps prevent off-flavors that might otherwise come from oxidation. Shonk hasn’t been open long enough to track any long-term testing, but, he says, kegs that have been kept cold for a few weeks still taste as fresh as the day they were made.
He’s focusing on popular, easy-drinking cocktails to start. Goodlander currently offers four cocktails in two serving sizes for purchase at the brewery (which, technically, is licensed as a distillery) and has just started selling sixtles to bars, including The Bulldog Pub in Morningside and The Summit in Mt. Washington. All are meant to be served over ice, but otherwise, all you have to do is pull the tap or pour it into a glass and it’s ready to serve.
They’re delicious cocktails, quite in line with Shonk’s vision. The two alcohol-free drinks are full-flavored, aromatic and easy-sipping. I love the addition of bitters to the Tom Collins; it rounds out the flavor of the classic cocktail. Goodlander’s mojito is minty and robust; it tastes like fun on a hot day. The ginger sings in the Moscow Mule because of the blending of fresh ginger juice and Natrona Bottling Co.’s Jamaica’s Finest Ginger Beer. Finally, Eastside, made with gin, lime, cucumber and mint, is a refreshing garden party.
The longtime Pittsburgh bartender — Shonk started working in high-end cocktails in 2008 and helped build the cocktail programs at Hidden Harbor, Wigle Whiskey and Butcher and the Rye — looked to early craft breweries such as East End Brewing Co. as a model for his production craft cocktail brewery. Those businesses might have in recent years blossomed into our new neighborhood pubs, but when East End was founded in 2004, it was all about selling kegs of beers to bars and takeaway growlers to customers. “It’s the same business model, but instead of kegs of beer, I sell kegs of cocktails,” he says.
Shonk says he’s planning to introduce seasonal options, such as Pimm’s Cup, and start playing with various carbonation levels for cocktails once the operation gets rolling. He aims to distribute to more bars soon, too. “It’s starting off scrappy and small. But we have a great product and a plan, and I think it’ll be successful,” he says.
6614 Hamilton Ave., Larimer; 412/363-6614, goodlandercocktails.com