Movie houses are America’s unsung chambers of the imagination, those darkened escape chutes for hiding from the world under waves of sound, light and altering illusions. They’re rare spots that can tow away the mind and memory. They’re story lairs where dreams push through the bright glow of a projector.
Three years ago, some friends in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, merged that touch of movie magic with a flair for the culinary arts and the pleasures that come with an onsite distillery. Now, when film buffs venture into Zoetropolis Cinema Stillhouse, they’re met with a trifecta of experiences. They can watch waiters carrying vodka-steamed mussels and gin-brined chicken tenders past a gleaming still pot that makes the spirits for those dishes. They can saddle up to the bar to order specialty drinks infused with very silver and oaked rums that are steaming through the site glass of a column on display in the dining room. And they can take dirty martinis and rose gimlets into the building’s modern movie palace, pairing alcohol that’s native to the premise with some cocktail alchemy and the visions of cutting-edge film directors.
This operation Lancaster Distilleries is at the heart of is one that embraces full and fun immersion. It even offers live music, comedy and theatrical productions, to boot.
“So far, we’re the only ones we know of in the world that are doing all of these things in the same space,” said artist and distiller Nate Boring. “It all goes hand-in-hand, and it’s sort of where we’re singular, I believe.”
The name Zoetropolis comes from a combination of zoetrope, a Victorian-era animation machine, and “Metropolis,” the groundbreaking 1927 picture fusing Sci Fi sensibilities with early German expressionism. It’s an appropriate name for the art house theater Boring’s distillery is anchored in. Its screen is dedicated to thought-provoking faire, most nights flickering with documentaries, foreign films and the latest from cinema’s emerging mavericks. That emphasis on signature creativity is what thematically links Zoetropolis’s entertainment to the ambition in Boring’s bottles.
An art teacher by trade, Boring was a home brewer who’d become increasingly fascinated with spirit-making. Meanwhile, his daughter’s longtime friend, Leigh Lindsay, was getting a view into the intricacies of old movie houses as she refurbished several around the country. It was Lindsay who had the concept of bringing a unique indie theater to western Pennsylvania. Eventually, Boring, his wife Cheila Huettner, Lindsay and two other partners settled on creating Zoetropolis within one of Lancaster’s most historic buildings. Yet assembling a distillery inside a 170-year-old structure required a lot of flexibility on Boring’s part. The city’s zoning requirements only allowed him, ultimately, to have 300-square-feet for his still set-up. So, while the theater, bar and restaurant could be spacious, the distillery would be bantam.
“I said, ‘Well, if that’s what I have, I’ll make it work,’” Boring recalled. “The distillery is basically a glass box in the dining room, and the overall operation being about 600-square-feet, when you consider we have a small fermentation room, too.”
Smiling, he added, “We also have a fermentation tank right by the concession stand, as well as barrels in the theater.”
That ability of moviegoers to observe rum, vodka and gin coming to life as they grab their popcorn and candy – or to peer at an active scotch helmet and agitator while eating a Muffaletta panini –is what makes this novel “cinema stillhouse” so interactive.
It also gives Boring the chance to pull back the curtain on distilling for visitors with limited knowledge of it.
“People come and see the distillery, and they’re ready to have a good time,” Boring said. “They’re always asking questions. At this point, you just see people standing by the glass; and if you go out to talk to them, they’re so excited to hear about the process. They feel included.”
Throughout 2019, Zoetropolis’ hands-on connection with customers got the word out about Lancaster Distilleries as a brand, particularly Boring’s specialty rums. However, it was the perfect storm of Pennsylvania’s unusual liquor regulations and the first chaotic weeks of the global pandemic that took the upstart operation to the next level.
The Quaker State has a system of running its own liquor stores, all of which closed shop overnight on March 17, 2020. The pause was a public health precaution sparked by the initial uncertainty around COVID-19. One thing that was certain, though, was that a lot of people in Pennsylvania needed a drink to calm their nerves – and the typical avenues for that were suddenly cut off. The state liquor stores wouldn’t even offer online sales until the beginning of April, with curbside pickup lagging another three weeks. But for spirit connoisseurs, the good news was that Pennsylvania’s unusual laws allow facilities classified as “limited distilleries” –meaning ones that produce less than 100,000 gallons per-year – to have no cap at all on their direct sales to consumers.
A kind of Gold Rush of discovery began flourishing for craft distilleries, and this was especially true for the brass tacks undertaking inside Zoetropolis. Thanks to a social media surge, and word of mouth like wildfire, spirit fans were soon quenching their thirst with the high-quality and affordable products of Lancaster Distilleries. New patrons also learned that all of the agricultural ingredients for these gins, vodkas and rums – with the exception of sugar cane – came fresh from local farmers. Home deliveries were booming, but curbside pickup was booming even more. At one point, the baby distillery sold 300 bottles in a single day.
“People just popped open their trunks, and there was a traffic line of cars waiting to get it,” Huettner remembered.
Boring notes that, with Zoetropolis’s theater and restaurant closed during that period, the state-run liquor store debacle was a silver lining for his company.
“It totally saved us,” he stressed. “And so many people have said to us since, ‘I didn’t know you existed before, but now I’m a lifelong customer.’”
For the growing fans of Lancaster Distilleries, the appeal isn’t hard to explain. Its oaked rum is aged in once-used rye whisky barrels, along with charred oak from a beloved tree once standing in Boring and Huettner’s yard. Each sip of this rum glows with hints of grass and intricate spices, its body emboldened by the tingling taste of a buttermilk.
Boring has also been making a silver rum that’s unusually flavorful. Sleek and smooth, its taste shines with something close to sweetness as it settles with light ginger notes in its icy flame. Huettner, a musician and music therapist who coordinates Zoetropolis’s entertainment, recently came up with an event to showcase this product called “The Summer of Rum.” It involved highlighting scandalously named tiki and tropical cocktails to prove just how well the company’s silver rum punches things up.
“People don’t have any trouble knowing what a good vodka or gin tastes like; but with rum, there’s not as much common knowledge,” Huettner explained. “The number one cocktail that we sold during it was called the ‘Frustrated Artist.’ That’s fitting, because the theater is very bohemian, very artist-centered, and we’re always running some kind of crazy drink theme for it.”
Now, with vaccination rates steadily climbing in Pennsylvania, patrons have been able to enjoy Zoetropolis and Lancaster Distilleries in concert – the way they were always meant to be.
“Just like everyone across the world, the people here want to be doing things that feel like normal life – like to be in a room with people to share an experience,” Huettner reflected. “And with our theater, they can watch a film, and have food at the restaurant, and drinks from the distillery, so it’s this curated thing that we offer that just makes it so much more special.”