You’ve had one gin, you’ve had them all? Whisky is whisky? And since graduating college, you will never ever drink anything comparable to Jägermeister again, right? Think again. Meet Dean Browne, owner and distiller of Rowhouse Spirits Distillery in East Kensington, Philadelphia. I first met Dean a handful of years ago at Philadelphia Brewing Company, where he then worked as a brewer and poured samples on Saturday afternoons. Over the years, I got to know Dean better at numerous beer events and at Sunday brunches at Johnny Brenda’s, where a mutual friend spins gospel tunes once a month. Little did I know that Dean had been dreaming of opening his own distillery for years and had recently been laid off by a Fortune 100 company. When I noticed that Dean wasn’t pouring at PBC anymore, I asked our mutual friend where he’d gone, and he didn’t have to point far. It turns out that when PBC acquired their neighboring lot, Dean worked out a lease agreement. Now Rowhouse Spirits Distillery sits in a small building (a former auto garage with a welcoming retail/tasting room that Dean designed and constructed himself) on the PBC parking lot, facing Frankford Avenue. Sometimes things (and spirits) are just meant to be.
Rowhouse Spirits is a “limited distillery” (which means they can sell directly to retail consumers and to Pennsylvania-licensed establishments), and it goes without saying that all of their products are hand crafted, distilled and bottled on site. Currently, Browne produces three spirits: a very small batch gin (whose flavors and aromas start with bright juniper, then shift to the peppery ginger note of cardamon, ending with citrus and cinnamon from chamomile and cassia bark), Poitín (Gaelic for “small pot” — a 96-proof, pot-stilled, Irish white whisky, made from 100% malted barley and fermented with beer yeast) and Bear Trap (a 64-proof herbal liqueur flavored with 19 distinct herbs and spices). Dean’s currently working on proper whisky (aged), barrel-aged gin, a fruit brandy, some co-branded rum and some other herbal booze to be released at a future date. The distinct Rowhouse Spirits logo is from the book of Kells. Dean explains, “In Celtic mythology, serpents represent rebirth, and early alchemists believed that distillation extracted the soul from beer or wine. Early references to Spirits spoke about alcohol being the ‘water of life.’ So for me, the icon in our logo is a metaphor for distilling.”
After the annual PBC holiday party this past November, we swung by the distillery to purchase a few bottles (which make great holiday presents, by the way) and to congratulate Dean and his wife Traci on their new business. We shared some stories and laughs and continued our conversation via email. We are thrilled to have Rowhouse Spirits’ owner/distiller Dean Browne share his (Chocolate Covered) Memories with us …
How did you find yourself in this niche of the alcohol industry?
I’ve been brewing beer since the 1980’s. I love beer, but I really love whisky. Ten years ago, I started working towards becoming a distillery and last year (in 2013) I came to a point where I had to make a decision about what to do with my life. So I chose to take the leap and open Rowhouse Spirits.
Any child/teenage food industry jobs?
I was a dishwasher and prep-person for a Chinese restaurant whilst I was in high school. I peeled a whole lot of onions and chopped a lot of things. I was also a prep-cook for a retirement home for a short time while I was in college, but that was depressing so I didn’t last. My father owned a diner for a couple years in the early 1980’s. I cooked there at night.
What are your earliest childhood memories of food?
Cheese puffs. I guess I would have been about 3 or 4 years old.. My mother used to bribe me with them to get me to behave. I also have a pretty distinct memory of rainbow trout from around the same time. I don’t think I ate the trout, but I remember them being cleaned.
Where does your love of food/beer/booze stem from?
I suppose I love food and booze because of the traditions and memories that I associate with them. Family gatherings where food was central to whatever was going on, those tables were always awash with jello mold salads from my recollection. I have memories of my grandfather giving my brother and I scotch with honey in the evening — I presume to knock us out. That may have fueled my love for Johnny Walker and Rusty Nails. I grew up in Canada, where people were a lot less uptight about booze, especially when compared to the USA.
What foods remind you of childhood? What were your favorite foods growing up?
I can’t cook bacon without thinking of my grandmother. She lived with us for a while when I was young. I remember her not eating breakfast with us but sopping up the bacon grease with white bread while standing at the stove. She lived to be 99 years old. I was a kid in the 1970’s, so my family did a lot of fondues. I always loved those and still do. My wife, Traci, is not the biggest fondue fan, but she humors me.
Favorite alcohol when you started drinking?
Johnny Walker Red and English Bitters. Both were easily attainable in Toronto where I lived when I started to drink — legally, that is.
Favorite alcohol now that you run your own distillery?
I still really love whisky. I drink a lot of beer and red wine, as well. I always have rye, bourbon and scotch in the house. Beer-wise, I prefer hoppy session beers, like Philadelphia Brewing Company’s Kenzinger, and strong French and Belgian beers. like 3 Monts and Duvel. Whether I’m at home or travelling, I always drink locally brewed beer when I can.
