One of the often forgotten legacies of American pharmacies is their role in dispensing alcohol during the Prohibition era through prescriptions – the only way to obtain alcohol legally at the time.
Full-time pharmacists Pat and Beth Downing are now carrying on the tradition in a new way – brewing a range of award-winning spirits at the GlenPharmer Distillery in Franklin.
Between GlenPharmer’s dangerously delicious cranberry vodka, its original take on ghost pepper vodka, and its all-encompassing espresso vodka, this distillery’s flavored offerings will shake things up if you’re tired of good ol’ New Amsterdam.
Of course, the distillery also makes unflavoured vodka, gin, tequila and rum, for those who are simply looking for spirits of a higher quality than your average Smirnoff or Jack Daniels.
How GlenPharmer Distillery Began
The distillery is the brainchild of the Downings, who met while studying in the same pharmacy program at Purdue University. They later married before returning to Pat’s home state of Massachusetts to open a pharmacy in the Berkshires.
The idea for the distillery came to Pat in 2007 when he had his first American single malt whisky. A whiskey lover, he felt that if he was going to make spirits, he wanted to make something he would drink.
“That’s when it kind of hit me – you don’t have to be from Ireland or Scotland to do [single malt] whisky,” he said.
Over the years, Beth and Pat have continually discussed the idea of opening a distillery. Having now moved to Franklin, they decided that if they ever had to open one, they wanted to do so inside the old West Central Street Textile Mill.
A beautiful stone building with a 1929 Model A Ford truck out front, a river around it and a covered bridge, the couple thought it would be perfect for setting up a distillery.
In 2018, Pat took a week-long course at Moonshine University, which is actually a real school in Louisville, Kentucky, to learn the ins and outs of the distilling industry. He likes to joke that it’s the degree he’s most proud of.
When Pat returned to Franklin, the old textile mill had quietly gone to market, and Pat and Beth wondered if that was a sign.
In October 2018, the couple made an offer on the textile factory, and it was then that they encountered the first of many hurdles they faced before they could open.
Between licensing issues, legal battles over their business name and struggles to turn a mill into a distillery, GlenPharmer Distillery’s first two years were tough.
But even after those issues were ironed out, there was the challenge of trying to open a business during the pandemic.
“We were literally getting ready to open at the end of March 2020 and we were just getting ready to bring our staff on board and then it all stopped,” Beth said.
Because GlenPharmer produced alcohol, it was considered an essential business, and the Downings were able to start production and begin selling their products.
Although it never intended to serve takeout, GlenPharmer has reconfigured its menu to open its restaurant and help pay the bills in May 2020.
Throughout their first year, Patrick and Beth had to adapt to new situations, but they persevered and the distillery is now fully open as a restaurant, spirits tasting room and event space.
Upon entering the entrance, one quickly notices the stunning antiquity of the stone walls and wooden rafters, as well as the warm candle lighting. The decor is a sheikh and modern take on what one would imagine an 1800s distillery to look like.
To the left is the restaurant, which serves New American cuisine. It is led by Executive Chef Eric Zediker, who meticulously crafts a creative and seasonal menu.
Highlights on the menu include the ‘Pharmer’ flatbread, made with bacon and onion compote, mozzarella, arugula, parmesan shavings and white truffle oil; pan-fried chicken with marbled potato, duck fat tomato, broccolini, orange marmalade with cumin seeds and compound butter; and the New York strip loin with pieces of candied potatoes, parmesan and rosemary aioli, a small salad and a house steak tenderloin.
The GlenPharmer’s restaurant also offers delicious cocktails made with their own spirits. The bar offers both classic cocktails with a GlenPharmer twist, as well as several tasty original creations.
Highlights include the Heat of Passion, made with ghost pepper vodka, passion fruit, agave, club soda, and mint; the Oh Mai Tai, made with spiced rum, cranberry vodka, orgeat, citrus syrup, pineapple and cherry; and Raspberry Beret, made with dark rum, raspberry, orange honey and rose water.
But, of course, the real treat when visiting GlenPharmer Distillery is the tasting room where you can sample the distillery’s spirits.
Although drinking pure spirits may seem intimidating to some, GlenPharmer spirits are surprisingly smooth and drinkable, even on their own.
“We have a rule of thumb from a distillation perspective, which is, if you can’t drink it neat without mixers, without ice, and enjoy it, then we don’t want to produce it,” Pat said.
GlenPharmer’s first flagship spirit is their vodka, which is made with wheat to give it a slightly sweeter taste and smoother finish than your average vodka.
Another premium spirit is their GlenQuila, which is basically a reposado tequila. It’s made with agave imported from Mexico, and has a lighter, slightly peppery taste that earned it a double gold medal at the New York World Spirits Competition in fall 2021.
GlenPharmer also makes rum, one of which is called Dark Tide Rum. It is named after the famous North End molasses flood of 1919 which killed 21 people and injured 150 others.
The distillery’s spiced rum is made with nine spices, including cinnamon, allspice and clove. Finished with vanilla from Madagascar, it won double gold in two different spirits competitions.
Perhaps the most Massachusetts of GlenPhamer’s spirits is their cranberry flavored vodka, aptly called Bog. It’s made with cranberries from Decas Farm in Carver, and it’s their most popular spirit for good reason. It’s sweet but not syrupy, tart but not puckery, and so creamy it’s easy to drink without a mixer.
The Downings expect their espresso-flavored vodka called Bean to soon steal Bog’s most popular crown.
Inspired by the Italian dessert affogato, which is vanilla ice cream with espresso poured over top, Bean is made with espresso beans from Salem’s Atomic coffee roasters, and is perhaps even easier to drink than Bog. .
GlenPharmer’s gin is made with 11 botanicals, including juniper, chrysanthemum, fresh cucumber and lemon peel, elderflower, lavender, coriander and forged needles of eastern white pine .
Finally, GlenPharmer’s most awarded spirit is its ghost pepper vodka called Bhut, which means “ghost” in Hindi. This flavored vodka is unique because it not only captures the spiciness of ghost pepper, but also the flavor of capsicum.
Bhut, formerly known as Ghost, won double gold in two different spirits competitions, as well as the overall winner in the flavored vodka category.
GlenPharmer is distilling rye, American single malt and bourbon whiskey, but they don’t have any batches for sale yet.
In the meantime, for $7,000 GlenPharmer will distill your own custom barrel of whiskey, which equates to around 300 bottles at $25 a bottle. They’ll distil it for as long as you want and bring you in every six months for a taste to help you decide when to bottle it.
You can also host an event at GlenPharmer in their speakeasy-themed event space called Proof, which is the upper floor of the old mill. The rustic-sheik space has a full bar, plus sofas, tables, and huge windows that let in lots of natural light.
You can find GlenPharmer spirits at 75 package stores across New England, but there’s so much more to discover by visiting the distillery at 860 West Central St. in Franklin. For more information, visit https://glenpharmer.com/.
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