New York: The City That Never Stops Distilling

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Pitchaya Sudbanthad


Brooklyn: home to artisanal beer, artisanal cheese, artisanal meats. These days the weekly Brooklyn Flea market is overrun with artisanal pickle stands. Now comes artisanal booze.

Thanks to a pair of changes to New York's liquor laws over the last decade, craft distillers—including Tuthilltown Spirits, Warwick Valley Winery & Distillery, and Finger Lakes Distilling—have been cropping up across the state. The original idea was to promote state agriculture by letting farmers distill their grains: depending on the state of the commodity markets, a better proposition than selling them outright.

But you don't have to be a farmer to set up a still. As long as the bulk of your ingredients come from in-state, craft liquor licenses are practically free. You don't even have to be located on a farm. You can set up shop in the heart of Brooklyn, which is what three new distilleries—Breuckelen Distilling Company, New York Distilling Company, and King's County Distillery—have been busy doing over the last several months.

Breuckelen Distilling Company

Breuckelen Distilling, like New York Distilling, is starting off with gin. It may not be the sexiest liquor right now, but Brad Estabrooke, founder and sole employee of Breuckelen, said gin is a good beginner's quaff: "I needed it to be something I could sell immediately, but also something I could be creative with." Gin requires a straightforward distillation process and no aging, but it also has a broad palette of botanical and grain flavors that make it a lot more fun to distill than vodka or moonshine.

Estabrooke got laid off from his finance job in late 2008. Casting about for a new career, he saw an article about craft distilling in an in-flight magazine. He'd already given a thought to going into winemaking, but vineyards don't exactly grow in Brooklyn. Plus, he said, the idea of mixing and manipulating ingredients and flavors to make gin appealed to him. "You really are crafting with botanicals, instead of just trying to screw up grape juice as little as possible, like you do with wine."

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Pitchaya Sudbanthad

In early 2009, he started raising money and looking for a production site, finally settling in a corner of southern Park Slope. The tough part, Estabrooke said, was learning the craft and finding the right equipment. Since in most of the country craft distilling has only recently been legalized, there's little in the way of formal training available for the startup gin-head. "There's no great book on distilling," he said, standing in the middle of his spacious facility. Breuckelen is located in a former boiler room that, thanks to a few coats of whitewash and a massive skylight, is surprisingly bright and airy, with just a faint, pleasant mustiness floating over from the sacks of wheat piled on an industrial-strength shelf.

Fortunately, craft distillers are a common sight in Germany, where every farmer is allowed to have a 150-liter still, and where three of the world's leading still manufacturers are located. Estabrooke ended up with a 40-liter still—a beautiful copper tower, visible through the plate glass windows of his new digs, sitting on a concrete plinth like an altarpiece—from Kothe, a German manufacturer with an office in Chicago. Kothe not only offered to set up the still for him but also invited him to its offices to take a course in distilling.

New York Distilling Company

Estabrooke's one-man operation makes New York Distilling look like a mega-corporation. But New York's advantage isn't size—after all, its employees can still be counted on one hand—but its provenance. The brains of the operation is Tom Potter, the co-founder of Brooklyn Brewery and one of the patriarchs of the East Coast craft brewing family.

After selling most of his share in Brooklyn in the mid-2000s, Potter had planned for a life of leisurely retirement. But a few years ago he started visiting distillers on the West Coast, and like Estabrooke he hatched the idea of opening a craft operation in Brooklyn. It made sense—not only did Brooklyn have a great locavore culture, but it has a history of distilling: until Prohibition, distilleries sat thick along the Brooklyn waterfront, making vast quantities of gin and rye whiskey.

Potter is not someone to do things halfway. He and his son, Bill, teamed up with Allen Katz, a legend in the cocktail world and the head of spirits education for Southern Wine and Spirits, a local alcohol distributor. They roped in Jason Grizzanti, a respected distiller from upstate New York's Warwick Valley Winery and Distillery, as a consultant. They even landed Milton Glaser, the graphic artist behind the iconic "I Love NY" campaign, to do their labels.

The New York Distilling team went with a 1,000-liter still from Christian Carl, and they are in the process of building their distillery in Williamsburg. Like Estabrooke, Potter decided to start with gin—not only because it is quick to produce and fun to play around with, but because the resurgence in cocktail bars is giving serious gins a second wind. "Bartender culture at the high end is a much different animal than it was 10 years ago," he said.

Potter said that after gin he'd like to try other liquors, particularly once-common New York drinks like rye whiskey. "It's the traditional whiskey of the northeast United States, but it suffered a long decline," he said. "Most people don't appreciate how good it is. The inherent flavors of rye are more interesting, more complex than most other grains."

King's County Distillery

Estabrooke and Potter are playing it safe with gin, but the guys at King's County Distillery have no such compunction. Working out of a small office in a converted industrial loft near Newtown Creek—the heavily polluted waterway that separates Brooklyn from Queens—David Haskell and Colin Spoelman are putting the finishing touches on their recipe for white dog, the sweet, crystal-clear liquid that, when aged, will produce the city's first whiskey since Prohibition.

Unlike Estabrooke or Potter, King's County didn't go overseas for a fancy copper still. Instead, ranged along a wall are five magnetic resonance hot plates, atop which sit five stainless steel pot stills—imagine two oversized metal flower pots, stuck together at the mouths. As the mash inside boils, the vapor goes up a thin pipe and condenses, just like in a regular still. Against the room's opposite wall sits a stack of small oak barrels; in a corner is a box of old-fashioned medicine bottles. There's barely room to sit.

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Pitchaya Sudbanthad

This is garage-band distilling. Both men have day jobs—Haskell is a magazine editor, and Spoelman is a writer for an architectural firm—so they do their distilling at night and on the weekends. Though Spoelman grew up in eastern Kentucky, he said he didn't think much about his region's moonshine heritage until he went back recently for a film project and returned with a jug for some friends.

From there it was only a matter of time before he and Haskell, a pal from college, decided to give whiskey-making a shot. "The whole thing is just to make something for our friends to enjoy," Spoelman said. "It's not about conquering an industry." For now, they'll be selling through bars and wholesalers, as well as their Web site.

All three distilleries recognize that the rise of cocktail culture and the explosion in craft manufacturing in New York make it the perfect time to attack what has been, until recently, an industry dominated by a few multinational corporations. "If you look at how coffee changed over the last 30 years," Spoelman said, "Folgers could keep making a crappy product because it had no competition. Then Starbucks came along. That's the same thing happening with distilleries."

True, there are still dozens of great liquor brands, but Spoelman has a point. Consolidation and cost-cutting have turned all but the best distilleries into slaves of the lowest-common denominator of consumer tastes. How else to explain the near-infinite range of vodkas—a nearly flavorless, colorless, odorless distillate that happens to go great with cranberry juice and soda?

In that kind of a market, micro-firms like these don't have to sell much to succeed. "For me to do better than my wildest dreams, I only have to take a small share of the market," Eastabrooke said. And who knows? With a player like Potter involved, someday people may be talking about Brooklyn liquor the way they talk about Napa wineries.

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Clay Risen is an editor at The New York Times, and is the author of A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination. He has written for The New Republic, Smithsonian, and The New York Times Sunday Magazine.

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