A lawyer and a former air traffic controller from West Chester, Pennsylvania are probably not the obvious candidates who come to mind for starting a craft distillery. Yet those are exactly the backgrounds of Lehigh alumnus Anthony Brichta,’04, and his uncle John Rowe, founders of County Seat Spirits.
The two set out to create the distillery at the end of 2012, after Brichta was inspired during a birthday party for an old Lehigh friend.
“I got the idea for the distillery actually through another Lehigh connection,” Brichta said. “A good friend of mine from Lehigh that was in my freshman dorm, and then became one of my best friends, was in Brooklyn and he had a birthday party and we visited a distillery there. We basically took a tour and saw their operations and I thought it was pretty interesting and something I could do.”
Rowe said he retired from his job as an air traffic controller when he was 56 years old.
“You know that’s a little early to stop working,” Rowe said. “I wanted to do something interesting and was thinking about this, cause you know I have always been interested in distillation. (Brichta is) my nephew. I was thinking about this and he was thinking the same thing. We got together and decided let’s give it a shot.”
Upon researching how to start the newly-inspired business idea, Brichta again found a stroke of luck through another Lehigh alumnus who helped them find an appropriate headquarters. The company is now based in the Bridgeworks Enterprise Center, which is a small business incubator in Allentown. One of the other companies housed at Bridgeworks is The Colony Meadery, which is run by Lehigh MBA alumnus Greg Heller-Labelle.
After applying to Bridgeworks last spring, County Seat Spirits was accepted into the program in June. Additionally, the company received a state license and federal permit in October 2014.
Since then, the headquarters has been fully equipped and installed with equipment, and distillation began in December. Formally, the company operates as a limited distillery.
“The way our license works is we’re operating as what’s called a limited distillery,” Brichta said. “And what that allows us to do is it allows us to produce up to 100,000 gallons of alcohol per year to cap.”
In terms of the distillery’s operations, Brichta said they’re functioning fully. Rowe roughly estimated that the distillery could produce about 60 gallons, or 480 bottles, a week.
However, County Seat Spirits has only been open about two weeks. Since its opening, the company has been offering free tours and tastings from noon to 5 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. The two products available are rum and vodka, with bourbon in the pipeline.
“What’s going to be our main product is bourbon,” Brichta said.
All the product names are of local and historical significance. For instance, “Hidden Copper” is one bottle named for the story of the Liberty Bell. The bell was hidden so the British couldn’t capture it, otherwise it may have been melted down for ammunition. Their vodka is named “Class Eight,” because the incubator building they now reside in was a former Mack truck factory.
Brichta said the company takes the raw materials of grain and fully produces the finished product to a glass bottle, making it a business that truly manufactures its full product.
“Its pretty unique in that you can walk into one room in Allentown and see exactly every step that takes grain from whiskey, or grain to vodka, or sugar to rum,” Brichta said.
As for the company’s growth, Brichta and Rowe are hoping to add production and sales staff in the next year. For now, the company will need to be frugal and resourceful, as it has been mostly funded by themselves. The company also received a small loan from the Allentown Economic Development Corporation.
“I thought Lehigh did a great job preparing me for both being a lawyer, but also for starting a business,” Brichta said. “Lehigh’s a school that teaches you how to be responsible, teaches you how to work hard but also enjoy your life. I think there’s not a shortage of entrepreneurs that have come out of Lehigh, because the school does a great job of fostering that attitude that you’ve got to work hard and look for what you really want to do, and you can make it happen if you do work hard.”
Aside from what Brichta learned while pursuing his education at Lehigh, his relationship with the university still continues today.
“The university has also been tremendously supportive,” he said. “We’re working with the (Integrated Business and Engineering) program at Lehigh. We just got started with them, but I can already tell they’re all a lot smarter than me in a lot more technical sense, and I think they’re going to be tremendously helpful.”
The program team is said to be looking into increasing efficiency and production methods, helping plan as a business for the future, for their capstone project.
“The distillery was by far the most popular choice (among students for the IBE project),” said Robert Storer, ’16, a member of the IBE team assisting County Seat Spirits. “Right now, we’re working on just learning as much as we can about the industry, so that when we actually start working with (Brichta) on fixing one of his many problems or finding solutions so we know what we’re talking about.”
Storer said the team would be attending a convention held by the American Institute of Craft Distillers in Louisville in March to learn more about micro-distilleries.
“Instead of sending them in any kind of direction we thought we’d just let them run and see what they come up with,” said Rowe. “See if they come up with something we haven’t thought of.”
County Seat Spirits is currently planning a formal grand opening with a ribbon cutting April 10 at their facility and releasing a new gin product.