One of the first times that Jordan Young and Andrew Martin discussed opening what would eventually become Thistle Finch Distillery, Young had a simple question for Martin - what exactly do you know about whiskey?
Martin's answer? "I like to drink it."
Two years later, Thistle Finch opened its doors, and now five years after that, Martin and Young are celebrating a half decade of quality drink-making in downtown Lancaster. On Sunday, Dec. 23, Thistle Finch holds its anniversary party featuring special cocktails, giveaways and live music from distillery mainstays Dillweed. We spoke with Young, who serves as head mixologist, about Thistle Finch's evolution and memorable moments from the past five years.
1. How do you feel about the fifth anniversary?
Jordan Young: It feels really fast and really long at the same time [laughs]. When Andrew said he was going to start this place seven years ago, he didn’t have this building. I was just one of his many high school buddies that said, “Sure you will.” And then at some point, I got roped into volunteering and here we are. For the anniversary, I’m going to bring back a bunch of different drinks we’ve had over the years. I was looking back, and our original bar had one chalkboard with four drinks on it, and they were the simplest, tiniest drinks. I even found our first glasses, which were completely the wrong size for any kind of cocktail. They were just like, random juice glasses. We didn’t know what we were doing at all.
2. How much experience did you have in distilling before you started here?
JY: Zero. Andrew, too. We are very much a story of, “I think we can teach ourselves how to do that.” Including renovating the building ourselves, with the help of some friends. We built the still assuming we knew how to weld better than we actually did. No experience in distilling, not even really brewing, I just liked it and wanted to come back to Lancaster. I remember one of the first things he said to me was, “It would be a cool thing for Lancaster to have.” Six, seven years ago, there wasn’t as much going on in Lancaster as there is now. So much has changed in those years.
3. Is there anything in that learning process in particular that you’re especially proud of?
JY: Considering how short the timeline from distilling the first batch of whiskey to opening was, I’m amazed how good it was. I mean, our white whiskey won a gold medal at the International Spirit Awards in the first six months we were open. That was a good sign early on, it doesn’t happen very often. I’m proud of when we took the steps to do the gin. We decided to do a harder style of gin where we hand-blend it, and every time we blend it, I sit down with Arvin [Alston], our distiller, and figure out how to keep it natural and local.
4. How, if at all, has your palate changed over the last half decade?
JY: Oh, for sure. Like I said at the beginning, we only had four drinks at the beginning, and they were all white whiskey. In that first year, it was all white whiskey for almost the entire first year, so we had to get creative. Now when I go to bars, I rarely have the same thing twice. All I do is try things. I want to know how you made it, and I can kind of figure it out now, which is definitely different than before.
5. Do you find that when you go to different bars that you have the mindset of, “Oh, I do this too so I’m checking to see how we stack up,” or can you separate that part of your mind?
JY: I struggle to separate it. I think that’s a combo of, not just making things, but in the last few years specifically, I’ve been training people and giving talks on historical liquor. I used to be a teacher when we started, and then we got so busy that I had to stop that. So part of me is always looking to educate. On the nights when I bartend here, people come in and ask me questions all the time, like why an Old-Fashioned is called an Old-Fashioned.
6. Are there certain events that Thistle Finch has hosted over the years that strike you as very memorable?
JY: We worked with Forager Company a few times, and the one time we did a maker’s market. They do those more often now, but we did one of the earlier ones. One that I really enjoyed was when we did an event for refugees a few years ago. It was specifically for a group of artists and artisans from Kenya. When we did that, I researched and created a traditional Kenyan drink. When they came in, they said it tasted like home, and I still remember that. My brother actually married a girl from Kenya after that and moved there, and I tested it on them and they said, “Yep, that’s correct.”
7. Are there drinks that, from when you first started to today, you’re proud of how the trial and error led to how they taste now?
JY: We go batch-to-batch with the whiskeys, and you can see how much better we are at it. We’ve been taking the whiskey out of the barrel the past year or so, and the first couple batches of the straight rye we brought out are from real early in the distilling process, so we’ve changed the ways we’ve made it since then. Our craft got better, it’s not necessarily even just because the product is older or anything. You can tell, “Oh, here’s where we built a new condenser and you can taste that.” Spirits have gotten a lot better, and cocktails, sure. We do so many different techniques, but I like to try to keep it accessible. Like I said before, I like to educate, so I always try to have an old thing to bring back or an odd technique that people might be nervous about. We are definitely a very different bar than we were.
8. Speaking of bars, Wacker Brewing Company is obviously here right across the room. How has your relationship with them evolved over the years?
JY: Wacker hasn’t been here the whole time. When we first opened here, Square One Coffee used to be located here and they roasted their beans right here. For the first two years we were open, there was a rope and just like, pallets of beans. That’s actually where the coffee whiskey first came from. When they’d finish roasting, I’d grab their beans and infuse them in whiskey. We still get it from them. But Wacker’s been with us for a few years now. We’ve both developed, and at some point we’ll outgrow each other. I wouldn’t be shocked if that was next year, because we’re both getting pretty big. We both filled each other’s’ needs at the beginning. When they first moved in, the state laws hadn’t changed yet and legally, I couldn’t sell anything I didn’t make and couldn’t serve food. Brewery laws are almost opposite from distilling laws sometimes. We actually had to get lawyers to convince the state that this was legal, because originally they wanted walls and extra doors outside. We were initially told if a beer was on this side or a drink on that side, there would be a ten grand fine. We had to be real strict, but eventually the ropes came down and we’ve been doing this ever since.
9. For the next five years, are there still certain drinks or styles that you’ve had on your mind that you’d like to try?
JY: Oh yeah. The tough part is that you have to plan so far ahead and wait for things, since there’s just not physical space. There’s a couple things we’ve made on the side that are on our “When we get the time” list, like lemoncello and vermouth. We have the recipes, there’s just no time to make them on the scale we’d need. Certainly in the next five years, we might branch out into something like an Irish-style whiskey. A lot of that stuff has come out of circumstance. We never planned on making a rose and lavender vodka, or a coffee and pepper rye, but there were things that I’d make at the bar that people kept asking for, so we just listened to the people.
10. What can people expect at the fifth anniversary party this weekend?
JY: Every year on our anniversary, even if it’s an odd holiday time, we try to open for a bit. I have special versions of the liquor that I’ve infused for Christmastime. This year, we’re going to have a pink gin which is infused with local cranberries. We’ll have a few things that you can’t try any other day. We’re also going to have a sort of “Greatest hits” drink menu from the last five years based on things that people have been asking for. We’ve got Dillweed playing, who have been playing Wednesday nights here for a while. It’s also the same day that Wacker will be doing their Festivus celebration, so it will be a lot of fun.
The fifth anniversary festivities begin at noon on Sunday, Dec. 23, at Thistle Finch Distillery. Find out more here.