Bellefonte’s Griffin Whiskey brings craft distillation back ‘to an art form’

Dick Griffin, center, and his son Clancy Griffin work on the still, which distills alcohol out of mash. Griffin Whiskey recently moved from Rebersburg to Bellefonte.
Dick Griffin, center, and his son Clancy Griffin work on the still, which distills alcohol out of mash. Griffin Whiskey recently moved from Rebersburg to Bellefonte.

When Dick Griffin was 14 years old, the principal of his Wyoming school gave him “the week off” for running his first business: selling liquor bootlegged from his home. The “first” of his five startups went under before it even got started.

“I don’t remember if I made any money or not,” he said. “I just remember (the principal) was (not pleased).”

More than half a century later, Griffin sold his first bottle of alcohol since that eventful week in ninth grade. This time, he waited until he got licensed.

Griffin, 69, now owns Griffin Whiskey in Bellefonte with two of his children, and has attracted swigs from several local vendors. Kildare’s Irish Pub, The Atherton Hotel, Otto’s Pub and Brewery and Barrel 21 Distillery were some of the company’s first significant customers, Griffin said, with more in the pipeline. Since the distillery received approval for its second label in January, interest grew gradually, with others, such as Red Horse Tavern in town, looking to add the old family recipe behind the bar.

The distillery opened its doors in April and sold its first bottle of whiskey, named Uncle Lum’s for his uncle Columbus, in February. Griffin moved the business from its former 8,000-square-foot building in Rebersburg to its current 2,000-square-foot location at 517 Dell Street in Bellefonte at the beginning of March.

While the new space presents a snugger fit, it also reflects the intimate, more detail-oriented approach the distillery is trying to evoke in each drop, Griffin said.

“Corporate American whiskey is made by hundreds of thousands of gallons,” Griffin said. “Craft whiskey is a return — for people who practice the art like we do — to an art form.”

Craft distilleries have gained popularity over recent years, billed frequently as a more authentic, local product and dovetailing with the entrepreneurial vim and vigor of the late and post-recession years. According to the trade group the Brewers Association, small and independent craft brewers constituted 12 percent of the industry’s market share last year, and brewers produced 24.5 million barrels.

Distilleries are following a similar orbit, with more than 700 small producers operating across the country, according to the American Craft Spirits Association. Like many business owners, those who start craft distilleries are banking on cultural valency foreshadowing an eventual windfall.

In Pennsylvania, there were about 60 licensed distilleries last year. Popularity grew after the state allowed distillers to sell and provide tours at their place of business in 2012.

For Griffin, who retired from his Washington consulting business four years ago, reviving his childhood dream in Pennsylvania seemed like a perfect fit. Two of his children, Clancy and Jaimy, had lived in Centre County since 1989, and were receptive to the idea during a time when “Pennsylvania was aggressively modernizing its laws,” Griffin said. He and his wife were visiting Clancy and Jaimy for Easter when the former adviser to other startups made his pitch.

“The whiskey business is a lot of fun,” Clancy, 38, said. “I’m playing catch-up.”

Clancy, an electrician by trade, did all the wiring for the new location, but didn’t grow up in bootlegging country like his father did. “Uncle Lum” was Dick’s favorite family member, Griffin said, and showed the young Griffin how to clean a whiskey still. He taught Griffin to drive a DeSoto at 30 miles an hour and do a bootleggers’ turn, an about-face without a stop but with more than a few skids. And when Lum, an auto mechanic, was “gone fishing,” he wasn’t quitting his day job.

“His cover was he would ‘go fishing’ anytime somebody said he’d wanted to ‘go fishing,’ ” Griffin said. “But what we were actually doing was we’d go down to the river and work with the bootleggers.”

After Thomas, Griffin’s father, was arrested for bootlegging in 1968, the business line ended there, Griffin said. Lum gave it up, too. At 74, enough was enough.

“I remember he came to Wyoming to go hunting with us one year and I asked him why he gave it up and he said ‘Well, Dickey, you know it’s just embarrassing to be the oldest man in jail,’ ” Griffin said. “So he quit.”

Now Lum’s name graces one of his nephew’s two whiskeys. The other, dubbed Misty Morning, is a white whiskey, a similar spirit but one that hasn’t gone through the same aging process, Griffin said. By last October, the first barrel was made.

The distillery now offers tastings and events. Griffin said he will be in Baltimore next month for a wedding and a benefit is planned for the Bald Eagle Area Future Farmers of America this week.

“I wanted to do this all my life and now I’m doing it,” Griffin said. “Everybody should have a chance to follow their dream.”

Roger Van Scyoc: 814-231-4698, @rogervanscy