Why You’ll Find Good Vibes and Good Booze at Noire Expedition Distillery in Lawrenceville
The neighboring business, Ineffable Cà Phê, plans to open a speakeasy featuring local booze.
Kenyan Hicks is a curator of good vibes and good booze.
The 34-year-old Marine Corps veteran didn’t take a sip of alcohol until he was 23. Red wine, which seemed like a solid first choice, left a bad taste in his mouth. The Merlot misfire sent him on a journey into the spirits world.
He started guest bartending and soaking up knowledge at other local distilleries and crafting his own cocktails at home. Hicks, a New York native with a background in technology, soon discovered he had a knack for making liquor.
Now he owns Noire Expedition, a distillery in Lawrenceville that released its first product — an American gin — during last year’s Juneteenth celebration. It’s symbolically priced at $42 in honor of Jackie Robinson, the first Black athlete to play Major League Baseball.
Hicks says Noire Expedition is committed to making the finest spirits and using them to shine a light on Black history and culture through stories and special releases.
On June 12, Hicks and his wife Jennifer will introduce Noire Blanc, their collaboration gin in honor of Loving Day, the annual celebration recognizing the 1967 U. S. Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia, which struck down all anti-miscegenation laws remaining in 16 states.
But, Hicks will be the first to tell you, love goes into every batch he makes.
Inside an old auto repair shop at 3908 Penn Ave., he throws on tunes and operates a 120-gallon column still. The company’s product line now includes three gins and a vodka. Bourbon is provided by Sweet Rust Distilling until Noire debuts its own.
On Fridays and Saturdays from 5 to 9 p.m., you can sample the booze, enjoy a libation, buy a bottle and take a tour of the facility. Just don’t expect a swanky tasting room just yet.
Roughly 90% of the 4,000-square-foot, bare-bones space is dedicated to production, although there is a small bar and lounge seating in the front room. Hicks wants to focus on honing his craft and raising capital; he’ll worry about aesthetics later.
The goal, he says, isn’t to create the city’s best bar, but to make the best spirits. He invites folks to come in and hear his story and share their own while they raise a crystal chalice, the official glassware for Noire’s signature King G&T.
The American gin is floral and citrusy, not necessarily dependent on juniper as its primary flavor. Hick’s says it’s just as complex as a bourbon or whiskey, so Epicureans can drink it straight.
Noire products are available online with delivery to 49 states. They’re also on shelves in more than 20 bars and restaurants throughout Pittsburgh, including Coop De Ville in the Strip District and Etna’s Bitter End.
This summer or fall, you’ll likely see Noire Expedition-brand booze flowing at the proposed speakeasy next door to the distillery.
Phat Nguyen, owner of Ineffable Cà Phê, a Vietnamese coffee and sandwich shop at 3920 Penn Ave., secured a liquor license at the beginning of 2023, despite neighbors’ concerns about noise and lack of parking.
The members-only spot is slated to have secret entryways, ever-changing passcodes, two floors of laidback fun and an outdoor area. Nguyen says the menu will feature seasonal, high-end cocktails made with fresh, house-made juices and syrups and local spirits — including Noire Expedition and Love, Katie Distilling, a soon-to-open business in Sharpsburg — and rare libations from around the world. Guests will be able to fill their bellies with an array of Vietnamese-style street food.
Nguyen opened Ineffable Cà Phê in a former motorcycle repair shop in 2017. Shortly thereafter, he debuted Phat’s, a popular hangout for college-age partiers on Semple Street in Oakland. His no-name speakeasy will be a place for folks who’d rather sip a craft cocktail than pound pints all night.
The decor will be dark and atmospheric. Nguyen recently joined forces with PointBreezeway, an event-planning business headquartered at the site, to give Ineffable a makeover and add pops of whimsy to private events held in the eatery. That partnership will continue in the speakeasy. Nguyen also wants to team up with a local brewery that can run a few draft lines to the main service counter, similar to what Mindful Brewing is doing at White Whale Bookstore in Bloomfield.
Like Nguyen, Hicks doesn’t mind taking his time and letting the physical space catch up to the quality of the booze he’s making and believes wholeheartedly.
“We are distillers first. If no one buys our booze, we can’t do this,” Hicks says. “I’m not afraid of letting people in to see that process over time. It’s not ever going to be perfect. And neither am I.”