Thistle Finch Distillery: Great Spirits Made in Amish Country

"Amish Country," as most of Lancaster County, PA is called, can often feel like a different country. Or more accurately, it can feel like suburban/rural America has been taken over by time travelers from the past. Their high-tech vehicles: black horse-drawn buggies with a giant reflective triangle stuck to the back.  If you're driving in Central Pennsylvania and suddenly hit an out-of-nowhere traffic jam, one of these buggies is probably the culprit - clomping along at 20 mph at the front of the line.

Besides rolling farms, Lancaster County offers a cute capital city of the same name. Think of tidy redbrick row houses and wood porches, laid out in a grid. In what was once an industrial/warehouse section of this city stands Thistle Finch Distillery. Specifically, the building it inhabits was once a tobacco warehouse from the turn of the 20th Century. (And most recently, recording studios for local 90s rock band, Live. The band has since retreated to the very top floor, where they and guests still occasionally jam.) 

The distillery retains a good deal of the warehouse's original features, including a hand-operated elevator that looks more like something the Romans would use to unleash lions upon unsuspecting gladiators. Side note: among all the other ways in which they compete, what is up with distilleries claiming to have the oldest operating elevator in the US? Thistle Finch is about the fifth I visit that makes this claim. 

When I arrive, a group of visitors is collecting in the vestibule, waiting for a tour.  This gives me time to chat with our tour guide, Lucas. Lucas has this great energy and enthusiasm that, if not infectious, is certainly refreshing.  We chat about how he has been working here for a year and what got him started (hint: a love for gin). He sets me up with a quick tasting, since we have a couple of minutes before the tour. I try six of Thistle Finch's flagship spirits: vodka, gin, coffee whiskey, unaged rye, straight rye and black pepper whiskey.

The vodka gets delivered to Thistle Finch as a corn-based neutral grain spirit that gets run through their 150-gallon hybrid pot/column still once. There's no discernible nose. It tastes smooth and just slightly of alcohol. 

Lucas tells me their 80-proof gin starts off as the vodka, then has the botanicals steeped in the distillate before being run through the still a second time. On that run, Thistle Finch uses a basket in the still to vapor infuse one of the more finicky botanicals. Lucas doesn't say which one that is, but does let me in on their secret ingredient: mint. It does a fantastic job hiding juniper on both the nose and palate. If anything, I would call this gin refreshing and probably doesn't need to be mixed with anything strongly flavored. No mules here. Keep it simple with soda or tonic and a squeeze of your favorite citrus.

I try Thistle Finch's 80-proof unaged rye. The grain is milled and fermented there, from a mash bill that is 60% rye, 30% wheat and 10% malted barley. The nose reminds me of buttered popcorn, with some earth hiding in there. The palate is a good mix of earth and spice, with the slightest edge of sweetness on the finish. 

One of Thistle Finch's more unique spirits is their rye whiskey aged in used bourbon barrels with ground coffee beans, for six to nine months. They call it their Black Coffee Rye and it is 80 proof. The nose smells pretty greasy, like an oil slick. The palate is satisfying, with flavors coming on strong and fast: mostly Moroccan spices like cinnamon, harissa and carrots.

The straight rye is aged two and a half years in a mix of #3 and #4 char 53-gallon barrels. It gets bottled at 90 proof. The nose has all those delicious barrel notes: caramel, vanilla and aged wood. The palate is smooth dried fruit, with a peppery medium finish.

As if the rye wasn't peppery enough, Thistle Finch makes a version of the rye that is aged in new oak with whole peppercorns, for several months. It is also 80 proof. The nose doesn't smell particularly peppery, but mostly like oak and leather. The palate leans minerally, with a sharp shock of pepper on the end.  

I finish up just in time for Lucas to round everyone up for the tour. It's almost as enjoyable as the spirits, all thanks to Lucas' playful attitude. He is equal parts historian, distiller, and stand up comic.  He does a fantastic job of keeping the trivia just this side of interesting, and makes sure to ask the group questions every now and again to keep us on our toes. 

I find the coolest part of the tour is when Lucas points out the ways Thistle Finch had to modify the building for their purposes, like the hole in the ground-floor through which they send the milled grains to the mash cooker below. As these things work out, the old elevator proved to be the perfect size for lowering the still down. Now if they could just do something about that 90s-era racket coming from the attic. 


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