Cokeburg native launches Washington’s first legal distillery since Prohibition

Rick Shrum
Observer Reporter

The first legal distillery in Washington County since Prohibition is a source of grape expectations.

Displaying an early aptitude for science, Ed Belfoure was 10 when he started making wine in his Cokeburg home. “I still do it as an amateur,” he said last week, a half-century afterward.

Now he has developed a spirit for spirits.

Belfoure is founder and president of Red Pump Spirits, producer of liqueurs, vodka and – soon – rye whiskey and wheat whiskey in downtown Washington. It opened for business April 1 at 32 N. Main St., the county’s first legitimate distillery since the 18th Amendment in 1920 outlawed production, importation, transportation and sale of alcoholic beverages nationwide. (Prohibition was repealed in 1933).

Distinguished by a red pump in the front window, a landmark at Belfoure’s childhood residence, Red Pump Spirits is only a retail operation at this point. Belfoure has bottles of liqueurs and vodka for sale on a table near the entrance, and offers tastings for a price. He also is selling those to restaurants.

“We still have to do some building modifications to be a distillery. We should be fully operational by the end of May,” said Belfoure, who will produce his wares on three kettles in the back of a building Red Pump shares with the Postal Service. Mark Logston is the landlord.

Even though he does not have either variety of whiskey yet, Belfoure said they will be available during the city’s annual Whiskey Rebellion Festival July 7-10.

Finally, locally made whiskey for the festival.

His distillery won’t be the only provider. Spouses Jim and Ellen Hough, who are preparing Mingo Creek Craft Distillers for launch on West Maiden Street in Washington, also plan to have that spirit ready for the summer celebration.

Red Pump’s liqueurs are colorful and colorfully named – Jefferson Peach, Washington Cherry, Bradford Blackberry. The brand names are nods to Washington & Jefferson College and the David Bradford House.

Belfoure can draw on his experiences as a 10-year-old when he produces his liqueurs. “You essentially follow the wine-making process,” he said.

Whiskey is different. “I never made it until about a year ago, when I put the details together,” said Belfoure, a South Strabane resident being assisted by his wife, Judy.

The permitting process for making whiskey, he explained, is time-consuming and strict. They are federal requirements for the most part.

“It’s about a 10-month process where you can’t make whiskey,” Belfoure said. “Making distilled spirits is not a hobby, like making wine or beer. It’s illegal to make it at home without a permit.”

When fully permitted, whiskey then must be produced and aged in a barrel. Belfoure said he got permits to do both last fall and that a batch of Rebellion Rye Whiskey is just about ready, with Farmhouse Whiskey – the wheat – coming later.

Then, following further regulations, bottled whiskey can be no more than 80 proof – 40 percent alcohol.

Even the labeling is tightly regulated. Belfoure commissioned a drawing of his childhood home for the Farmhouse Whiskey label, then had to get a federal thumb’s up for it.

A 40-minute conversation with Belfoure reveals that the guy on the Dos Equis commercials may not be The Most Interesting Man in the World. Washington’s new distiller has quite a history.

He grew up in Cokeburg an only child with his mother, Josephine, his maternal grandparents and his grandfather’s wine crusher and press. Belfoure said his residence, at the time, was the only non-company house in the borough – and even though it was not on a farm, locals christened it The Farmhouse. It is believed to have been built in 1786.

He graduated from Bentworth High School and W&J; was a Marine for six years, including a stretch in Vietnam; worked in the plastics division of General Electric; helped Judy raise three sons and a daughter; and found time to earn a PhD in chemistry. Belfoure, who declined to provide his age, also taught chemistry at the Naval Academy before retiring.

Now he is working again, inside a three-room space that is in the final stages of remodeling.

The immediate front features the red pump his mother wanted him to take when he sold the house. Liqueurs and vodka sit on a table to the left, below a large United States flag. A devoted Marine, Belfoure plans to place a corps poster to the right and left of the Stars and Stripes.

A replica of the Whiskey Rebellion flag hangs above the entry to the middle room, which will be furnished and available for events. One wall will be adorned by wide-angle shot of W&J’s campus at night, from a Main Street rooftop. The photo was donated by Logston, owner of the former Watermark Gallery across the street – now New Hope City Center.

The kettles, of course, are in the back room.

In addition to selling his wares in the shop or to restaurants, Belfoure plans to have tastings and tours on Saturdays for groups up to 15, with proceeds benefiting area charities. Greater Washington County Food Bank, he said, would be the first recipient and “probably” the military second.

“I’ll be open to suggestions on donations,” Belfoure said.

Red Pump’s hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday.

Belfoure is pleased to be open. Pleased to have launched that long-missing distillery.

“It has been a tedious process, but we’re quite proud of this.”