If it weren’t for a certain series of events, Yianni Barakos may not have had the knowledge, or the impetus, to open the Mason Dixon Distillery.
He peppers the story with humor as he harkens back to his childhood describing a trip to Greece.
“I visited my grandparents’ village as a kid, and I like to say that my heritage is hillbilly because you build what you need and you fix what you have,” said Barakos.
The boy became intrigued as he observed his coppersmith grandfather tinkering with the community still.
“They would grow grapes and make their own wine and tsipouro,” said Barakos, explaining that the strong, distilled spirit produced from the residue of the wine press is similar to Italian grappa.
While visiting, the 11-year-old Barakos decided to take notes about the distilling process, which he found fascinating.
“I’m pretty sure my grandfather knew what I had in mind and, at some point, he stopped answering my questions,” Barakos said.
After he returned home, he decided to put into play some of the lessons he had learned, with results that could have been disastrous.
“I almost burned the house down,” said Barakos, who fully expected to be scolded.
Instead, he was given a ride to Walmart, where his father purchased a hot plate and told him to keep it outside. Today, the two men work side-by-side as partners.
Give It Back
Barakos didn’t initially intend to make a living as an entrepreneur.
“I started as an assistant project manager in the construction field and was promoted to a junior project manager before my car accident, which kept me in bed for two years,” he said, explaining that the trauma of the accident left him with a condition called “scapular dyskinesis,” in which the brain stops firing muscles.
Barakos vowed not only to fight the condition but to work while doing so.
“The doctor tells me to prepare myself for a lifetime of pain,” he said. “Right now, I’m the healthiest I’ve been, but I have too many limitations to work for someone else.”
In his quest for the perfect venue, Barakos came upon a former furniture factory located on E. Water Street in Gettysburg.
“The 10,000-square-foot warehouse was in terrible shape, but it spoke to me,” he said.
His mother, laying eyes on the sprawling, dilapidated space, burst into tears.
“Give it back,” she commanded.
He was drawn to the building due its 100-year-old history of furniture making and its importance providing work to the community.
“They took a raw material and turned it into a finished product, which is what we do,” said Barakos, who contracts with a local Gettysburg farmer to grow the grain.
He chuckled reflecting back on his mother’s reaction because she needn’t have worried. With hard work and determination, he and his father George transformed the space into a state-of-the-art distillery with a large kitchen, an area for production of spirits and a welcoming restaurant and bar, with restored brick and a seating style modeled after a typical German beer hall.
Dave Spitzer met Barakos when the distillery was nothing more than a dream.
“When he told me about it, I thought it would be amazing if he could pull it off,” said the Gettysburg resident, adding that Barakos and his father put an amazing amount of work into the two-year renovation project. “I figured it would be great for tourists to have something more to do than just tour the battlefield.”
The current liquor lineup is vodka, corn whisky, white rum, aged rum and spiced rum.
“We make cocktails for just about any palate, and all our mixers are made from scratch,” Barakos said.
Additional offerings are in the pipeline. Mason-Dixon is partnering with Biglerville-based Hollabaugh Bros. fruit farm to produce a pear brandy. Rye whisky is also on the horizon.
“It’s a big love of mine,” said Barakos, who also features seasonal releases. “Our first-ever bourbon release sold out in 2½ days.”
Spitzer suggested that customers may be pleasantly surprised if they’re open to trying a spirit that they think they may not enjoy.
“He made a rum convert out of me, even though I prefer vodka,” Spitzer said. “He got me to try a rum-and-coke, and I really enjoyed it. The rum is so flavorful and the coke machine pumps water out from the distillery, so you get the most amazing coke out of it.”
As for food, Mason Dixon focuses on seasonality, with an ever-changing selection.
“We like to keep a small base menu, while running six to 10 specials every week,” said Barakos.
A few constants are fried Brussels sprouts finished with honey, lemon drizzle and a dried fruit and nut relish, French fries with shredded short ribs, and poutine with homemade gravy. Spitzer recommends the Sunday brunch, with a favorite being the pastrami hash. Another popular brunch item, according to Barakos, is a pumpkin spice beignet with a cream cheese drizzle.
What you won’t find are distractions.
“We installed sound panels to help absorb echo so that all you hear is the gentle roar of conversation,” said Barakos. “There are no televisions, no open wi-fi, just great food, great drink and great conversation. I provide the first two and foster the atmosphere for the third.”
Barakos said that, although he’s resting a bit easier now that the bulk of the hard construction work is behind him, he’s not going to quit creating and, like his grandfather, will continue to tinker.
“You could say I’m stubborn and that I have perseverance,” he said. “One thing I refused to do, and that was give up. If I can be an inspiration to others, then that would be a life well lived.”
The Mason Dixon Distillery is located at 331 E. Water St., Gettysburg. To learn more, call 717-398-3385 or visit www.masondixondistillery.com.