Karaoke to Wake the Dead at Five Saints Distilling
"Karaoke Night". There are more dreaded two-word phrases in the English language. As far as what you'd want to put on a chalkboard out front of your business, "free colonics" could probably draw in more people, if only out of curiosity.
I sit at the bar at Five Saints Distilling in Norristown, PA, waiting for John George, co-owner and distiller, to wrap up his five-song set. It's not a bad turnout for 6pm on a Friday. What gets me through some pretty iffy Elton John is bartender, Ben. As a bartender should be, he's a very outgoing guy. He has the look of a linebacker. Sure enough, he confirms he was en route to play in college but suffered a car accident and hasn't been able to play since. There are many perks to being a standout high school athlete in a small town like this. Where everyone knows you and your travails, there will follow plenty of offers to help. In Ben's case, John offered him a job behind the bar.
As Ben pours me a sampling of Five Saints' vodka, blood orange liqueur, unaged and aged whiskeys, and gin, I strike up a conversation with two ladies next to me. It's more like they see the lineup of little communion cups and my notebook and become curious. I ask them what their favorite drink is and they point to their vodka concoctions. It looks like a take on a margarita, with a sprig of rosemary sticking out.
A fellow joins them and that prompts me to look around. It occurs to me: regardless of how you feel about karaoke, Five Saints Distilling is probably one of the better places in Norristown to wind down with a drink after work. John has lovingly restored a 160-year old firehouse. Its main feature is a bar that runs the length of the main room, probably two hundred feet. All the distilling can be seen through a large window in the back. The walls are festooned with remembrances of the past: the firehouse, its ties to the community and John's family story.
But John still has one song to go, so let's get to the spirits. The vodka is made from all corn, fermented on site. The beer goes through two eight-plate columns. It ends up with a slightly chocolatey nose. The palate reminds me of an earthy rum, just in how the sweetness sneaks up on the end. There is very little burn.
The unaged whiskey is 90 proof and distilled from a mash bill that's 75% corn and 25% rye. The nose has a vanilla sweetness to it, cut by a bit of corn. The palate starts off spicy, before mellowing out to that smooth corn goodness. This is an easy drinking whiskey.
Ben has a mischievous look and he points to a gallon barrel sitting on the bar. Five Saints has been occasionally filling it with the whiskey, he doesn't know how many times. It has a nose of some vanilla, similar to its unaged starting point, but now mellowed with more wood notes. The palate is more oak but there's something cloying on the finish. It reminds me of something chemical or varnish. It doesn't look like Five Saints often pours shots from the barrel, regardless.
Five Saints calls its gin "Tuscan style." That's not an homage to all the gin being produced in that part of Italy. It's more because the botanicals lead in a distinctly Italian direction, specifically rosemary, thyme, fennel and basil, among other more common to gin. The gin is 90 proof and starts off as neutral grain spirit that John runs through his column still.
True to its descriptor, the nose smells like a freshly opened salsic. The palate is milder than the nose would suggest. I get mainly the licorice flavor from anise and only a hint of the other herbs. To John's credit, I hardly taste any juniper at all.
Five Saints' Blood Orange Liqueur is a neutral grain spirit mixed with flavor extracts. To me, it smelled and tasted just like Orange Crush. What you think of this spirit depends on your memories of the sugary soda.
John finishes his set to rapturous applause. He has to check in on his fans, scattered around a couple tables, before getting to me. Finally, John rewards me for my patience by ordering a mule. We sit down at a table with his wife, Amy, and he lays on me the Five Saints origins.
The name refers to the five men in John's early life, each a "saint" in their own way. He wanted to call the distillery "Five Fathers," but learned that it was already taken. I agree with him that it was all for the best, because the pseudo-religious theme offers a nice contrast to all the booze.
John's father was a state trooper in upstate New York. One winter day, he was sitting in the patrol car with his partner, heater running. They didn't realize the tailpipe had backed into a snow embankment. Carbon monoxide filled the car and John's father died right there. John was eleven. The saving grace was his three uncles and family friend, also named John or "Giovanni." They all took over for John's father in various aspects of his life. John now returns the favor not only with the name of his distillery, but with their portraits adorning the wall behind the bar. Here, the saints can keep watch over their adopted son and everything he gets up to - even if that includes a couple off-key verses.