By Stephanie Kalina-Metzger
Barrel 21's Erica Unruh is disrupting the distilling world with her attention-grabbing spirits.
Erica Unruh’s circuitous route to becoming Centre County’s first female distiller could be described as a “happy (Valley) accident.”
Unruh was born and raised in Northern California where her family enjoyed homebrewing. It was a hobby that appealed to her, and when she became an adult, she began trying her hand at it too. When her family later planned to open a distillery in Wyoming using the grains they were growing, Unruh decided to join them there, after learning more about the craft.
She enrolled in a course at Moonshine University in Kentucky. “The course was an overview of the distillation process and understanding different kinds of grains and how to make different products,” Unruh said, adding that the family kept a test still at their Wyoming distillery where Unruh could experiment and use her creativity, which paid off in the form of a bronze medal at the American Craft Spirits Awards for her Pine Bluffs Distillery Rock Ranch Vodka. “I compare distilling to cooking, which I enjoy also. I like taking simple grains and turning them into these amazing products like bourbon, whisky, and vodka,” she said. But Unruh shifted gears when a Penn State recruiter called her with a job opportunity.
I love this area, from the people, to the landscape that is similar to Northern California. It’s family-friendly and we love hiking and being outside.
“A supervisor from a previous job in California recommended me for a position at the University,” Unrush said. She worked in the Department of Campus Recreation for two years when she heard that Barrel 21 at 2255 N. Atherton Street needed a distiller. “This was in September, 2021 and their distiller was going to Boalsburg to be a brewer there,” she said, adding that she sorely missed distilling. “For me, it was perfect timing,” she said.
Working at Barrel 21 has been a blast, according to Unruh. “They are very supportive of my ideas and allow me creative control,” she said. This creative control has led to interesting spirits like pickle vodka, which pairs well with Bloody Marys, and jalapeno vodka, which lends a nice kick to Moscow Mules. And just last week, Barrel 21 released an agave spirit. “I am not aware of any distillers in Pennsylvania who are doing that,” she said.
If there’s one challenge that a female faces in a male-dominated industry, it’s mostly that of perception, according to Unruh. “I could be in the tasting room attached to our distillery sharing the details of how various spirits are made and a male walks in and the next thing you know, they are asking if he’s the distiller,” said Unruh. The mistaken identity may be a thing of the past after she appears on the Discovery Channel.
Unruh is carving out her own distinct niche in a male-dominated industry, right here in Happy Valley.
Being a female in a male-dominated industry does have its benefits, however.
When Unruh first got a Facebook message from Moonshiners saying that the show was looking for female recruiters, she thought it was spam. But curiosity got the best of her and she began googling and discovered that the message was, in fact, legit. She wrote back and agreed to a phone interview, which was followed by a Zoom audition and finally an opportunity to appear on a spiced rum episode to demonstrate her ability in front of a panel of judges.
It was an incredible, albeit challenging, experience to be put on the spot in front of the judges and a ton of cameras and compete against actual moonshiners.
“It was an incredible, albeit challenging, experience to be put on the spot in front of the judges and a ton of cameras and compete against actual moonshiners,” Unruh said, adding that the contestants were used to building their own stills and running them in smaller quantities, whereas Unruh is used to working with 500 gallons at a time.
To complete the moonshine aspect, Unruh and the contestants mashed outside in the woods. “That was definitely unique compared to what I’m used to and appealed to my naturally competitive side, especially when it came to the limited amount of time we had to complete the tasks, knowing that one person was going to be eliminated at each challenge,” she said. Unruh wasn’t given a specific run date for the episode.
The once-in-a-lifetime experience was something that Unruh said she will savor for years to come, and the fact that she’s making a name for herself in Happy Valley is just icing on the cake. “I love this area, from the people, to the landscape that is similar to Northern California. It’s family-friendly and we love hiking and being outside. My four-year-old daughter Josephine loves it here too. Plus, my husband works as a brewer at New Trail, so we’re both working in the beverage industry in jobs we love,” she said.