Family-run and locally sourced, Eight Oaks Craft Distillers is producing delicious spirits and artisanal cocktails in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley.
Settled in the picturesque hills of Pennsylvania farm land, Eight Oaks Craft Distillery is almost like a hidden gem. The huge red barn not only houses the massive copper pot Carl Still and bottling stations, but also a large and lovely taproom that spills out into a backyard area full of plenty of tables and chairs to lounge in. Known for its farm-to-bottle philosophy, more than ten varieties of hand-crafted spirits are distilled on site from locally grown ingredients, with most coming from land owned by the distillery itself. Recently, I had the opportunity to explore the facilities with the industrious Caitlin Bagenstose, a distiller and production planner for Eight Oaks. I’m excited to share what I learned.
Behind Eight Oaks Craft Distillery
Officially opened in 2016, Eight Oaks Craft Distillery is a veteran-owned and family-run operation in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley. A portion of every purchase is donated to one of the company’s non-profit partners, making truth out of their mission to make their community a better place.
Alongside his daughter and son-in-law, Chad Butters founded Eight Oaks as a retirement hobby after 25 years in military and civilian aviation. Distilling seemed like the perfect fit, combining his dual loves of local farming and craft liquor. Carly – his daughter – and Logan Snyder – her husband – act as the general manager and head distiller, respectively. My host – Caitlin – manages the production schedule for the wide variety of spirits the distillery creates. Her encyclopedic knowledge of the trade is impressive, and I was surprised to find she learned how to distill working side-by-side with Logan for the past few years. The on-site team is rounded out with Tasting Room Manager Kate Peters, who takes point on developing the artisanal cocktail program I was happy to indulge in.
In the Tasting Room
Between this and a visit the month prior, I’ve had the pleasure of tasting all of the currently available spirits, as well as a number of craft cocktails from the summer menu. Currently, Eight Oaks is producing multiple varieties of bourbon, rye, apple jack, rum, gin, vodka, and even an agave-based spirit they call Ocho Robles (which has sadly been out of stock on my visits). I won’t go into all of them, but I will list some of my favorites:
- Authentic Apple Jack: I first learned about Eight Oaks Craft Distillers when I tried their Apple Jack at the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia. Needless to say, I went home with a bottle. Applejack is a traditional American spirit, but only a few distillers make it today. Available in both clear and barrel-aged versions, this delicious spirit is distilled from locally sourced apple cider into a smooth, apple-forward liquor.
- Penna Rye Whiskey: Of the whiskeys, I think this is my favorite, but I do have a soft spot for a nice rye. It’s young – aged for only 15 months – but it’s spicy with a nice bite. I can’t wait to see how older batches taste.
- Pinot Bourbon: After double-distilling their traditional boubon made from rye, wheat, and corn, this particular batch is finished in French oak pinot noir casks for three to four months. The end result is a bourbon-forward spirit with just the right amount of sweetness and smoke.
- Barrel Aged Old Tom Gin: On my last visit, I’d come to conclusion that Eight Oaks’ American Gin would be my new go-to for a gin & tonic. This visit I was I was pleased to find that the newly-released Barrel Aged Old Tom Gin was just as good, if not better. If you haven’t had an Old Tom-style gin before, I strongly suggest you give it a try. Originating in 18th century England, the style was popular during the birth of traditional cocktails in 19th century America, before London Dry Gin become the front runner. In my experience, Old Tom gins give you a (slightly sweeter) taste of history.
Exploring the Grounds
As Caitlin walked me around the site’s main building, I was taken aback by the beauty of the landscape. The facilities sit on fourteen acres of farmland, and additional farmland is owned offsite as well. What isn’t grown on these properties is sourced from local farmers, like the molasses used in their rum.
Caitlin lead me to the first stop on our tour – barrel storage. Housed in a large barn, the stacks of oak barrels are stored without climate control. They are frequently rotated by hand, so that no single layer of barrels is taking the brunt of the heat or the cold. While exposure to weather fluctuations can impact the final product, in some ways this changeability only adds to the small batch appeal of available spirits. One years’ bourbon will never be exactly the same as the next. Federal liquor laws demand that bourbon and whiskey be aged in new oak barrels, but used barrels from a variety of sources are present as well. These are used as a second aging tool (as with the Pinot Bourbon and Port Rye) or for aging other spirits (like the Old Tom Gin, which is aged in Chardonnay barrels).
As for production, two tall silver grain bins were recently installed adjacent to the distillery, not only allowing for onsite storage, but for direct loading into the distillery’s auger. When I arrived on site, Logan was hard at work in the back, but happily took the time to chat with me about the facility and the work being done. The Head Distiller has an easy smile and a youthful personality. His love for the work is clear. He eagerly gave me a firsthand look at the grains in their raw form and how the barley is mixed and ground in the auger– messy, dusty work I was happy to see for myself.
Inside, out of the sun and into a cooler environment, the workspace is larger than one might expect, with plenty of room to bottle and store the various products being manufactured. My eyes were immediately drawn ahead to the huge hybrid Carl Still consisting of a copper pot still, vapor extraction hood, and two copper columns. With a capacity of 1,000 liters (250 gallons), the distillery is able to produce spirits on a rotating schedule, turning out around 900 cases a month. The various parts allow for the best distilling process for each spirit, and it is certainly a site to behold.
Finding Eight Oaks Craft Spirits
I ended my tour and chats with Caitlin back in the tasting room, where I enjoyed more than my share of fabulous cocktails. While these can only be had in the tasting room, the craft spirits themselves can be found throughout Pennsylvania, including the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia.
At A Glance:
Location: 7189 Route 309, New Tripoli, PA 18066
Hours of Operation: Thursdays & Sundays 12-5pm; Fridays & Saturdays 12-9pm
Atmosphere: Farmhouse chic with a casual family-friendly vibe. Dogs welcome!
Food Availability: Fresh, locally sourced menu options are provided on-site in collaboration with Tre Locally Sourced on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays (see website for exact details).
Must Try: It’s definitely worth doing a tasting, although the shots are decently sized so it doesn’t hurt to share with a friend. The entire cocktail program is fantastic, so if you can’t decide ask the bartender for a suggestion.
Insider Info: Live music is onsite every Friday & Saturday, and now through the end of August you can celebrate Fridays on the Farm, with dancing, food, fire pits and lawn games on site.
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