He’s helped build the company from the ground up, overseen the construction of a new distillery and managed the rise of the superb Bluecoat gin. Meet Philadelphia Distilling’s Andrew Auwerda!

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is a city all too familiar with revolution. But, after so many years spent outside of the national distilling conversation post-Prohibition, the town where independence was born probably didn’t expect to find itself at the forefront of the US craft revolution. Thanks to producers like Philadelphia Distilling, that’s all changing.

When its micro-distillery opened in 2005, it was one of only around 50 operating distilleries in the United States and the first craft distillery in Pennsylvania since Prohibition. But president Andrew Auwerda is used to beating the odds. In 1997, Auwerda established contemporary beauty brand Tony & Tina Cosmetics, which he sold eight years later for $5 billion. Philadelphia Distilling is enjoying a similarly impressive rise. In 2017, the brand moved operations to a beautiful $4.5 million distillery, a move that cements its stellar growth.

Auwerda’s commitment to a high-quality spirit with eye-catching packaging has struck a chord with gin lovers, who are turning to Bluecoat, the company’s core expression which was launched in 2006, in greater numbers than ever before. We spoke to the man himself to find out what life is like in the new digs, how to stand out in the crowded American craft distilling landscape, and why history is on his side…

BluecoatAndrew Auwerda, president of Philadelphia Distilling
MoM: When did your love of spirits start?

Andrew Auwerda: [Laughs] I want to say ‘it was 21’, but that would be lying! I fell in love with gin really early on, at about 19, 20 years old. I’m not a huge beer drinker; for me it feels very filling. I was attracted to gin and its refreshing nature from the get-go.

How you do go about setting up your own gin brand; what was that process like?

It’s this huge bureaucratic jungle that you have to slice through. The funny thing about the licence in America, including Pennsylvania, is that there’s no cost. People think ‘you must have this much money’ or ‘you must know somebody’ – no – it’s straightforward bureaucracy, paperwork, legitimising yourself and showing where your money came from. So many of the laws in America were written right after Prohibition so they’re completely dated. The laws were written to uncover unsavoury characters and mob connections so that’s what they were most interested in: are you going to pay your taxes and are you somehow connected to organised crime? But if you can find a way through and ask enough questions, it’s a relatively simple process.

In terms of the landscape we started in, we were aware of how many international corporate monolithic brands were about, which there’s nothing necessarily wrong with. But when we finally settled on an idea and a business in an emerging industry, we knew it needed new upstarts and that it can’t be dominated by these corporate monolithic brands. We felt that our society was starting to appreciate handcrafted, local sourcing, and we benefited so much from the craft cocktail movement over the past ten years and the local food movement. In 2006 to say a ‘locally-sourced meal’ or ‘we get this from this farm, 20 miles from the city’ wasn’t common. We benefited from what I call the ‘gourmification’ of America.

BluecoatThe distillery staff, happy to be making more Bluecoat
What would you say is the ethos of your brand?

The ethos of the distillery is about making high-quality spirits with a real story behind them. We have an authentic brand story that makes sense and has a sense of place to it. When you think of Philadelphia, besides Rocky and cheese-steaks and some sports fans that aren’t so pleasant, I like to think people know that it is the birthplace of America, and that’s something I wanted to promote. I feel that it’s a message that needs to be told and needs to be told again to every generation, of how special these Founding Fathers were in terms of their genius and their bravery, quite honestly.

It’s really important to you that it is a Philadelphian distillery then?

It is, because there’s the connection between the brand story and our place. As you know, you can make great gin really anywhere in the world now as long as you have the supply chains to get great botanicals and great neutral spirit. But to us, the fact that it’s a Philadelphian distillery was an important thing and I feel like it’s a matter of pride.

BluecoatAndrew Auwerda in the new distillery
Why is the historical element so important to the brand?

Because the history we refer to about the Founding Fathers and the concept of America speaks about the luxuries that I have to start a distillery and live a free life. It’s just one of those things that I’m afraid people take for granted. What they sacrificed for the luxuries that I now have is something I often talk about to my young children and say ‘you can’t take that for granted, because it could be taken away’. Our current President seems to be pushing the edges of what we think our government is because it’s supposed to be a government of the people and for the people. I don’t consider myself a historian because you need to have a much wider breadth of knowledge, but that particular slice of America, its founding and its sort of underdog nature, pumps me up as an entrepreneur and it’s just inspiring.