Any specific food memories/stories that you want to share?
In the 1990’s, I had a job that required me to travel to Europe on a regular basis. My travel companion at the time was a fellow named Daniel. Daniel was a Belgian who lived in Leuven, and he was a man who liked his food and drink. I was fortunate enough to have visited his home on a couple occasions, and those nights were very memorable for me. Daniel’s house beer was Duvel, and on this one night, we had four of them while snacking on waffles that his wife made, before leaving for dinner. We walked to his “local” (tavern), where we enjoyed a great meal of traditional Belgian dishes along with more drink. We finished the night off with glasses of Calvados, a French apple brandy, which I had never had before that night. Calvados is a wonderful thing. While we sipped, Daniel told me an origins story of the traditional way in which Calvados is produced. Farmers in northern France would harvest, press and ferment their apples into cider. This cider would then be distilled and set into casks by a roving distiller with a portable still. The farmers would store away their Calvados to age and the distiller would move on to the next farm or village. The idea of a roving distiller and the traditional aspects of this story really struck a tone for me and was one of the inspirations that fueled my desire to open Rowhouse Spirits.
Were you a picky eater as a kid? Any foods you couldn’t stand growing up? Have you overcome those childhood fears or do they still remain to this day? Any stuff you loved eating as a child that you would never eat now?
Aren’t all kids? I was never a fan of beef liver, and I still don’t enjoy fried liver filet — but I do love it in things like scrapple, pate and liverwurst, which are all among my favorite things. Not to mention foie gras. As a kid, I always went for the sweet stuff, like sweet and sour chicken balls from “Chinese” restaurants. I don’t go for that now.
Any childhood cooking accidents in the kitchen? Any as an adult in the kitchen/distillery?
Not really an accident, maybe more of a mishap or an adventure. My brother and I caught a bunch of sunfish one day and decided to cook them on a Hibachi grill. We cleaned them in my little sister’s wading pool with a dull pocket knife, and we started a fire to cook them but got impatient. I can’t say that I would recommend lightly charred sunfish sushi. I think we left everything in my sister’s pool. I do tend to cut myself pretty often. The worst I’ve ever done to myself in the distillery is spray myself with cleanser. I work alone, but I’m pretty diligent about safety procedures.
Growing up, what was your favorite meal/food/snack to eat outside? Did you enjoy eating outside anywhere in particular? How about now as an adult? Any benches you love to eat on?
Pretty much anything cooked on a fire. Food always tastes better while camping for some reason — anywhere in the woods, and the more secluded, the better. Benches imply a street scene to me. I’m not a big fan of benches.
What do you think of the modern food world (from Whole Foods to franchises like Olive Garden and Starbucks, from the Food Network to Groupon, from Yelp to foodie bloggers)?
I shop at Whole Foods, but I mostly shop at my local food co-op. I try to buy local and humane as much as possible. I’m not going to stop eating meat, but I can’t support factory farming. I want to buy from producers that treat food animals as humanly as possible. I’m not under any delusions that my meat comes from some wonderland with dancing farm animals. I used to hunt, when I had the time, and I would help my friends butcher their kills. I know where meat comes from, I just don’t believe in outright torture. I don’t eat at chain restaurants although I will drink Starbucks when I travel — not in Philly though. There are just too many great coffee shops in Philly for me to even consider Starbucks here. I don’t use Yelp or any rating site in general. Everyone has an opinion, but not all opinions are useful. I generally ignore the mob. I do read a fair number of food and booze blogs, however. I find that, usually, if someone goes through the trouble to produce content on a regular basis you can get some good information, especially about niche topics.
What do you think of big industry distilleries? Do you ever drink big labels like Jack Daniels, Bacardi or Smirnoff? Why/why not?
There are a lot of very high quality distilled spirits coming out of larger producers, especially when it comes to whisky. Quite a bit of what I keep around the house is from larger distillers, but again, whenever I travel, I look for what is produced locally. I always try to support the little guy.
What family recipes do you want to share with us?
Here’s the recipe my family uses for Nanaimo Bars. My mom makes them every Christmas, and now, so do I. My mom and my grandmother always made a ton of different sweets and snacks over the holidays. They would break them out anytime we had company, which was often. Of course, as kids, we always went straight for the sweets. Nanaimo Bars are a popular confection in Canada. They are sort of like a brownie, topped with butter icing, topped with melted chocolate. Enjoy my mom’s Nanaimo Bars!
Dean Browne was born and raised in Canada, moving to the Philadelphia area in 1993. Obsessed with the mysteries of yeast and fermentation, Dean has been a brewer since the 1980’s — working part-time professional stints with various breweries over the years. This obsession evolved from beer and brewing to whisky and distillation over the last 10 years or so, and now Dean owns and operates Rowhouse Spirits Distillery. A new obsession for botanical flavors and the world of herbal spirits came with the opening of Rowhouse Spirits.