Social Still Rises from the Rust

Billy Joel's song "Allentown" can be misleading. The closing of steel mills and subsequent generalized despair are very true (and supposedly got our current president elected) but he is singing about Bethlehem, not neighboring Allentown. I guess not much rhymes with "Bethlehem."

My entry into town is fairly dramatic. The storm clouds have just begun to part as I round a corner on the freeway into town.  The first thing I notice are the hulking skeletons of the furnace stacks. I don't need to get closer to know they are the no-color of filthy water. But I do get closer, and the reality on the ground begins to shift. There are signs of a city coming back to life. Some of the ancient brick walls have freshly painted signs: vintage stores, a "pet resort," and the obligatory brewery or two.  

I pull up to Social Still before it's open. This gives me time to wander around the gardens of the Museum of Industrial History across the street (reclaimed from part of the Bethlehem Steel plant). It's peppered with salvaged pieces of equipment so big, I don't even know what I'm looking at.  Why do the teeth on an enormous gear automatically make me think about the limbs or lives that must have gotten crushed in them? I don't go into the museum, but can be sure they don't have a section exploring the innumerable industrial accidents over the years.

Social Still is inarguably part of Bethlehem's resurgence. It is many things at once: bar, restaurant, distillery. At the risk of sounding cheesy, it is the type of space that a city like Bethlehem needs the most. Not because the average out-of-work steel miller can afford to eat or drink there; but the flooding of a city with redevelopment money has to start with a trickle. In 2014, Adam Flatt and his partner in life and business, Kate, bought and renovated an old bank. It's a great space for this kind of project: two stories-worth of loft ceiling, allowing Adam to show off his towering column still in all its glory, enclosed in glass behind the bar. A couple of former vaults prove to be perfect rooms for barrel aging and grain storage.

Adam has been a part of the area's craft beverage scene for almost his whole life. At first, it was inadvertently. His mom opened a winery in 1981. He now co-owns Franklin Hill Vineyards with her. That gave him the background necessary to undertake opening a bar, restaurant and distillery simultaneously. As I speak with him, Adam has some very strong opinions about Pennsylvania's craft distillery laws - and rightfully so. He has wrestled up-close with a generous share of bureaucracy in trying to open his definition-defining establishment.

If that wasn't tiring enough, Adam took it upon himself and distiller, Maria, to devise around fourteen types of spirits. I tried their bourbon, rye, barrel-aged gin, absinthe, unaged rum and vodka.

The bourbon is 86 proof, distilled from a 70% corn, 20% rye and 10% malted barley mash and aged for one year in new charred American oak barrels. You would think the malted barley, not to mention the corn, would give it some delicious chocolatey sweetness. But I find the rye spiciness to still be prevalent in the nose. The palate is pickley tart, with some more rye spice coming though on the finish, with very minimal burn.

Next up is the rye. It's very straightforward, with 80% rye and 20% malted barley. It is 82 proof and aged for six months in new oak barrels. Upfront on the nose, I get a pleasant vanilla and melon. For only six months in the barrel it has substantial wood, grain and oak on the palate, with the slightest fruit finish.

Social Still makes a vodka distilled completely from corn that they mash and ferment on site.  It gets distilled about eight times through the column still and charcoal filtered before bottling. I find it incredibly smooth and easy to drink, with no discernible flavor, in keeping with the vodka definition.

Social Still's barrel aged gin is quite interesting. It starts off as the vodka. On the last of several runs through the column still, the vapors pass through a basket of nine botanicals. Where most distilleries would be happy to leave that finished product as their sole gin, Adam has chosen used rye casks for this gin to rest in for four months. It gets bottled at 90 proof. The nose is an equal mix of juniper and wood. I would not go as far as Social Still's tasting notes on its website, which claims the spirit "[r]esembles a whiskey more than a gin." As long as there is detectible juniper in there -and there has to be, in order for a spirit to be classified as a gin- I would say the closest a gin could hope to resemble a whiskey is in color. (And I'll point out once again how odd it is, in the first place, to strive to craft a spirit that resembles another. Could you imagine a distiller trying to make a whiskey that resembles a gin and what that atrocity would taste like?)

This aged gin does take on some rye spice from its time in the barrel. But I'm not sure how nicely the citrus notes (since this is a "New World" style gin, it is heavy on citrus zest) plays with the grassy sharpness of rye. If you're a fan of sniffing Christmas potpourris while sipping your morning OJ, this may be the gin for you.

Absinthe retains a certain mystique, probably because it was illegal for so long.  It was believed that one of the main ingredients, specifically wormwood, could cause hallucinations, insanity and a resulting life in ruins (or worse, becoming a perpetual Republican presidential candidate). Of course, this is the line on most drugs by lawmakers who have never tried them, regardless of party affiliation.  In reality, wormwood's only crime is that its floral bitterness requires a whole heap load of anise to cover up. Add some more star players in there -like fennel, hyssop, angelica and others- and you have absinthe's drunken party in the herb garden.

Social Still's absinthe is at the relatively low proof of 90, for a spirit that usually hovers around 130. It sticks with tradition, however, with a bomb of perfume notes in the nose. It drinks very floral with hints of citrus. The bitterness of herbs follows up closely on the finish. Adam tells me he makes very little of the absinthe and he only uses it at the bar for mixed drinks. Why you would want to ruin a perfectly good drink with this kind of herbaceous supernova is beyond me.

Lastly, I try an unaged rum at 80 proof. It gets distilled from a 50/50 mix of Caribbean molasses and cane sugar. The nose is pleasantly sweet, like a dark candy, with just a hint of yeast. The palate too drinks like an earthy candy.

I'm impressed by both the range and inventiveness of Adam and his distillers. Even if the spirits don't always hit their intended mark, I know from my time spent with Adam that there will always be plenty of novel attempts in the works. After all, if this man can make a hundred year-old bank look like the spankingest-new bar on theVegas strip, he can turn this rusty corner of Bethlehem into a craft spirits destination, no sweat.


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