Red Brick Craft Distillery: This is not your summer camp birch beer

I can't say I know Brian Forrest, distiller and owner of Red Brick Craft Distillery in Philadelphia, that well. But I've always believed you get a glimpse of people's true selves in how they handle life's bumps, big or small. For Brian, on this sweltering April afternoon, it's a delivery several hours late.

"It's like waiting for the fucking cable company," Brian quips, clearly out of frustration. He had just been on the phone with the truck driver for some time. I, in the meantime, sit there and wonder how many times I can inspect the back of the same label. Brian's unfazed. He knows I couldn't help but listen, so he fills me in right away. The delivery guy claims he came by earlier and for whatever reason couldn't get in. So he went to make other stops and will "try his best" to come back by 5pm. Brian has a newborn baby at home and his wife has been expecting him back for hours. Now that I think about it, I'm surprised no one has named a distillery "Mistress," because that's basically what it becomes (minus the risk of VD).

Brian is what a distiller should be. He makes spirits he wants to drink, trends be damned. Case in point: alcoholic birch beer he calls From the Woods. It starts off as a mix of demerara cane sugar and wildflower syrup that gets fermented together. Brian runs it twice through his 100-gallon still, which looks like a stainless steel water-heater, to get it up to around 120 proof. He then steeps macerated black birch twigs in the resulting distillate for a couple of days. Lastly, the now-cloudy distillate goes into used whiskey barrels for eleven months. It gets proofed down to 84 at bottling.

I should preface my tasting by saying, I never liked birch beer. Then again, my only experience with it was when I was around ten. At summer camp, we marched out into the woods. The counselor stopped us at a birch tree and showed us which part of the branches to tear off. That poor tree never stood a chance. The army of young foragers returned to the cafeteria kitchen, where we shredded up the twigs and mixed it in with hot water with plenty of sugar. The resulting urine-colored tea was what the counselor called birch beer. It tasted exactly like what it was (though thankfully not what it looked like). Warmed up tree bark = not delicious for me.

I'm having flashbacks to that time as Brian pours me a sample. The nose is very slight, maybe a little of the leafiness of tea. The palate comes on bolder: oak and evergreen wood. I can appreciate the spirit for being unique, without craving more. I guess there are some experiences earlier in life, especially when it comes to taste, you just don't get over.

Red Brick makes a spirit I'm more familiar with: single malt whiskey. I love scotch -the peatier the better- so I always perk up when a distiller is playing around with malted barley. Red Brick's uses four different roasts in its mash bill. The barley is roasted to spec by a malthouse just a half hour outside the city. Every batch is, by necessity, "single barrel" since Brian is using 5-gallon new oak casks, in which the distillate ages for seven months. Finally, the whiskey is bottled at 81 proof.

It has a toasted wood nose, that's followed by hints of sweetness, like white grape and melon.  The palate comes on sweet, with notes of deep chocolate and caramel, before ending on a spicy citrus finish. Brian can see I really enjoy the complexity of this whiskey, so he offers a sample of the cask strength version, which is 113 proof.

Here, the sweetness is more perceptible on the nose. I get cherry candy and Marsala wine. Similarly on the palate, the cereal notes are more pronounced, creating a deep, sweet essence like brown sugar oatmeal.

Lastly, I try a 110-proof unaged rum that Brian is not selling yet. It gets twice distilled. What stands out the most about this rum is that Brian adds oak chips into the fermenter, along with white granulated sugar and molasses. I don't think there's much sugar in the oak chips for the yeast to eat, so the oak probably lends its flavor later, when it gets cooked in the still. The nose has a stale earthy funk. The palate is a rich flavor of deep sweetness and spice, with a bit of raisin on the finish. I don't detect those oak chips anywhere in there.

I spend about an hour at Red Brick. Brian lords over his domain casually. He'll peer into a vat here, adjust a dial there, faithfully followed by little mop of a dog, Myrtle. He has me try some of the sugar mash, bubbling away in the fermenter. Brian skims from the top so the sample is murky and watery. Most of the sweetness is gone, which means the yeast is doing its job, since it eats sugar. I'm left with an aftertaste reminiscent of apple cider vinegar.  The only time I see Brian get even the slightest perturbed is when I tell him this. He dunks a cup in for himself and samples, instantly relieved. He explains that if a beer is tasting vinegary, that can mean it is overrun with bacteria. He is reassured that this batch is fine and what I've tasted is normal.

It's nearly 4pm and no sign of the delivery guy. I feel bad for Brian, first having to entertain me and now he is stuck waiting for a delivery that may not come.  I'm growing agitated on Brian's behalf when he reminds me that the basement rooms comprising his distillery is a place he loves, not a hardship. He'd probably want to downplay it a bit more for his wife, but I get it.  I leave him and Myrtle to their bubbling fermenters - the yeast and Brian doing the only thing they know how: making delicious alcohol.


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