Savor Your Spirits

by Michael Vyskocil, photography by Kelly Heck

While historians have traced the science of fermentation to 10,000 B.C., debate still surrounds the exact origins of distilled beverages. Over the centuries, distillation has transcended cultures, people and places, becoming part of heritage traditions. Today, that tradition is upheld in a community whose agricultural and historical heritage is recognized across the world — Gettysburg.

Welcome to Mason Dixon Distillery.

As owner Yianni Barakos looks around the establishment he opened in 2016, he recalls how the idea of distilling began developing in his mind. His grandfather, a Greek immigrant, was a coppersmith by trade. From the inspiration of a sketch his grandfather drew for him, Barakos set out to fashion his first still at age 11. As he grew older, the idea of operating a distillery never left him. Following a series of events resulting from an automobile accident, Barakos began reshaping his life’s plans, and the idea of distilling re-emerged.

“I decided that if I was going to work hard for something in life, it was going to be having my own business,” he said. As he witnessed the growth of craft breweries and observed how on-site dining areas were becoming connected with the guest experience at these businesses, he began seeing the possibilities of a distillery and restaurant pairing.

Barakos soon immersed himself in distillation education, studying at the Siebel Institute of Technology in Chicago and apprenticing at the Smooth Ambler Spirits distillery in Maxwelton, West Virginia. He also read voraciously on the subject and toured closed to 80 distilleries across the United States.

With help from his father George, Barakos renovated the former Gettysburg Furniture Factory Co. facility on East Water Street. Today, within the shell of a large warehouse, a hip metropolitan feel surrounds the bar and dining area with its touches of brick, metal and reclaimed wood that honor the building’s manufacturing past.

“It’s a large open room, and in addition to some of the individual tables, we also have the large community tables,” he described. “My idea was to focus on the experience — good food, good drinks, good conversation. There’s nothing more uplifting and idea-affirming than when this room fills with people and conversation.”

Distillery tours walk visitors through the spirits production process and include samples. A three-season outdoor patio and courtyard encourages guests to savor their spirits in a casual setting. Bottle sales of the spirits themselves are also available.

The dining experience starts when you sit down at your table and start tasting the distillery’s work in your glass. Mason Dixon’s corn whiskey is a clear spirit, yet it packs an undeniable bold flavor even when combined in a cocktail. Crafted from 90 percent wheat and 10 percent malted barley, Mason Dixon’s lightly filtered vodka blends the sweet taste of wheat with the toasty characteristics of malt that you can enjoy on its own or mixed in a Mason Dixon Mule (vodka, lime juice and ginger beer from Appalachian Brewing Co.). And if your only exposure to rum was dark, come into the light with Mason Dixon’s white rum crafted exclusively from pure molasses.

At just over a year old, Mason Dixon’s aged rum is “young, and it sips like a whiskey,” Barakos said.

Drink specials emanate from the minds and cocktail shakers of the Mason Dixon team’s master mixologists. Emphasizing the craft in craft-made cocktails, the bar staff serves up a mean Pain Killer (rum, coconut, pineapple, orange juice and raw sugar) and an indulgent Caramel Apple (aged rum, caramel and apple juice).

“All of the raw grains are coming from within 5 miles of here,” Barakos explained. “We source the malted grains from just outside of Philadelphia, and the only imported ingredient we use is the molasses. We use minimal to no additives, only adding a bit of water to bring the proof down.”

On the food side of the menu, guests can find dishes for sharing that bring many cultural flavors together. Shrimp and andouille hush puppies and crawfish hand pies carry a New Orleans flair, while deviled eggs and Bavarian pretzels pay homage to the food traditions of south-central Pennsylvania. You can build a meal with two or three shared plates.

If you have a heartier appetite, you’ll delight in the shrimp po’ boy with its house-battered fried gulf shrimp or a slow-roasted pork barbecue sandwich. The banh mi is a Mason Dixon twist on the Vietnamese sandwich with its corn whiskey-glazed pork belly, pickled radishes, vinegar carrots and sriracha aioli.

The emphasis on local ingredients extends not only to many of the vegetables and herbs harvested fresh from the gardens on the distillery’s campus but also to the locations for the ingredients that go into Mason Dixon’s spirits themselves.

“We worked with the [National Park Service] at Gettysburg National Military Park, and we have an agricultural lease with the park. Since I’m not a farmer myself, it took some convincing to get it, but winning that lease was what brought me to Gettysburg,” he added. “We’re excited about working on some limited production spirits distilled from grain grown on the park’s farming plots.” Portions of the sales from the “history in a bottle” spirits will be returned to the National Park Service to assist with battlefield preservation.

“Gettysburg and Hanover have been supportive communities to us,” Barakos said. “In Pennsylvania, craft distilling is still a young industry. The license we operate under has only been in place for a couple of years. But the word of mouth has been treating us quite nicely, and we’re starting to become celebrated for our local distilling.”

Author: HM

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