Behind the Scenes at Erie Distilling with Master Distiller Dave Harkness

Every distiller has an origin story.

Many came with a background in chemistry. Others started with a passion for distilled spirits that translated into a change in career path.

In some ways the story of Dave Harkness, owner and master distiller at Erie Distillery, parallels the story of the American economy. His distilling career is a second act following the closure of a beloved manufacturing plant in Erie, Pennsylvania, with its jobs shipped to Mexico. After losing his position as a mechanist, the idea of opening a distillery became a way to stay in his city — and be a part of the budding craft spirits scene.

“All we’re doing is striving to be the best,” Dave said. “I’m not going to put the Erie name on it if it’s not going to have my attention to quality in the bottle.”

Dave spent much of his pre-distilling career at the AMSCO — American Sterilizer Company — facility in Erie before being laid off in 2016. He used the state’s Trade Readjustment Allowance program to study for a Masters in Business Administration degree and applied to get the licenses required to open a distillery near the popular Presque Isle State Park.

Dave’s experience as a mechanist came in handy when laying out the distillery. The spirits are distilled on the 8-inch-diameter, 9-foot-tall, 9-plate column still. Using that still, Erie Distillery’s vodka easily makes it to the minimum 190-proof required for vodka production — and can blow right past it!

That stainless steel reflux column still is a major main reason Erie Distillery’s vodka has been able to shine in spirits competitions. Most recently, it won a Gold Medal in the Domestic Vodka category at the 50 Best Awards competition held in New York City.

“We’re just out winning awards,” Dave said. “My products are all 100 percent amazing. We have our gin up in New York getting judged now — I imagine that’s going to take a gold medal, too.”

Erie Distillery’s vodka is made from a 100 percent corn mash bill — allowing subtle sweetness from the grain to make it through into the finished product at 80-proof. Unlike many local craft distillers, Dave chose to focus on vodka out the gate rather than as an afterthought to drive sales while waiting for whiskey stocks to mature.

Erie Distilling Vodka chilled, at 80-proof. Check out the recyclable glass

Erie Distillery Vodka

$22 online price for 750mL bottle. Shipping available in Pennsylvania.

  • Appearance: Crystal clear, with more legs than most vodkas chilled at 80-proof.
  • Nose: Clean and crisp like spring water over wet river stone. Hint of lemon zest.
  • Palate: Pure, clean ethyl alcohol with no trace of congeners, fusel oils or methyl alcohols.
  • Finish: A pleasant minerality and crisp finish.

The vodka, light whiskey and other offerings utilize active carbon charcoal filtration to clean the spirit of impurities. Other products from the distillery include their apple pie and hot pepper moonshines, Diamond Gin, limoncello — which undergoes a two-month maceration process — along with white, spiced and coconut rum offerings.

One of Dave’s most interesting products is a child of the pandemic.

Erie Distillery’s 14-year-old Light Whiskey offering was a direct after-effect of the shut-down of Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board stores in March 2020. With bars and restaurants also closed, an unplanned fluke in state law meant the only place to legally purchase spirits was through curbside pickup at the dozens of small craft distilleries sprinkled throughout the state.

As a result, Erie Distilling — like all distilleries in the commonwealth — had to get creative.

“During the pandemic —– when they closed state stores — I had a line going out the door,” Dave said. “I sold out of everything I had. I wasn’t going to have any more whiskey for at least six months.”

While it offered great exposure for his vodka — Dave said customers who hadn’t heard of him before the pandemic have switch from national brands to only drinking his product — state store closures totally depleted his barrel inventory.

Even utilizing small 10-gallon barrels to speed the maturation process for his corn whiskey, he wasn’t going to be able to meet whiskey demand without undercutting quality or disrupting sales for about six months. So, he turned to a state with hundreds of thousands of barrels to spare — Kentucky.

Erie Distilling recently sourced a 53-gallon barrel from an undisclosed Kentucky distillery, which they used to produce their light whiskey offering.

Light whiskey is an underappreciated product category in the United States. It was created in the 1968 — a time when sales of American bourbon and rye whiskeys were on the decline as consumer preferences shifted towards clear spirits like gin and vodka. To compete with lighter unaged spirits, the U.S. Tobacco and Alcohol Tax and Trade Bureau allowed products labeled as ‘Light Whiskey’ to be distilled up to 190-proof and matured in used barrels. Compare this to bourbon, which must be distilled to under 160-proof and placed into new American oak barrels at under 125-proof.

“The buzz word is bourbon right now,” Dave said. “But I’d put this 14-year-old whiskey against anybody’s bourbon. We get a lot of walk-in customers who are bourbon drinkers.  Many have come back” for more of the light whiskey after trying it.

Erie Distilling’s Light Whiskey is a 14-year-old made from a corn mash bill. The result is a light, yet well-matured whiskey that in appearance and taste has more in common with a nuanced and mellow super-premium Irish whiskey bottling than the bold, in-your-face flavor often associated with the bourbon category. It will cost you about $35 for a 750mL bottle at 90-proof.

Erie Distillery Light Whiskey 14 years old

Erie Distillery’s Light Wheat Whiskey at 90-proof… and kitty Bam-Bam in the background…

$40 online price for 750mL bottle. Shipping available in Pennsylvania.

  • Appearance: In the glass, the whiskey is a light amber / chestnut color, with considerable legs at 90-proof.
  • Nose: Sweet honey aromas with caramel and stone fruit.
  • Palate: Light and delicate — almonds, cherry, toffee, butterscotch.
  • Finish: Chocolate and baking spices.

With the worst of the pandemic hopefully behind us, Erie Distilling recently celebrated its two-year anniversary. Dave said he is looking forward to the upcoming summer.

“We survived on bottle sales, drinks-to-go and slushies all summer last year,” Dave said. “But I see things picking up already [this spring]. We’ve got a nice little sidewalk where we’ve put some chairs out. People want to get out and go hear live music. And we’re constantly working on new products — like our coffee liqueur. Our quality standards are there, so I’m confident the customers will return.”

Pennsylvania recently lifted restrictions on on-site tastings and bar service. The high-end cocktail aesthetic of his distillery’s tasting room — complete with black walnut bar and antique bar fixtures — located near Erie’s Presque Isle beach holds with it the promise of a steady stream of customers should tourism return.

Dave said he’s ready to greet them.

Editor’s Note: We plan to review the full line of products over the coming weeks. Stay tuned for more content!

Article by akendeall

Aaron is a whiskey writer, brand ambassador and distiller based in Pittsburgh, Pa., who has been working in the spirits industry since 2013.

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