The road from beer-to-rum runs through Salem
Just outside historic Salem’s heavily touristed downtown, a red lamp illuminates a doorway on a side street straddling industrial Canal Street and the residential Lower Lafayette neighborhood.
Those who know step inside to find the Speakeasy Lab at Deacon Giles Distillery. A giant gleaming ‘still’ is just ahead (that’s the distillery) and to the left, an inviting wooden bar serves cocktails featuring the “damn righteous spirits” made on site (that’s the lab).
You’ve probably seen their distinctive tall, rectangular bottles at bars and restaurants from Amesbury to Provincetown. They feature engravings from a 19th century temperance tract which tells the story of impious Salem deacon, Amos Giles, who hired demons to run his distillery after his regular employees quit over having to work on the Sabbath. (Though many get confused, Deacon Giles is no relation to Giles Corey, who was — yikes — pressed to death during Salem’s infamous witch trials.)
Since opening in October 2015, cofounders Jesse Brenneman and Ian Hunter, who met while working at Harpoon Brewery in Boston, have expanded their initial offerings of a botanical gin and a white rum to include vodka, spiced rum, and amber rum, in addition to numerous limited edition and barrel-aged releases.
With these limited releases, they try to explore lesser-known spirits and styles that feature seasonal ingredients or collaborations with local producers. At the moment, they’re developing an apple cider cordial with Salem’s Far From the Tree cidery and are hunting for a local producer of beach plums for their own take on sloe gin.
Recently they released a more traditional London Dry gin, as they say their original gin is far and away their most popular spirit.
At tastings, they often hear, “I don’t drink gin, but I like this,” which is testament to the time they took developing a botanical forward spirit that would appeal especially to folks who might not think they like gin.
Bartenders across the region are discovering Deacon Giles’s gin is especially great for cocktails too, and some of the most creative of those creations are on the menu at the Speakeasy Lab. The menu changes regularly and selections are often contributed by local celebrities or inspired by local haunts.
On a recent visit I tried the 131 Essex ($11), named after the address of Salem’s Brew Box café. It featured spiced, rum, pineapple, lime, and most tantalizingly coffee foam. You can always order a Sin and Tonic or Deacon Stormy (both $9), too, and pickles from Salem’s Maitland Farms ($5) are available if you need a nosh.
While there’s no beer, wine, or spirits other than Deacon Giles’s own, they do have a section of non-alcoholic Temperance drinks ($7), like the Fauxjito Berry Smash made with seasonal fruit, mint, lime, and a splash of soda water, and they try to schedule at least one special event a week.
These events are often feature a pop-up restaurant like Jaju pierogi or Bonchon Korean fried chicken, but they’re increasingly experimenting with more experimental fare, too. Liquid Lectures (think drunken PowerPoint presentations), burlesques, and a gong-style variety show are all currently on the calendar.
But even if there’s not a special event going on, I like to stop in for a game of sjoelen, the Dutch tabletop shuffleboard game I hadn’t seen since I spent a New Year’s in rural Holland.
Despite their continued growth and expansion, Brenneman and Hunter say they still haven’t maxed out their production capacity, so be on the lookout for much more from this creative duo.
Jonathan Kozowyk is a commercial photographer based in Boston and New York.
▶︎ Deacon Giles Distillery and the Speakeasy Lab, 75 Canal Street, Salem. (978) 306 6675. Speakeasy Lab hours: Thur: 5-9 pm, Frid: 2-10 pm, Sat: 12-11, Sun: 12-8. Formal tastings and tours of the distillery are offered Saturday and Sunday at 1pm and 3pm. No reservation necessary. $5/per person. For more information, visit the website.