It's always a party at Bluebird Distilling
As much as I enjoy the spirits at Bluebird Distilling in Phoenixville, PA, the impression that sticks with me the most is the sheer graciousness of bartenders Mike and Matt. The first time I show up, I'm optimistic. It's 4:30pm on a Wednesday. The sign on Bluebird's door tells me they do not open until 5. The small parking lot out front is still roped off. I peer through the distillery/bar's ginormous windows and see movement inside. Then the sign: "Closed for a private event."
I walk in and see that the movement I saw from outside is Mike and Matt, cleaning glasses and setting up their respective stations. Mike tells me he'd be happy to pour me some samples over the next half hour, but by 5pm I'd have to skeedoot. I consider this as I look around the bar: leather sofas worthy of an oligarch's library, a separate room of picnic tables surrounded by full barrel ricks, and on the wall behind the bar, a blackboard full of cocktails, grouped by base spirit. I think this place will be a lot more fun to see in full swing.
I choose Friday night around 10pm. The main room is not larger than most people's living rooms, so the communal tables and most of the couches are easily filled. And there's Mike and Matt, two blurs of activity occasionally overlapping. Although the line to get a drink is getting to be three or four people deep, Mike still takes time to greet me and set up my tasting.
He doesn't have much time to explain the spirits. From what I can gather, all Bluebird's whiskeys are aged between six and thirteen months in a mix of five and ten gallon barrels. Also: the gin and vodka come from a neutral base distilled on premise, from a 100% rye mash. Unlike the whiskey, it gets distilled up to 190 proof using two vodka columns attached to Bluebird's1000-gallon pot still.
I try the white rye first. It's 90 proof. The nose reminds me of a pet store, when you wander into the hamster section. At least the hay smells clean. The palate is much more satisfying and complex: a lot of earth and mushroom, with just a hint of rum sweetness. I can't find the spice usually associated with ryes.
The vodka has the slightest nose of wheat and malt. It drinks smooth, with just a bit of chocolate and a sweet caramel/coffee finish.
The gin is 90 proof. All the botanicals are vapor infused through a basket in the still, on the spirit's second distillation. Bluebird names their gin "Juniperus." Clearly playing that berry forward, the nose is overtaken by the piney scent, with just a touch of melon. The palate is bright and herbal -juniper for sure- but also with a spicy black pepper finish.
The rum is the last of the clears I try. It is 90 proof. Mike tells me it's fermented from a mix of sugarcane and molasses, but he isn't sure of the proportions. It has a nose of rye and grain that is only subtly sweet. The palate has an earthy plum sweetness common to rums made from all or majority molasses.
Bluebird's bourbon is 92 proof. It comes from a mash bill that is 60% corn, 20% rye, 10% barley and 10% wheat. It has a nose prominent of oak and fruitcake. On the palate, I first get musky wood, followed by dry grass, coffee, bbq and then fading into leather on a long finish.
I try the result of Bluebird aging that white rye in five and ten gallon barrels. It is 92 proof. The nose is of caramel candy and the slightest hint of clove. The palate is more of that clove spice, followed by baked goods and cake, finishing on a light vanilla.
The dark rum is Bluebird's white rum aged in used bourbon and rye barrels for around a year. They bottle it at 90 proof. The nose is of a dark candy melted in the sun. The palate brings me through spice and oak like you'd find in a moderately aged whiskey, before a slight candy finish.
Last is Bluebird's wheat whiskey. It is 92 proof and fermented from a mash bill that is 80% unmalted wheat and 20% malted wheat. It has a nose of slight spice and wood. The palate takes me through dried, aged grass, and the best wood notes of a barrel before finishing on the bitterness of melon rind.
I've enjoyed my tasting, so I figure it's time to relax with a cocktail. Mike is a machine, cranking out considerably complicated drinks. He has clearly been working in craft cocktail for a while. He whips me up a Cafe Black Rose, which combines Bluebird's wheat whiskey, coffee liqueur and cherry-vanilla syrup. I usually don't like my cocktails served in those old timey champagne glasses. But I will give Mike and company a pass, since this cocktail is exactly what I need - sweet and woody in just the right places.
I sit down with some friendly visitors at the couches. Two are Indian and I will not even attempt to butcher their names. I'll call the man Dev. He is here on a PhD program, which has him working part-time in a local pharmaceutical lab. The woman, Aja, is his wife, visiting from India. They are outgoing and I think we manage the language barrier pretty well. I ask the inevitable, stupid question of how all this -the bar, Phoenixville, $12 cocktails- compares to India. Dev and Aja laugh, probably at my expense. They tell me they love America, and have been to an impressive number of places; mostly, but not all, big cities.
Upon reflection, Phoenixville is the perfect small town experience for someone new to the US. It's safe - I couldn't see so much as a drunken bar fight breaking out along the main street. The inhabitants seem educated - as in not likely to fly a massive Confederate flag from a pickup. I'm sure the proximity of a university and well-paying healthcare jobs help with that. And in Bluebird Distilling, you have the best introduction to craft distilling and the latest in cocktail culture a small town could want. Also, if you're curious about the use of maple syrup in mixed drinks, Mike will be happy to demonstrate in the form of the Campfire Chat - complete with chocolate bitters and toasted marshmallow.