July 25, 2016
Brothers Matthew and Bryan Quigley were busy perfecting a vodka recipe in their parents' basement when Matthew received an unexpected phone call.
It was their dad.
"They found the distillery, and they kicked us out," Matthew told PhillyVoice, with a tinge of a laugh, recalling the conversation with his father. "It was more a principle thing. ‘What the heck are you doing!?’ They accused us of making drugs in their basement."
But the duo, forever coming up with items to sell as a team (right down to baseball cards in the schoolyard, Bryan quipped), has come a long way since being accused of starting a meth lab circa 2013 — when their father had been on a "Breaking Bad" binge, Matthew clarified. Natives of Fort Washington, Montgomery County, the Quigley brothers have since grown their distilling operation into a South Kensington-based, soon-to-be multistate business: Starting in September, their Stateside Urbancraft Vodka will be sold statewide in New Jersey, joining the 200 liquor stores in Pennsylvania they already distribute to, in addition to local bars and restaurants like Del Frisco's.
But more impressively, Federal Distilling has managed to climb over big-leaguers like Ketel One and Grey Goose to become the Democratic National Convention's official vodka — meaning, in sum, that their Stateside vodka product will stock every DNC-thrown event in town, whether at the Kimmel Center, Citizens Bank Park or Wells Fargo Center. They'll be joined by Bluecoat Gin and Maker's Mark as fellow spirits highlighted during the convention.
“As a new company trying to convert one drinker at a time, it makes sense for us to go to these events and meet all the people who’ve made this [company] a reality and learn about the product, versus spending money on putting up a billboard on the Walt Whitman Bridge," Matthew said. "That’s not our style."
Not unlike Philly's craft beer movement, their efforts are part of a larger trend that has entrepreneurial brewers and distillers railing against the machine.
"I think craft distilling, even though yeah, we are in competition with each other, it’s a rising tide versus big bad alcohol," Matthew said. "These huge-brand conglomerates that have tons of market share, if we can all as a team chip away at that little by little to make a substantial living for ourselves, and put some food on our plates, then more power to every other craft distillery in Philly and the state.
"We're ultimately trying to convert the Ketel drinker."
In the vein of connecting with customers to do that conversion, they'll also open their first tasting room on Aug. 11 — an extension of their distillery at 1700 N. Hancock St. At 1,000 square feet, with a 75-person capacity, it's an opportunity for the vodka-maker to present its product in cocktails crafted to showcase the spirit as it's intended to be consumed: with subtle flavors that don't overwhelm the natural sweetness of their vodka — one that is, notably, aerated and has what they refer to as a "unique" mineral composition.
The full-service cocktail bar will have 10 craft cocktails at all times, with two "Bartender of the Month" cocktail concoctions selected by representatives from area bars. The inaugural cocktail specials: an elderflower orange martini from Crow & the Pitcher, and a pistachio honey collins from Brick and Mortar.
The lounge was designed by Matthew, riffing off the "industrial-chic" aesthetic that the building naturally has. In the back, patrons will notice "Old Ethel" — the brothers' first vodka still — and an ornate chandelier that hangs over an open-air office space. Plus, a deer head that hangs over the entrance to the distillery.
Their progress as a vodka distillery — they sell their product in 60 liquor stores in Greater Philadelphia — is remarkable in a town that's more or less a city of beer and whiskey drinkers. Indeed, while vodka sales in the U.S. are steady, bourbon and whiskey saw the notable uptick in sales between 2010 and 2014.
"A challenge is that we're a brown city," Jenna Silverman, director of operations, told PhillyVoice. "Bourbon took over this city a few years ago, with all the whiskey bars opening up and the vanilla notes and the caramel palate and everything like that, and all the classic cocktails were only made with bourbon. It’s definitely challenging — but [our vodka's] good, so people buy it. And that’s exciting.”
To start, the Federal Distilling tasting room will be open Thursdays and Fridays from 5 to 10 p.m., and Saturdays from noon to 10 p.m., with distillery tours also available. During the DNC, keep an eye out for a variety of Stateside-made cocktails that include a blueberry ginger cocktail, a basil vodka collins and a "Convention Martini" with lavender, fresh lemon juice and water.