The history of America and that can-do attitude really informed so much of the brand and was a real impetus. You can see that in the name Bluecoat itself. Some people name their distilleries or their brands after themselves and I just feel like saying “is that really the message you want?”. With our brand story, it was really informed by my affinity to the Founding Fathers. I happened to be reading this book on John Adams, and it talked about the Bluecoats, which are not as commonly known as the Redcoats*, but I thought it was a unique term and really spoke to what we were trying to do, which was break from the ranks and try and do something different. Once we had the name Bluecoat, it all fell into place.

But, ultimately, Bluecoat isn’t about me. It’s about bringing to light the freedoms that we have and the story that made us and the sacrifices that went before us. I know that it can be very boring to other people, and oftentimes we’ll post historical references on our social media and quite honestly it doesn’t get as many likes – which makes me sad! But we’re still going to keep telling this message because this is who we are and this is what we believe. It’s the backbone and it’s what makes us relevant. While we don’t have terrior with Bluecoat, you need a sense of place. We may be a new gin but I think looking back to history you can learn a lot.

BluecoatThe stunning new distillery
Can you talk me through the new distillery, why you felt the need to build it and what it’s allowed you to do?

Well, we now have a home. A brand needs a home. Everybody’s got a bit more skip in their step because it feels like you’re part of something. It’s totally home. When we hired the front-of-house staff we told them that first and foremost it’s a visitor centre – this is for Bluecoat fans to come and feel the brand come to life. So the hospitality has to be exceptional, the tour experience has to be knowledgeable and interesting, and the cocktails have to be world class. This distillery allows people to get eyeballs on the brand, more liquor to lips, and it’s where we explain what we do and show off our authenticity of who we are. It’s all about that feeling of having a home.

Our first distillery was perfectly functional, and in some ways more efficient, but we built the new distillery with windows so that you can see the inner workings just behind the bar. It’s great because there are so many people now who are really concerned and interested in knowing where everything you make comes from and how you make. They want to see authenticity. We’re able to offer that. You don’t even have to take a tour; you could just walk by the sidewalk and say ‘look at them, they’re doing the mashing, they’re doing the distillation’.

It’s really awesome from a local perspective as well because we revitalised a building that’s been abandoned for 60 years. We didn’t tear it down, we fixed it and brought it back to its former glory. It’s now this incredible 15,000 square foot space that overlooks Philadelphia, the Delaware River, the Ben Franklin Bridge in what was this shithole part of town that’s now a revitalised industrial neighbourhood that’s hip and cool. Forbes magazine called it the hottest neighbourhood in America. We get these old Philadelphians, like 45, 50 years old, who would have never have gone there before and now they show up and go ‘wow, this is so cool that we have this’. So in terms of inspiring location, it picks you up and you’re more excited to go to work and feel creative and think out of the box. The distillery itself has done everything I wanted it to do.

You’ve laid down some rye whisky at this new distillery, can you talk us through that?

Well, we decided to do a rye whiskey because it’s indigenous to Pennsylvania, it grows extremely well and there’s this historical background that we really like. Of course we also have great corn and we can make some superior bourbon but again it’s all about speaking from and representing who we are and where we come from. Right now we’re talking handfuls or dozens of casks, so it’s likely that those experimental batches and production runs will be poured at the distillery, but we’re learning a lot.

BluecoatBluecoat is made in front of an audience…
The American craft distilling industry is enormous and ever-changing – how do you stand out from the crowd?

I think we stick to what we do: we have our story, our recipe, what we believe in and our principles. We’re going to let the authenticity come through to consumers and let them know that we’re the real deal. I think it’s exciting. I think it’s small business. I think it’s entrepreneurship!

Bluecoat American Dry Gin has grown 35% in the last year**, which is huge growth for a company that’s been out on the market for ten years, and one that I attribute mostly to our partnership with Samson & Surrey***. I’ve noticed since we’ve joined and partnered with them, I can go out to new markets and talk to customers who have never heard of Bluecoat and it’s this open playing field where I can present the brand and the story and let them make a decision.

There’s actually lot of people who we can reach now who say ‘Oh I love that gin, I haven’t had that in years’ and it’s sort of forgotten because, as a small company, you weren’t able to remind that bartender in Texas or in Arizona that this is a great gin and the next thing you know, you fell off the menu and you’re not on the back bar. But the minute you walk in they’re like ‘Oh Bluecoat, I love that!’ and ‘at what price!?’ because it’s great quality and great value. So I think we got a quick bump from that because it was just reintroducing it to people that already knew it and making up for the fact that we didn’t have a regular person in their ear mentioning it or promoting it.

BluecoatThe stills where Bluecoat and more are made…
Do you think that the American craft distilling industry would benefit from more regulation? Or would that stifle experimentation?

