BY MATT SOBER
Arsenal Cider House & Wine Cellar had been open for only a few weeks when the owners realized they had a problem: too much business. "We had to shut down for a month to catch up. We were out of the gate running, that's for sure," says Bill Larkin '96, who, with the help of his wife, Michelle Jankowski Larkin '94, opened the establishment two years ago.
Michelle was surprised that their homemade hard ciders and fruit wines generated so much buzz — and not only because of their considerable potency. "To see that our customers weren't just friends and family is when we kind of realized, uh-oh," she says. "We were way busier than I ever anticipated."
Two years after tapping that first barrel, demand is greater than ever.
Nevertheless, the Larkins continue to produce their crisp, fruity concoctions as they always have: in the basement of their red brick rowhouse at 300 39th St. in the Lawrenceville section of Pittsburgh. Most of the drinks are held downstairs in rows of steel 500-liter and 600-liter tanks, while cider enthusiasts file in upstairs, where the Larkins have converted the first floor of their home into a Civil War-themed serving area and sitting room.
Taking inspiration from the historic Allegheny Arsenal that once stood just across the street, the space is appointed with evocative touches such as a 15-star American flag, antique lantern, and Union military caps on a mantle above the fireplace. Two of the six tap handles are adorned with replica revolvers, just for good measure.
“This used to be our game room, dining room, living room, and kitchen," Bill says. "We cut off half of our living space, pretty much." And with three young children, space is at a premium for the Larkins. But these days it's the customers who are making themselves at home, sampling new selections and chatting with Bill and Michelle before deciding what to buy. And thousands have enjoyed the fruits of the Larkins' labor, at least judging by the number of individually labeled 1-liter growlers they've sold — more than 9,000 and counting. Their ciders also can be found on tap at Fat Head's in the South Side and several other bars across the city.
Among the most popular is an off-dry cider named for Alexander "Fighting Elleck" Hayes, a Civil War general buried in nearby Allegheny Cemetery. The apples come from Soergel Orchards in McCandless Township. "It's a crowd pleaser," Michelle says. "It's middle of the road. If you're not sure of people's tastes, it pleases the bone-dry people and it pleases the people who like something sweeter." Her personal favorite is Symington's Sour Cherry Union, named for Allegheny Arsenal post commander Col. John Symington. "It's almost like a cherry Jolly Rancher. It's like a party in your mouth because it's got a lot of flavor."
But no matter the variety — apple, cherry, grape, peach, pear or some combination thereof — it is served with a quick history lesson. "This guy here on the left, his name is Alfred Pearson," Bill says, motioning to a framed black-and-white photograph on the wall. "We named our pear cider after him — it's called Alfred's Pear, Son! He was a Civil War general who lived right down the street."
Bill walked away from a career as an accountant, and the past few years have represented what many would consider a daring leap of faith — which, coincidentally, is how he discovered cider in the first place. "I used to do skydiving, and a good friend of mine who taught me to skydive also was an avid cider maker. And that's how it started," he says. He continues to make use of his RMU accounting degree. “I still get to play with numbers, but they’re my numbers now. Certainly the nuts-and-bolts skills I learned in accounting and business management, I use that every day," he adds. "Even in production, we have to keep good inventory records. It made that process a lot easier for me, because I had that background.”
Michelle, who majored in communication and taught in Montessori schools for 18 years, spends much of her time greeting customers from behind the bar, cheerily serving samples and explaining the nuances of each variety. "Considering the amount of work we put into it, just taking that leap of faith as a married couple and still loving each other after all of this, it's pretty awesome being in business with your spouse and doing so well," she says.
Together, the couple has created a unique Pittsburgh destination, one that attracts cider drinkers from miles away. “We’ve seen this place packed with maybe 30 or 40 people during the holidays," Bill says. "From September on, we get crushed. It's the cider season."
WEB EXCLUSIVE - Take a video tour of the Arsenal Cider House and get 10% off a growler!
Take a tour of RMU Colonial Couple Bill and Michelle Larkin's Arsenal Cider House and Wine Cellar in Pittsburgh's Lawrenceville neighborhood.