Arsenal Cider House serves drinks with Civil War names

| Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2011

There are many wives out there who put up with a lot when it comes to their husbands' hobbies.

Still, it takes a certain kind of wife to agree to turn the first floor of their house into a bar with a focus on his interest in hard cider.

Bill Larkin, 41, is just that lucky. The first floor of the Larkins' 19th-century red-brick rowhouse in Lawrenceville, across from Arsenal Park, has a rustic farmhouse feel, complete with a fireplace, barrels, Civil War photos, a piano, and walls of exposed brick and artfully burnt wood.

"This used to be our dining room," says Michelle Larkin, 38. "We had twins, and were shrinking our living space. I was a preschool teacher, and this let me stay home with my children."

Bill Larkin, an accountant by day, has made cider, mead and wine in his basement for years. The Arsenal Cider House & Wine Cellar opened in June. It's technically classified as a winery -- cider typically is closer to wine than beer in alcohol content. The Hard Cinnamon Apple Cider is 7.4 percent alcohol, and the Cannoneer's Bone Dry Sour Cherry is 11.4 percent, for instance.

Cider is fairly common in England, but still is a niche drink in the United States -- although, in recent years, Americans have become more familiar with brands like Strongbow and Woodchuck, which typically are sold in beer bottles.

"We're going to call it 'cider-style fruit wines,' " Bill Larkin says. "It's a niche product. When we decided to be a winery, cider was the first wine I ever made."

Years of taste-testing by friends and family have given Larkin a good idea of what people like. But the other considerations -- zoning approval (the most expensive part, so far), securing a "limited winery license" and production capacity -- were considerably more complicated.

Startup costs were significant -- and, in some ways, Arsenal Cider House already has been a victim of its success.

"It's probably in the realm of $60,000, and probably (needs) $100,000 more to do it right," Bill Larkin says. "We sold out in three months -- had to shut the bar for four weeks to get some more cider kegged.

"We turned down a lot of calls from bars. We want to be able to handle our own demand first."

Right now, they sell their drinks in 1-liter growlers, which are emblazoned with the title "Daily Rations" and cost $20. Refill prices vary, but $12.50, plus tax, for Hard Cinnamon Apple Cider is typical.

Since opening in June, Arsenal Cider House has sold more than 1,000 growlers.

Arsenal Cider House owes its name to the Civil War-era Allegheny Arsenal, which was across the street.

The Larkins have decided to take this association a little further in naming the drinks. The "Bone Dry" ciders and wines -- which are a lot less sweet than the regular versions, a "niche within a niche," according to Bill Larkin -- all are named after Civil War-era military jobs. There's Cannoneer's Bone Dry Sour Cherry and Powder Monkey Bone Dry Peach, for example. Powder monkeys were sailors who hauled gunpowder from the magazines below decks to the cannons -- a job usually given to children.

As much of the fruit as possible comes from local sources, like apples from Soergel Orchards.

Many of the ciders and fruit wines also have a sorbet version. Yes, the Cinnamon Hard Apple Cider Sorbet probably won't be found at your local ice cream shop -- or bar.

"Bill seems to really love working on cider, and trying to make it great," says regular customer Jason Ziglar, 27, of Morningside. "He talks about trying different things, tweaking different recipes. He's always experimenting and improving."

The Fairmont Pittsburgh, Downtown, is the first outside establishment to carry Arsenal's products. Andy's, the bar in the lobby of the hotel, carries Archibald's Amber Hard Apple Cider. The hotel's Habitat restaurant uses Picket Bone Dry Hard Cider for a variation on an old bourbon drink.

Meanwhile, Bill Larkin still spends a lot of time in the basement, which is stuffed with enormous fermenting tanks, working on new products.

Ziglar, a big fan of cider, found that his favorite drink so far has been something totally unexpected.

"There is one that he did (that's) not actually a cider," Ziglar says. "It was a honey-vanilla mead, honey-based instead of apple-based.

"He said, 'I tried this experiment at one point, and got a bottle if you want to try it.' It was just incredible. I'm still waiting for him to actually sell it. He's working on it."

Additional Information:

Arsenal Cider House & Wine Cellar

Hours: 4-8 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays; noon-8 p.m. Saturdays; noon-4 p.m. Sundays

Where: 300 39th St., Lawrenceville

Details: 412-260-6968 or website

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