We have the right amount. I appreciate the fact that Champagne must come from that region, and Scotch comes from Scotland, and obviously America’s regulation regarding bourbon and how it has to be made in this certain American oak and within the United States. Those regulations are important to ensure a consistency that consumers can understand and relate to so they know what they’re getting. But, from an American craft distilling industry perspective, I don’t feel over-regulated in terms of what we can do within the gin category, and I don’t think it’s stifling or that I need protection necessarily… It’s competitive, but it’s great and it ensures that we have to stand out in our own way.

Is there an industry trend to watch out for?

In the craft cocktail movement what I’ve seen change recently is that mixologists are deciding that they don’t need seven garnishes or four tinctures in every drink, and that there’s a reason why something has become a classic cocktail. That’s why the Negroni is fantastic because it’s simple and the flavour levels and the complexity is there. So I’ve noticed in the craft cocktail movement that there’s a little bit of bringing it back, which I think is helpful.

What are the challenges of working in this industry right now?

Well, at least when it comes to craft distilleries, you need to make sure that your goals are in line with reality. I honestly believe there could be three or four thousand distilleries in America that can be very successful – meaning you’re paying for yourself and three or four workers and you’re selling in your region. However, if you want to grow a national or global brand you gotta know that you’re up against a huge, huge wall. That doesn’t mean you can’t overcome it, like Tito’s has, and I hope Bluecoat will be that. I’m pretty confident we will get there, but it takes a lot of steps.

That’s some advice that I give to other craft distilleries. I always ask them, ‘what are your goals?’ and if it’s to feed your family and express yourself creatively and make an outstanding product – great. You can have an outstanding product with great packaging. But if you don’t have sales and distribution and all those other things that might not be as cool, you’re going to be a small business. And if that’s OK with you, then again that’s great. But if you want to shoot for the moon, like I do, prepare to have a long slog and work hard! I see too many craft distilleries thinking that they make the greatest spirit and then they forget about the packaging and the marketing and they’re blind to what the reality is. If you’ve got a simplified message, great packing and a great spirit, maybe you’re in the race. If you don’t have those….

BluecoatSo much lovely, lovely Bluecoat booze…
You mentioned ‘shooting for the moon’ there. What is ‘the moon’ to you – what’s the ambition for Philadelphia Distilling and Bluecoat Gin?

To be the number one premium selling gin in America. We’d like to build a global brand but you can’t have goals too lofty! So first we want tackle America as it’s our home and it’s the number one gin market in the world in terms of consumption. I feel it’s attainable. People might smile or think I’m just talking bullshit, but I’m not. I know it’s possible, I’ve seen brands do it. We have these goliaths like Diageo and they make a great product like Tanqueray, but there will be a day when an upstart nobody craft distiller will challenge them and make a huge impact, just like we’ve seen in the vodka market in America with Tito’s, which is now the number one selling vodka in America. So it can be done. I know the components that makeup Bluecoat and our spirit; we can get there. And we will…

What do you think the future holds for American craft distilling industry?

At some point, we’ll plateau in terms of the number of new distilleries. Most are obviously focused on American whisky and certainly, for the most part, most of the products that are making it to the national store shelves – meaning they’re breaking out from their region and being available – are high-quality products. So if craft distillers are putting out high-quality products, in general, that’s going to benefit the industry. However, I’m fearful of the marketing-type companies that are all about flash, because today’s young consumers and Gen-Xers and millennials, they see right through it. And with social media, they speak quickly and they know quickly. You can only fool some people some of the time…or whatever the saying is! It’s going to wear thin. So if you’re not authentic and you don’t really believe in it and you’re not passionate about it, I don’t like your chances.

BluecoatBluecoat American Dry Gin
Bluecoat American Dry Gin:

Nose: An earthy, aromatic nose, with pine cones, rose hips, orris root, lively juniper, touches of bitter orange and coriander.

Palate: Bright and warm with earthy juniper, luscious orange sherbet and spiky pink grapefruit. Mulches and fern give a real forest floor character.

Finish: Fresh and long with a persistent earthy quality, and a lingering citrus sweetness.

*In the United States, ‘Redcoat’ is associated in cultural memory with the British soldiers during the American Revolutionary War, due to uniforms the British Army used during this time. The American soldiers, by contrast, wore blue uniforms, hence ‘Bluecoat’.

**Case volume increase.

***Samson & Surrey is a booze producer and distributor, working through its subsidiaries. The craft spirits specialist represents FEW Spirits, Widow Jane and Brenne, as well as Bluecoat.