Liquid spirits taking root in battlefield

SPECIAL SPIRITS - From left, Yianni and George Barakos stand among equipment at their Mason Dixon Distillery, which is slated to open during the new year's first quarter at 331 E. Water St., Gettysburg. (Jim Hale/Gettysburg Times)

When Yianni Barakos says he's putting down roots in Gettysburg, he means it literally.

Even before he lined up a location for the brand-new Mason Dixon Distillery nearing completion at Fourth and Water streets, he took the big risk of acquiring a rarely available agricultural lease inside the Gettysburg National Military Park, and hired a local farmer to plant rye and corn.

Now, Yianni and his father, veteran restaurateur and baker George Barakos, are only weeks away from opening the craft distillery works and restaurant, where customers will be able to purchase battlefield-born spirits by the glass or bottle while enjoying small plates of thoughtfully prepared cuisine and participating in a carefully curated social atmosphere.

Because Gettysburg's hallowed ground is deeply meaningful to so many people, Yianni said he hopes his spirits, distilled onsite, will offer "a unique, affordable way to take home a bit of the battlefield. I don't know of anybody in the country doing anything like it."

By the end of 2016's first quarter, Yianni said, the goal is to open the business's doors in a century-old former furniture factory amid the Spectra-kote paper-coating factory complex at 331 E. Water St. Painstaking restoration has been underway for months at the site, where plans call for about 80 seats and a building capacity of about 120 people, Yianni said.

But food and drink alone, no matter how excellent, don't make a successful restaurant. That's why Yianni said he has been thinking carefully about how to achieve a truly "social atmosphere" that encourages conversation among strangers. He said he imagines the "everyman" vibe of the long counter in a diner, where "fish-tale telling" is the norm.

Some seating will be around a large common table. With "strangers sitting next to strangers," Yianni said, "some of the best storytelling in the county can happen right there at that table," he said.

To avoid any "distraction" from the art of conversation, Yianni said there will be no televisions, and sly signage will ask patrons to keep their phones in their pockets.

And to encourage groups to mingle, Yianni said he has decided that people will have to get up from their tables and order at the long wooden bar that craftsmen have created. "If you get up and move around, it's going to jump-start conversation," he said.

The surroundings also have to be visually congenial, Yianni said.

"It's easy to ruin a space," Yianni said, explaining why he and a team of dedicated artisans have taken special care restore the former furniture factory with an eye toward honoring those who labored there and those who built the structure.

The ceiling was power-washed and the walls sand-blasted to showcase the builders' craftsmanship, Yianni said, and he has been exacting in his choice of paint colors and other features. For example, some of the factory's original circular sawblades will be on display, and the lighting fixtures are period-correct, faithful to what might have been found in an industrial space in the early 20th century. No detail is too small, Yianni said, pointing to his acquisition of black walnut lumber that had long been in storage in the Hanover area. He turned the wood over Newberry Millwork in Aspers for transformation into boards to be used for interior trim.

"I'm impressed with what we gotten done in this time-frame," Yianni said recently. All the contractors involved have gone "above and beyond," he said. "Everybody is enthusiastic" and the skilled craft personnel have provided important input about how the space looks and feels, Yianni said.

Yianni expressed gratitude to Spectra-kote President Charlie Propst, who died in August, for encouraging and facilitating the new business.

"I still remain thankful for the opportunity," Yianni said.

If setting is important for conversation, it's even more important to distilling fine spirits, Yianni said.

Just as climate and soil lend "terroir" to fine wines, he said the same factors produce spirits with flavors unique to where they were made.

Though he had absolutely no background in farming, Yianni said the availability of a battlefield lease was "too unique and too important an opportunity to pass up." Of course, prior to securing a location, he also had no storage space for the grain. That has been rectified with a pair of huge metal storage bins beside the distillery building and an automated grain-handling system inside.

Compared to the efforts that went into obtaining the lease and growing crops on the battlefield, it would be much cheaper simply to purchase the grain, Yianni said.

"Farming is expensive and risky. You never know what Mother Nature is going to give you," Yianni said.

However, he said he has a strong colleague in farmer John Ramsburg, who holds an agronomy degree from Penn State. The Hartlaub family was involved in combining the field, Yianni said. Planting included 30 acres of rye and seven acres of corn.

The farming was conducted using "no-till" methods that reduce disturbance of the soil. "Trying to bring health back to the land was a priority for me," Yianni said, noting that rye puts down deep roots. Unlike traditional plowing, Yianni said, no-till is a way of "putting organic material back in the ground." Lime was placed on the soil to correct its acidity level, Yianni said.

