A chemist, a plumber and a homebuilder walked into a bar and came out with the city's first legal distillery since Prohibition.
It's no joke. The first floor of a brick building near West Ninth Street and Front Avenue is home to Portside Distillery. Last December, the upstart booze-maker released 840 bottles of its first run of rum. It sold out in three days.
Dan Malz and his partners Keith Sutton, John Marek and Matt Zappernick say they've already invested $500,000 in fermenting equipment, copper pipe and a half-dozen huge silver storage tanks. A 6,000-square-foot restaurant and bar is in the works as well.
"I guess you could say it was serendipity," Malz says. "There's nothing like getting together over a couple of pints of Guinness at the Harp to plan a microdistillery."
Sutton, a former homebuilder, crafted the distillery's squat copper pot still by hand, and Marek, a plumber, ran lines for the tanks. Zappernick will manage the restaurant once it opens.
But Malz, the master distiller, is responsible for the rum. After graduating with a degree in physics, he switched to chemistry and spent five years working as a chemist for Great Lakes Brewing Co.'s quality-control department.
"There are not many jobs out there for physicists," he says. "Most of the people I know that are physicists, they became chemists. It's funny how you go to college and get a degree and wind up doing something different."
That something different means bringing his scientific training to an industry more associated with bootlegging, banjos and speakeasies than a discussion of relative boiling points.
"You're trying to isolate ethanol from solution," Malz deadpans. "It's pure science."
In all, he says the process takes about two weeks — from beginning to bottles — to produce a standard 80-proof silver rum. Portside Distillery is working on flavors such as vanilla maple, spiced, and a potential bacon-infused rum.
"Eventually, we have aspirations to grow and get larger," Malz says of the operation. "Society has a demand for finely crafted, spirituous liquors."