Pennsylvania Pure Keeps It Real
Chatting with distiller Barry Young about what tastes good when it comes to making Boyd & Blair Vodka and Bly Rum
When you ask Pennsylvania Pure Distilleries’ master distiller Barry Young to describe his vodka, Boyd & Blair, and his rum, Bly Rum, he’ll tell you they’re like extensions of himself: “Never blend in,” he says. “and that kind of sums me up too.”
On a recent morning around 10:30, I called Young. He was already at work at his Pennsylvania distillery, and was breathing heavily thanks to just stepping out of a fermentation tank in the middle of the already overbearingly hot morning. He’s hands on, he explains, from the tinkering on the stills to the daily taste tests. Shortly after, he told me something that you hear a lot of people who make spirits say: “Whatever tastes good to me, that’s what we make.” Only, with Young, the words feel less like marketing toward a craft-hungry consumer base and more like the ethos he instills in his spirits.
Boyd & Blair vodka celebrates a decade of existence this year. It’s a potato vodka made with spuds from farms just outside of Pittsburgh and in central Pennsylvania. One-hundred percent of the mash and distilling is done in house (“we don’t buy ethanol or play any of those games,” as Young puts it), and it’s hand bottled. It’s not what you think of when you think of a bottle of mass produced neutral spirit. It’s slightly sweet with some viscosity to it that reveals a personality when you take a sip. Young compares it to other potato vodkas, saying that it’s “similar to Chopin, but on steroids.” Even people who prefer their Martinis with an herbaceous gin will be hard pressed to deny the simple joy of an ice cold Boyd & Blair Martini with just a touch of good quality dry vermouth and a lemon twist.
Bly Rum is a newer product from the distillery, but has the same dedication to locally sourced ingredients with a handmade process. Pennsylvania Pure Distilleries sources molasses from a Lancaster, Penn., Amish settlement that’s been using the same molasses for 80 years, Young says. He puts the molasses in the category of supreme baking molasses, or “the purest, cleanest form--what you’d bake with during the holidays.” It’s thinned out with warm water so as to not burn any sugars, then fermented for around 21 days before running through the pot still twice. The taste has a little funk to it along with a natural sweetness. Not an agricole level of funk by any means, but not your average bottle of American white rum either.
Both spirits are a little different from the other vodkas and rums you typically find made in the U.S. That’s where the whole “never blend in” ethos comes in. The spirits are unique without punching you in the face with unfamiliarity. The process to getting to that point one that is sip by sip — literally.
“I come in on Saturday morning myself with an Egg McMuffin sandwich and just start tasting at the still,” Young explains.
Every small batch of the spirit that’s produced is cut with water according to Young’s taste. His palate is the final yes or no. It has to be that way, he explains, because he’s in an old building and conditions are always changing. Two guys help with the vodka, but no one else touches the rum.
“I’ve always done it that way,” Young says. “I was never a bartender, I was never in the industry. I have a pharmacy degree, so I approach things with the scientific method, but what tastes good to me, that’s what we make.”