"We are honored to have been granted an agricultural lease on Gettysburg National Military Park that we started farming in late 2013," says the Mason Dixon Distillery Facebook page. "It is a huge privilege, we recognize the incredible sacrifice that was made here by those that came long before us, and we are investing large amounts of time to restore the health of the land."

Rye and corn were harvested this year, and rye was planted in the fall for harvest next spring, Yianni said.

Adherents of eating locally grown food often use the phrase "farm to table." Similarly, Yianni talks about "grain to glass."

"It's great to be able to shake hands with the farmer," he said.

The battlefield-grown grains are being prepared at Double Eagle Malt near Philadelphia, Yianni said. Malting occurs as grain is soaked to induce germination which is then halted by drying, a process that Yianni said spurs the development of enzymes needed to turn starches into sugars.

Another example of the distillery's environmental approach is that spent mash will be used as a feed source by a local farmer, meaning it won't go down the drain, Yianni said.

An impressive array of gleaming distillation equipment is in place onsite at Mason Dixon. A few small test batches have been run, filling some five-gallon buckets. "We're doing a lot of experimenting," Yianni said. Varying yeasts, temperatures, and other factors all affect the final product.

Plans are to produce "white spirits" such as rum at the beginning, and then to move on to "brown spirits" such as whiskey.

There is plenty of science involved, Yianni said.

The distilling process amounts to collecting ethanol fumes as they boil away from the fermented plant material, Yianni said, noting that the alcohol boils at 175 degrees, leaving behind water, because it doesn't boil unless the temperature hits 212. The still collects and condenses the alcoholic fumes and chemically purifies them by bringing them into contact with copper. The resulting liquid is finished by adding water or other ingredients and aging in various ways, including in barrels that lend color and flavor to whiskey.

After a nearly endless regulatory process, the distillery is licensed at the state and federal level, Yianni said. Only one hoop remains to be jumped through. Believe it or not, he said, the feds must approve the specific designs of labels to be placed on bottles. Once the bottles are for sale, he noted wryly, Mason-Dixon "will be the only liquor store in the borough."

The naming of the products will "pay homage" to the furniture factory and its workers, Yianni said.

"Growing up, I used to tell everybody I wanted to be a rocket scientist," Yianni said, and now things have "come full circle, because I'm making rocket fuel."

The seeds of the current venture were already germinating during Yianni's childhood.

His maternal grandfather, who grew up in the mountains of Greece, told Yianni of traveling from village to village to repair and maintain copper pots and pans. That hands-on spirit remains in Yianni's blood and is directly applicable to his work with stills and other equipment of the distiller's art. "I've always been a tinkerer" who loves to take things apart and put them back together, he said.

His grandfather also told him about tsipouro, the Greek liquor made from crushed grapes left over from winemaking, and gave Yianni a drawing of the distilling equipment used to create the traditional beverage. Yianni translated the drawing into reality at age 11, and while he could not drink the result, his relatives told him it was just like what they remembered. When he learned it was illegal to distill at his age, he quit, but he had learned something basic about himself: he loved "to share with people what I've done and see their reaction."

The restaurant business also runs in Yianni's blood. His father, George Barakos, retired a year and a half ago after running and owning restaurants for decades. His restaurants included the Silk City Diner, Johnny's Bar and Steakhouse, and the Kyma Seafood Grill, all near Denver, Pa. George has come out of retirement to invest in Mason-Dixon and to run its kitchen, bringing his long experience and special expertise in baking and desserts to the project. Yianni's grandfather was also a restaurateur.

The combination of distilling and hospitality seemed a natural career path, one that became feasible six years ago, when Pennsylvania created a craft distilling license modeled on the craft brewing license that has revived beermaking in the Keystone State. A period of recovery after a car accident gave Yianni time to think through the details. One first step toward mastering the art and technology was an intensive hands-on internship that Yianni completed with this father at Smooth Ambler Spirits in West Virginia.

The choice of Gettysburg was natural too. Yianni was born in Hanover and lived there the first year of his life. The family moved to York, but he often visited Gettysburg and its environs. It wasn't long before he felt part of the community. As the new business has moved forward, he said, "I found help and welcome in town. It feels like home pretty quickly," he said, "and that's not something you find everywhere," which is one reason Yianni is "committed to Gettysburg."

"It's very fulfilling" to have his son as a partner, George said, though he noted that Yianni will be the boss.

Yianni, on the other hand, deferred to his father as the master of the kitchen. Without George, Yianni said he wasn't sure there would be a kitchen at all.The distillery's website is www.masondixondistillery.com.

Tags

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.