Dead Lightning Distillery, according to its storefront sign, was born on 3-3-2018 in New Cumberland, to proud owners Andrea and Eric Montgomery. Their son, Skylar, was also born on March 3.
It’s not a coincidence. Dead Lightning is a tribute to Skylar, whose life ended tragically in an accidental overdose.
“Three months before he died, we talked about starting a business for him,” said Andrea.
Skylar, a huge Grateful Dead fan, had a penchant for making moonshine—also known as white lightning. Marry the two loves, and you have Dead Lightning.
“He made flavors that tasted so good and found places to make it,” Andrea said.
She wanted to continue that practice in his honor, at “a place where friends could hang out, like his living room.”
“Skylar had a heart of gold,” she said. “He was a welder, super tall and would walk in and light up the room. As a mom, when he died, I was ready to give up. I was married to my best friend, with two children, and I couldn’t give up, but I could keep Skylar’s spirit alive.”
Andrea does that by giving a hug to almost everyone who walks through the doors, encouraging people to sit and enjoy a sample of Skylar’s vodkas.
Skylar’s likeness, in the form of a decal at his actual 6-foot-7 height, greets you with widespread, open arms.
“This picture of Skylar was taken after he won a Go Kart race,” Andrea said. “He had his arms outstretched in victory.”
His original moonshine paddle hangs on the wall over the bar. Don’t be surprised if Andrea encourages you to “shoot the boot” from Skyler’s size 15, Red Wing, steel-toe work boot that sits on a shelf. Tapestries that hung on his bedroom wall now hang from the bar’s ceiling. Street signs that bear his name, or imbed a memory, line the bar’s backroom walls. His surfboard is a cool table top. Since he loved games, ring toss and darts are a popular activity in the bar. And Skylar’s favorite music constantly fills the venue.
“It took him to pass for me to learn the importance of music,” Andrea said. “It’s uplifting.”
If this place sounds like it’s an ode to Skylar, well, that’s exactly what his mother intended. The bar is a union of Skylar’s life and how he lived.
“Skylar was a leader,” Andrea said. “He gave his time and his entire salary to others. He always had canned goods in his car to give to homeless people. And he had all these great sayings—‘Memories over Money,’ ‘Laugh at Yourself,’ ‘Don’t Judge People.’”
Those adages grace the tie-dye label of all 14 Local Legend Flavored Vodkas.
“We only sell the distilled alcohol that we make,” said Andrea.
Like handcrafted, small batch rums. Tall Boy, a 750-ml bottle of vodka distilled nine times at a whopping 100 proof, is a fan favorite. So is their cinnamon whiskey, Liquid Lightning.
“Wasabi is the secret ingredient,” she whispered, revealing that not-so-secret knowledge with a wink and a smile.
The craft distillery—an old bank barn in Lemoyne—was originally bought in 2013 as a place to store her husband Eric’s “toys”—cars, trucks, and motorcycles.
“You can eat off the floor in there now,” said Eric, about the distillery.
Head Distiller Tom Gribb, a welder and Skylar’s best friend, built the copper still. Skylar’s brother, Trevor, also distills. Maddie, his sister, is the family business social media sage. Katrina Carpenter, Skylar’s girlfriend, bartends.
“Originally, we wanted to take things slow,” Andrea said. “We were going to try selling the vodkas in farmers markets. The mayor, Doug Morrow,” an advocate in New Cumberland’s revitalization, “approached us when he heard about Skylar’s story. He invited us to check out this space, the former Coakley’s. I walked in here, looked around and walked out. I knew this was it.”
Renovations to the former Coakley’s Cigar Bar on the walk-able section of Bridge Street happened fast—in about three months.
“Our attitude was to make enough money to pay rent and to have a place for friends to hang out,” she said.
Quickly, change happened again.
“Now, our alcohol is in 14 bars and restaurants, all local places within Camp Hill and Harrisburg,” Andrea said. “It’s about working with the locals. We want to get downtown renovated again. When Coakley’s closed, it hurt the town. We want our good vodka to stay here.”
You’re invited to try a flight, throw back a smoked cinnamon shot, order a cocktail du jour, or even create your own drink. Saturday mornings are all about the bloody Mary bar and bagels. They also sell local PA wines and beers. Simple food items, like soft pretzel logs, steak tacos and tri-colored tortillas with fresh margarita salsa, fill the menu.
“My husband and I make all the food,” Andrea said. “I’ve met so many people because of this place, so many people who’ve been touched by Skylar’s story.”
She pointed to a sign over the bar that reads, “Have a good shitty day.”
“People have bad days,” Andrea said. “But Skylar would want them to have a good bad day.”
I can’t think of a better place to sit and contemplate that contradiction.
Dead Lightning Distillery is located at 311 Bridge St., New Cumberland. For more information, call 717-695-7284 or visit www.deadlightningdistillery.com.