Not much good has come of my various encounters with vodka, which mostly spanned my 20s and probably should never be spoken of again.
But on a recent Saturday night, I did my best to suppress those hazy memories and embrace the new face of vodka. That is, craft vodka, or more specifically, Stateside Urbancraft Vodka. It is not, the branding implies, the same foul poison I remember. It comes in a sleek bottle with a swing-top cap and a crisp, white label tattooed with tasteful type. It is blended with electrolytes. It is gluten-free.
"We never set out to launch a health-conscious vodka — the Michelob Ultra of vodka. But a lot of people have taken it that way," said Matt Quigley, 33, who runs Stateside with his brother Brian, 31. "It's an added bonus if you can have a few drinks and you can get … up and go to work the next day."
According to company lore, the brothers started distilling in their parents' basement in Fort Washington. After their father kicked them out, they went legit. Two years ago, they opened their 6,000-square-foot distillery on a corner in North Philadelphia where, at night, ATVs speed down deserted streets lined with squat warehouses and chain-link fence. Last August, they opened the Federal Distilling Room, a cocktail bar specializing in vodka drinks made with Stateside vodka.
Though it's called a distillery, at this complex, the corn-based spirit in fact arrives predistilled from a facility in Missouri, which is where the corn is sourced. "The facility is designed for pure velocity," Matt Quigley said. It fills 10,000 bottles a month. What they do on-site is perform a final distillation step, then blend the spirit with purified Philadelphia tap water, aerate it with medical-grade oxygen, and filter it several ways, using carbon and very cold temperatures. Quigley, a self-taught vodka maker, claims such maneuvers drastically reduce impurities.
Even so, I visited Federal Distilling Room hoping the cocktails would be such that you can't really taste the vodka. That is not the case. The flavor, redolent of all my very worst life choices, was evident even in the Walk of Shame, made with orange liqueur, grapefruit juice, orange bitters, and champagne. The most popular drink is the Cleanse, a spa-water-inspired concoction of cucumber, lemon, and vodka — theoretically, a drink and hangover cure in one. It failed to turn me into a newfound vodka lover.
Still, I would gladly come back and drink a locally made beer in this luminous, white space, which, like the vodka, was handmade by Quigley. It looks DIY, in the best way: Quigley constructed the bar with salvaged wood, and built industrial light fixtures and bar rail out of pipe. A mounted caribou head, purchased via Craigslist, presides over the crowd of twentysomethings and thirtysomethings — spillover from happening Fishtown. Large windows open onto the distillery, which did not appear to be active during my visit, though someone was in there using free weights.
Then there's the elaborate lighting scheme, including the most Edison bulbs I have ever seen in one place. Quigley admits to a fascination with lights.
"On a busy Saturday, we'll turn the bass up and turn the lights down, and it's interesting to see what happens," he said. "By 10 o'clock, people are dancing, and that's my whole goal. Please, just dance in my bar."
Federal Distilling Room
1700 N. Hancock St., 215-425-4200, statesidevodka.com
When to go: Thursdays, when everything is half price. Or go when tours are running: 7 p.m. Fridays; 1, 3, and 5 p.m. Saturdays; and 1 and 3 p.m. Sundays. Otherwise, it's open from 5 to 10 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; noon to 10 p.m. Saturdays; and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays.
Bring: First dates. Celiacs. Anyone who can appreciate vodka sans Red Bull.
What to order: Personally? I'd go with Evil Genius Stacy's Mom IPA ($7). Or, if you like vodka, consider the house martini, the Dirty & Gritty, made with jalapeño-infused Stateside vodka and olive juice ($10). You can also purchase Stateside Urbancraft Vodka bottles to take home ($27.99).
Bathroom situation: A spacious, stylish single-stall affair that was a bit of a wreck by the end of a busy Saturday night.