Still ExperimentingFeb 01, 2023 09:00AM ● By Maggie Barnes
Jennifer and Sam Keir wanted to start a new family business. They had land, a family farm in fact. And they knew how to grow things. They undertook raising hemp on generational acreage in Warren Center in Bradford County and distilling it for the profitable CBD oil. But the idea was harder to execute than they expected.
“The regulations around it were massive,” Jennifer says. “It got frustrating pretty quickly.”
They abandoned the project, leaving them with a pile of exasperation and a homemade still.
“What else can you do with a still?” Sam shrugs, recalling the conversation the couple had. “We could try making alcohol.” Did they know anything about making booze? Nope. But Jennifer is a born researcher who works in healthcare administration full time, and she started digging.
That Plan B is now the Keir Family Distillery, the only distillery in Bradford County, on Painter Road in the midst of family land. Vodka, whiskey, bourbon, and a menu of liqueurs were the initial creations, written on a slate board above a handmade bar top, illuminated by pendant lights attached to cattle yokes. Fitting, since the building is an actual barn, a fact that the owners have embraced. The space doesn’t try to be anything other than what it is, leading to a truly authentic experience. There are handsome stools and a few tables, all built to fit the rustic decor.
The second wave of still experimenting added ginger jalapeño vodka and rye whiskey. The holiday season included peppermint liqueur. You can do flights to taste a few at a time, or try one of the cocktails Jennifer has invented. She distills ten gallons at a time and is familiar with every drop.
Have a Mildred’s Betty Boop, which involves swirls of orange and lemon liqueurs together with lime and cranberry juices. (It practically counts as vitamin C!) Try a Shotgun Joe, a tangy bourbon mixed with lime juice and brown sugar that warms nearly as well as the cheerful company. There is a wood-fired whiskey with bitters and simple syrup called an Angry Billy. Billy must not have stayed long enough—being angry here would be a real challenge. The trial and error mixology goes on, so expect more creations in the future.
If you aren’t paying attention, you could blow right by the business, and it would be a shame to miss it. There is just one small sign, so you have to pay attention. The place has a vibe to it that is hard to describe. You feel like you’ve come to visit family, and they’ve brought out some bottles with a genial “What do you think of this?” approach.
The space is long and narrow and seems to have been invented to define the word “cozy.” Customers include local residents and visitors on casual tours of the region. There is chatting between friends and strangers (just friends you haven’t met yet, right?), while the popcorn machine chirps along, and the crockpot bubbles with meatballs or whatever Jennifer tossed together. Food offerings are simple, but substantial. Chicken salad sandwiches, cheesy breadsticks, soft pretzels, and a charcuterie board. (You can even buy the board.) It makes for the perfect nosh to complement the beverages. The opposite wall features vintage newspapers that were found when the barn was gently renovated, including scenes everyone agrees are in tribute to the local Camptown Races that inspired the long-ago Stephen Foster song. Family photos show the Keir tribe through the decades.
Jennifer and Sam wanted more than just a place to sit and sip. They offer gatherings for trivia contests, classes on craft cocktails, chocolate and wreath making, and parties for most holidays. Halloween brought a costume contest and a piñata suspended from the hay loft, enthusiastically whacked with a metal pole to spring the goodies. Their philosophy is not based solely on making alcohol, but on creating community and fostering friendships.
This branch of the farm family is the third generation of Keirs to build their life on these 300-plus acres. Family has helped out with the distillery, including Jennifer’s dad making much of the furniture, and others lending a hand during busy times. Their son and his guitar sits in with a variety of regional bands. Open only weekends, there is live music every Saturday in the other side of the barn, with musicians on a makeshift stage in front of the back wall of the barn—missing boards and all. A couple of couches and a small bar allow for some serious relaxing.
The young couple wear the slightly shocked expressions that come with a greater-success-than-you-hoped-for in the first year of any enterprise.
“Four hundred people for the grand opening in June,” Jennifer says with a disbelieving smile. “Rows and rows of 4x4s and side-by-sides across the field. We had a tent and sold out of nearly everything. It was crazy.”
Just before the turn of the year, they sold their one thousandth bottle, well ahead of schedule. “We are so appreciative of all the support we have received,” she says.
They produce a fine product with a sincerity you don’t find much anymore, and they are gracious and welcoming to all who cross their door. If they weren’t succeeding, that would be a shock.
The Keir Family Distillery, 469 Painter Road, Warren Center, is open Friday 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday 2 p.m. to 10 p.m., and Sunday noon to 4 p.m. There is a small field for parking on the other side of the road. Follow them on Facebook to know the latest news, call (570) 250-3580, or visit kfdistillery.com.