Indiana, PA - Indiana County

Distillery owners await approval to open

by on August 31, 2014 1:54 AM

It’s been a labor of love for two years, and pretty soon Indiana County’s first craft distillery will be ready to open its doors.

Two stills were in operation on a recent Thursday at Disobedient Spirits along Main Street in Homer City, producing batches of alcohol that in the coming months will be bottled and ready for sale.

Having recently started public tours and tastings at its facility, Disobedient Spirits is aiming for a mid-November opening, and before Thanksgiving at the latest, according to co-owner Robert Begg.

“November is now (looking) realistic,” Begg said.

Begg, a retired professor from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and colleague and certified wine expert Robert Sechrist entered into the venture together after state law was changed to allow artisan distilleries.

“(Sechrist) jumped on it, and he approached a few people, asking if they would be interested in working with him,” Begg said. “I was retiring, and thought I’d better have something to do. So I said, ‘Let’s do it.’”

As for the name, Begg and Sechrist decided on Disobedient Spirits in the spirit of the nation’s founding fathers and the Whiskey Rebellion, which primarily took place in western Pennsylvania from 1791 to 1794.

And, Begg said, “I think Dr. Sechrist and I both feel like we’re, at heart, disobedient spirits.”

They also chose the name in admiration of figures from history and modern society, who have spoken out against injustice and oppression even when such actions were deemed unpopular.

“We celebrate freedom, we honor justice, and invite you to join our cause with a good stiff drink,” their website declares.

Disobedient Spirits was incorporated in August 2012. Begg and Sechrist went in search of a location for the facility, and in December of that year settled on the old Runzo’s Indoor Flea Market at 30 S. Main St. in Homer City, putting in a bid for the building. That same month, Begg and Sechrist submitted their federal application for a license.

The two men finally closed on the property in July 2013 following concerns and debate on the establishment’s name and downtown location.

Complaints by members of the nearby Homer City United Methodist Church, which hosts Celebrate Recovery meetings as well as youth and other community activities, stalled the closing process until the microdistillery finally was approved to operate in the borough as a commercial entity by the Homer City Planning Commission that April and by borough council that May.

Reconstruction of the building was at 90 percent as of April, Begg said, and some work still is being done.

“The place was such a mess,” he said.

Distillation started in May, Begg said, but because of the federal approval process, they haven’t yet been able to sell their product by the bottle. Labels take two months to get approved, he said, and if they want to make flavored liquor, that’s another two months, “and you can’t put your label in until the formula for the flavor has been approved.” So for one of their flavored products, for instance, that’s four months of waiting. Three of their flavors have been in for about a month, Begg said, so they should be approved in September. Those labels will then be submitted for approval, Begg said, and should be authorized in November.

“In spite of doing everything as quickly as we could, it took two years before we actually got up and running,” Begg said.

Begg said he hopes by November to have their low-end and high-end vodkas, as well as three of their flavored vodkas and three flavored brandies “ready to go.”

“The only thing holding us up right now is the federal approval process,” he said. “We’re making the stuff but we can’t put it in bottles and sell it.”

Selling it for tastings, however, is a different story.

Visitors to Disobedient Spirits can taste up to three half-ounce servings of different alcohols offered, Begg said. Currently, the distillery offers its premium blue corn vodka and its low-end vodka as well as vodka in teaberry, orange, oak, maple and hop flavors. Public tours and tastings, which started Aug. 23, are offered during 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. slots on Saturdays for $12 per person.

The blueberries, strawberries and plums used in Disobedient Spirits brandies are local products and purchased from a farmers market, Begg said.

“We’re trying to use local imports,” he said. The blue corn is not local, he added, but as the business gets up and going “we’re going to see if we can make that local, too.”

Being an artisan distillery, Begg said that in addition to selling their alcohol out of their storefront, they can sell directly to bars, and they can deliver.

“We’re going to market hard to the bars in the region,” Begg said, adding that “a number of them” have said they would carry Disobedient Spirits products.

“What we’re hoping to do is get both our high- and low-ends in the bars so that our house vodka would be the well vodka … and the high-end vodka would be for specialty drinks,” he said.

Begg said they plan to start delivering in the spring, allowing customers to have the alcohol “brought right to their front door.” They also will be able to mail their liquor anywhere in the state, he said.

Additionally, Begg said, they will be selling “white lightning,” or moonshine, by the spring, and sometime around January or February, when enough of their other products are in stock, they will start barreling whiskey.

Begg and Sechrist will be reaching out as far as Altoona/State College to Pittsburgh to draw visitors, and are working with the Indiana County Tourist Bureau to try to have the distillery as a stop on Indiana County tours. Their tasting/sales room offers a variety of merchandise, from T-shirts, flasks and shooters to infusions, bitters and syrups and even mixers, whiskey praline pecans and chocolate liqueurs.

The facility also has a “classroom,” which Begg said will be used to tell the history of the business, who they are and about the distillation process. One wall has a mural with “disobedient spirits” from history that soon will be joined by a quote from Thomas Jefferson, part of the Declaration of Independence and Begg and Sechrist’s definition of a disobedient spirit. Another wall, partially covered with newspaper clippings, will be used to display the timeline of the business through articles, photos and posters.

Begg said they also may hold some extension classes at the distillery through IUP so people can learn the distilling process and how to do it.

They also will host events and groups, such as an upcoming Chambers After Hours event and the Shakespeare Club, and hope to bring in groups in the evenings for tastings and tours, Begg said.

Hours of operation are still in the works, Begg said, “but we will definitely be staying open until 11 o’clock on Friday and Saturday nights,” as well as curtailed hours on Sunday, possibly from noon to 5 p.m. Sundays in the summer, he said, are great tour days.

While the process took unexpectedly longer than planned, Begg expressed his appreciation for the support the business has received in that time.

“Absolutely everybody in Indiana County has been extremely supportive of us,” he said.

Saturday tours can be booked in-store at 30 S. Main St., Homer City, or by visiting www.disobedientspirits.com. You must be 21 for tastings.

PHOTO: Jason Gamble got the stills ready for operation recently at Disobedient Spirits in Homer City. (Tom Peel/Gazette)



Heather Blake is the wire editor and an assistant web editor for The Indiana Gazette. She covers courts, Saltsburg and Homer City borough councils and Penns Manor and United school districts, in addition to writing feature articles. She can be reached at hblake@indianagazette.net.
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