I’ve been visiting a lot of Erie County entrepreneurs lately, and Luminary Distilling continues that pattern.
This time, the business started with a hobby – specifically, brewing beer at home.
Joel Normand and his wife, Maria DiSanza, branched out from there, touring distilleries in Pittsburgh and New York state – and became intrigued by the potential for a distillery business in Erie County.
“We said, ‘Why don’t we give it a shot?’” Maria says.
Now they have lots of shots – all from the bottles of house-made spirits lining the bar in their Summit Township storefront.
Luminary Distilling has been open since March, but the process of getting the business going – and learning about distilling – has been several years in the making.
Distilling is a technical process, but there’s also a craft to it, the owners say.
“You can understand the science pretty quickly. It takes time to get the art,” Joel says. “There’s a certain taste and feel to it.”
Joel speaks knowledgably about the distilling process, explaining everything from the first grains of wheat to the smooth finished product. He details the chemistry, the origins, and the varieties – including how different flavors are formed depending on whether it is wheat or wine that is distilled.
Like their products, Joel and Maria each bring different flavors to their company. While Joel’s domain is the distillery, Maria runs the front of the house, managing the day-to-day business.
And that business is popular, drawing customers to sit, sip and socialize. Luminary doesn’t serve food, but customers are welcome to bring their own – or take advantage of visiting food trucks. Board games are available as well.
“It’s a nice little atmosphere,” Maria says, looking around the tasting room, which is warmed by the glow of mini luminaries crisscrossing the ceiling.
Other personal touches enhance the décor, including the bar, which was crafted by a local high school shop teacher, and a wall hanging that was made by one of Joel’s former students.
The decorations aren’t the only thing that’s local – so are the products that they use for distilling. Wheat comes from Troyer’s, wine comes from North East vineyards, and cider comes from Fuhrman’s Cider Mill, Bakery & General Store, right next door.
“We want to be known as Erie’s distillery. We want to be known as something that is truly Erie,” Joel says.
About Luminary Distilling: When the business opened in March, it was the first modern-day craft distillery in the county – thought it was joined soon after by another, this one in Washington Township. Owners Joel Normand and Maria DiSanza take on the bulk of the work at Luminary, though they have both have other jobs – Joel is a teacher in Sharpsville, and Maria works part time as a physical therapist assistant – as well as three kids at home. Someday, they hope Luminary will be successful enough that they can make it their full-time jobs. They started with just a few spirits and are steadily adding more, including the popular Apple Pie Moonshine. More varieties of gin, whiskey and moonshine are coming out in December.
Why Erie County: The couple lives in Erie, and were looking to open their distillery in the city. However, they found their perfect home in Summit Township, and are thrilled with the location, and their neighbors. People who live in the area have been very supportive, Maria says – that that’s one of the best things about their business. “People stop in as first timers, then they keep coming back. We get to know them and their families,” she says. “We’ve made a lot of friends here.” Luminary also has found benefits in a relationship with VisitErie, which has helped to promote the business.
Challenges of Erie County: As Joel and Maria started their business, they first had to navigate the ins and outs of state and federal regulations in order to get licensed. Once the business began, they were faced with keeping up with production to meet demand. They also have other challenges common to new businesses, including finding money for advertising. Luckily, they have had luck promoting the business on social media – which is both affordable and convenient, they say – and by word of mouth.
Fun fact: Moonshine is just a general term for any distilled and unaged spirit, Joel says. It gets its name from distillers who made their product illegally, often at night by the light of the moon.