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One oft-forgotten legacy of American pharmacies is their role in distributing alcohol during the prohibition era through prescriptions — the only way to get alcohol legally at the time.
Full-time pharmacists Pat and Beth Downing are now carrying on the tradition in a new way — by brewing an award-winning array of spirits at GlenPharmer Distillery in Franklin.
Between GlenPharmer’s dangerously delicious cranberry vodka, its original take on ghost pepper vodka, and its crowd-pleasing espresso vodka, this distillery’s flavored offerings will shake things up if you’re sick of plain old New Amsterdam.
Of course, the distillery also makes unflavored vodka, gin, tequila, and rum, for those simply looking for spirits of a higher quality than your average Smirnoff or Jack Daniels.
The distillery is the fruit of hard labor by the Downings, who met while studying in the same pharmacy program at Purdue University. They later married before moving back to Pat’s home state of Massachusetts to start a pharmacy in the Berkshires.
The idea for the distillery came to Pat in 2007 when he had his first American single malt whiskey. A whiskey lover, he felt that if he was going to make spirits, he wanted to make something he would drink.
“That was when it kind of hit me — you don’t have to be from Ireland or Scotland to make [single malt] whiskey,” he said.
Over the years, Beth and Pat kept discussing the idea of opening a distillery. Having now moved to Franklin, they decided that if they were ever to open one, they wanted to do it inside the old textile mill on West Central Street.
A gorgeous stone building with a 1929 Ford Model A 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 class at Moonshine University, which is, in fact, 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 on the market, and Pat and Beth wondered if it was a sign.
In October 2018, the couple made an offer on the textile mill, and that’s when they encountered the first of many hurdles they faced before they could open.
Between permitting issues, legal battles over their business name, and struggles turning a mill building into a distillery, the first two years of GlenPharmer Distillery’s existence were troublesome.
But even after those problems were sorted, there was the challenge of trying to open a business during the pandemic.
“We were literally getting ready to open the end of March of 2020 and had just gotten ready to have our staff come on board, and then everything shut down,” 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.
Despite never intending to serve takeout, GlenPharmer reconfigured its menu to open its restaurant and help pay the bills in May 2020.
Throughout their first year, Patrick and Beth had to keep adapting to new situations, but they persevered, and the distillery is now fully open as a restaurant, spirits tasting room, and event space.
Walking in the entrance, one quickly notices the stunning antiquity of the stone walls and wooden rafters, as well as the warm, candle-like lighting. The décor is a chic, modern take on what one might imagine an 1800s distillery looked like.
To the left is the restaurant, which serves new American cuisine. It’s headed by Executive Chef Eric Zediker, who meticulously crafts a creative, seasonally rotating menu.
Some highlights from the menu include the “Pharmer” flatbread, made with bacon-onion compote, mozzarella, arugula, shaved parmesan, and white truffle oil; the skillet chicken with marble potato, duck fat tomato, broccolini, cumin seed orange marmalade, and compound butter; and the New York strip steak with confit potato coins, parmesan rosemary aioli, petite salad, and house steak drizzle.
GlenPharmer’s restaurant also has tasty cocktails made with their own spirits. The bar offers both classic cocktails with a GlenPharmer twist, as well as several tasty original creations.
Some highlights include the Heat of Passion, which is made with ghost pepper vodka, passionfruit, agave, 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.
While drinking straight spirits may sound intimidating to some, GlenPharmer’s spirits are surprisingly smooth and drinkable even on their own.
“We have a basic rule from a distilling 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 a smoother finish than your average vodka.
Another top shelf spirit is their GlenQuila, which is essentially a tequila reposado. It is made with agave imported from Mexico, and has a lighter, slightly peppery taste which earned it a double gold medal at the New York World Spirits Competition in the fall of 2021.
GlenPharmer also makes rum, one of which is called Dark Tide Rum. It is named after the famed North End molasses flood of 1919 that killed 21 people and injured 150 others.
The distillery’s spiced rum is made with nine spices, including cinnamon, allspice, and clove. Finished off with madagascar vanilla, it has won double gold at two different spirits competitions.
Perhaps the most Massachusetts of GlenPhamer’s spirits is their cranberry-flavored vodka, which is fittingly called Bog. It’s made with cranberries from Decas Farm in Carver, and is their most popular spirit with good reason. It’s sweet but not syrupy, tart but not puckering, and is so smooth it’s easily drunk without a mixer.
The Downings expect their espresso-flavored vodka called Bean to soon steal the most-popular crown from Bog.
Inspired by the Italian dessert affogato, which is vanilla gelato with espresso poured on 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 zest, elderflower, lavender, coriander, and forged eastern white pine needles.
Finally, GlenPharmer’s most award-winning spirit is their ghost pepper vodka called Bhut, which means “ghost” in Hindi. This flavored vodka is unique because it captures not just the spiciness from the ghost pepper, but also the sweet pepper flavor.
Bhut, which was previously named Ghost, has been awarded double gold at two different spirits competitions, as well as overall winner in the category of flavored vodkas.
GlenPharmer is in the process of distilling rye, American single-malt, and bourbon whiskey, but they don’t have any batches to sell yet.
In the meantime, for $7,000, GlenPharmer will distill your own personalized whiskey barrel, which amounts to about 300 bottles at $25 a bottle. They will distill it for as long as you like, and have you come in every six months for a taste to help you decide when to have it bottled.
You can also host an event at GlenPharmer at their speakeasy-themed event space called Proof, which makes up the upper floor of the old mill. The rustic-chic space has a full bar, as well as couches, tables, and huge windows that let in lots of natural light.
You can find GlenPharmer’s spirits in 75 package stores around New England, but there is 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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