Let It Flow

In October 2012, Anthony Brichta ’04, ‘05G was helping a fellow alum celebrate his 30th birthday at a place that would spark his entrepreneurial spirit – a craft distillery in Brooklyn. Less than three years later, Brichta, a practicing lawyer, is making rum, gin, bourbon and vodka of his own. 

Along with his uncle, John Rowe, a pilot and former air traffic controller, Brichta has founded County Seat Spirits in Allentown, Pennsylvania. It is the first distillery in that city since the days of Prohibition.

“Craft distilling is still relatively new,” said Brichta, as he provided a tour of his distillery, tucked inside a former Mack Trucks assembly plant that has been reimagined as a business enterprise center. “There are some parallels to [the growth of] craft brewing. People are looking for different flavors, different types of products and more local products. We believe there’s a strong market.”

Thanks in large part to an easing of state and federal regulations, craft distilleries are trending up.

In 2003, there were about 70 small distilleries across the country. Now, there are about 630 nationwide, including two dozen in Pennsylvania, and another 200 under construction, said Bill Owens, founder and president of American Distilling Institute.

“We’re part of the renaissance in food and drink in our society – the renaissance of buy local, support local businesses and bring business back home,” Owens said.  And, as they open up in communities, distilleries also are helping to rejuvenate towns and boost tourism, he said.

Brichta’s County Seat Spirits operates in 1,000 square feet of space in the Bridgeworks Enterprise Center in Allentown, a city undergoing a renaissance of its own. Its neighbors are a microbrewery and The Colony Meadery, a craft meadery co-founded by Greg Heller-LaBelle ’10.  It was Heller-LaBelle who helped direct Brichta to the Bridgeworks, where the distillery can receive business support and guidance.

“We’re a grain to glass distillery, so we do the whole process,” said Brichta. That includes selecting the grains, milling them on site, fermenting, distilling and bottling. “Other than tiring, it’s pretty rewarding. You get to actually see a product that you make out on the shelf. “

For those eager to try County Seat Spirits, the distillery offers tours and tastings on weekends. Visitors can buy bottles of its liquors, or a cocktail made with them. The spirits also are available at the minor league baseball Coca-Cola Park and the Hamilton Bar & Kitchen, both in Allentown.

If the names of the spirits sound familiar to those who live near Lehigh University and the surrounding area, that’s by choice.

“We picked all local names,” said Brichta. “We looked for names that would have local significance but were also, quite frankly, just good names.

Sand Island Rum is named for Sand Island in Bethlehem; Lock Keeper Gin for the canals of Easton; and Class 8 Vodka for the old Mack Trucks assembly plant. Its bourbon, still aging, will be known as Hidden Copper Bourbon, a reference to the Liberty Bell’s being hidden under the floorboards of Zion’s Reformed Church in Allentown in 1777 to protect it from the British.

To help strengthen and grow his distillery, Brichta is working with a team of seven students from Lehigh’s Integrated Business and Engineering Program (IBE), who could ultimately provide Brichta with recommendations on how to better market County Seat Spirits or more efficiently produce its products. 

The IBE program, offered jointly by the College of Business and Economics and the P. C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science, integrates courses in business and engineering with additional course requirements. When Brichta pitched County Seat Spirits as a potential assignment for the students, it proved to be one of the most popular. Students are looking into everything from barrel aging and still design, to sales and marketing, to more efficient use of resources, including water.  

“We’re here to help him,” said Robert Storer ’16, a member of the IBE team that is conducting research into distilleries to share best practices. “I hope we can make a difference in his company. I hope he will grow at a more rapid pace.”

Brichta, who received his bachelor’s in political science and economics and his master’s in political science at Lehigh, is part of a Lehigh family. His father, two sisters and a brother are graduates. His father, Bill Brichta ’76, ’81G, ’10G also worked at Lehigh in information technology.

After Lehigh, Anthony Brichta went on to Duke University, where he received his law degree. He currently practices law in West Chester, Pennsylvania.  Since he was always interested in starting a business of some kind, he recognized the feasibility of starting his own distillery when taking that Brooklyn tour. With that, he said, “It just kind of grew as a passion of mine.”

Without a lot of formal training in distilling, he and his uncle have learned the processes through research and trial and error. They also do blind taste tests with the operators of the meadery and microbrewery in the enterprise center to make sure they are satisfied with the products they will sell.

The goal is to grow the business, and so far, Brichta said, County Seat Spirits has been well received.

“We hope that [customers] end up getting a product that they can be proud to drink, proud to support, and that also tastes better than what they’re drinking now.”

Photos by Christa Neu

Video by Stephanie Veto