This Brooklyn Distillery Tour is a Trip Worth Taking

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The borough of Brooklyn has a tangled history with distilled spirits.

By the mid-19th century, distilleries were thriving, churning out rum, gin and whiskey to thirsty New Yorkers. These distilleries lined the Brooklyn waterfront, and though making liquor was legal, it was taxed heavily by the federal government during the Civil War. A telling precursor to the repercussions of Prohibition, the high taxes on alcohol resulted in a boom of illicit stills and underground activity and—eventually—the devastating Whiskey Wars in Brooklyn’s Vinegar Hill neighborhood. These government-enforced raids of illegal distilleries were violent, resulting in riots and massive amounts of destroyed property. The event portended the end of an era. Compounded by Prohibition and the closure of the state’s last legal distilleries in 1920, Brooklyn’s formerly abundant distilling trade finally ran dry.

That drought came to an end in 2002 with the passing of a bill that allowed small producers in New York State to buy reasonably priced distillery licenses. Craft distilling was further encouraged in 2007 when the governor introduced a new license allowing manufacturers who used local grain to distill alcohol and sell it. This kindling set ablaze a soon-to-be-revitalized craft distilling tradition in the state, one that proved especially fruitful in Brooklyn.

Small-scale operations like Kings County Distillery and Breuckelen Distilling opened their doors as early as 2010, setting off a chain reaction across the borough. The nine distilleries (plus one brewery and one winery) that dot the coastline from Greenpoint to Red Hook now form the unofficial Brooklyn Booze Trail, devised by Cacao Prieto, one of the larger distilleries, to showcase the borough’s diverse offerings. There’s no official starting point to this self-guided tour. Ramble along at your leisure, sampling everything from whiskey and rum to grappa and hibiscus liqueur.

Perhaps most striking about these young distilleries are the owners themselves. Each one migrated from a completely unrelated career, buoyed by an urge to create a handmade product and share it with others. An unlikely gang of Wall Street traders, marketing experts, television editors and aerospace engineers left prosperous careers to chase distilling dreams, and the Brooklyn Booze Trail is a testament to their success.

Besides resurrecting the borough’s rich history of distilling, the Brooklyn Booze Trail provides both natives and visitors the chance to understand where their products come from and how they’re made. Awareness of the craft industry continues to grow and unique products are making their way to backbars around the city, where enterprising bartenders discover ways to use them in traditional and contemporary cocktails.

Ready to explore the trail for yourself? Remember that with each stop, you’re experiencing Brooklyn’s drinking culture as it might have looked over a hundred years ago. History never tasted so good.

Cacao Prieto, 218 Conover Street

Products: Don Rafael Cacao Rum, Don Esteban Cacao Liqueur, Widow Jane Straight Bourbon Whiskey

The trail begins with chocolate and whiskey. After a successful career as an aerospace engineer, Daniel Preston found the impetus for his next big project close to home. His family owns an organic cacao farm in the Dominican Republic, so he began to source the beans to produce high-quality chocolate. Since the fermented cacao beans used to make chocolate can also be distilled, that led Preston into creating cacao-infused rum and liqueur. Both products won awards at spirits competitions around the country.

Having mined his family cacao for various products, Preston turned his eye to bourbon. The secret behind his award-winning Widow Jane Bourbon is its most basic ingredient: mineral-rich water sourced from a historic limestone mine in Rosendale, New York. This water, along with select barrels of Kentucky-aged bourbon combined to form the 8 Year Bourbon Straight Whiskey. Preston has also experimented with growing heirloom corn varietals that are 100 percent GMO free, producing exciting new bottles of Heirloom Bourbon that differ greatly depending on the type of corn used. It’s not enough to taste the products, you’ll want to visit the stunning distillery in person on a weekend tour from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Along the way, meet Cacao Prieto’s resident chickens (who roam the courtyard snacking on spent whiskey mash) and sample the spirits in cocktails at Botanica bar next door.

Jack from Brooklyn, 177 Dwight Street

Product: Sorel Hibiscus Liqueur

You won’t find Jack Summers’ product anywhere else—because he’s the only one making it in the world. Summers produces Sorel, a dark garnet liqueur that’s based on a 400-year-old recipe inherited from his grandparents. Sorrel tea is a spiced herbal beverage made from dried hibiscus flowers, and a common drink in the Caribbean. Summers had been brewing the tart tea at home for nearly 20 years before being inspired to share his ancestral tradition in 2012. Now the only alcoholic version on the market, Sorel has garnered wide critical acclaim thanks to a special brew of Moroccan hibiscus, Nigerian ginger, Indonesian nutmeg and Brazilian clove.

As a native New Yorker, the choice to launch his distillery in Brooklyn was natural for Summers. Faced with major obstacles including destruction from Hurricane Sandy, he’s managed to overcome significant setbacks and produce a one-of-a-kind product that’s both a tribute to his heritage and the long tradition of Brooklyn craft-making. Get a taste of his fragrant Sorel and tour the Red Hook facility on Saturdays from noon to 5 p.m. You’ll start to smell the heady blend of spices from a few blocks away.

Van Brunt Stillhouse, 6 Bay Street

Products: Van Brunt Stillhouse Whiskey, Due North Rum, Red Hook Grappa, Moonshine

Named after both one of Brooklyn’s founders, Cornelius Van Brunt, and a main thoroughfare in the neighborhood of Red Hook, this stillhouse has been up and running since 2012. Established by television editor Daric Schlesselman, the distillery was created as a means of expressing Schlesselman’s creativity beyond his day job. Today, Schlesselman still appreciates the importance of making products on a smaller scale. He sources his ingredients from upstate New York farmers and maintains the mantra that a product made by a familiar hand will always taste better than its mass-manufactured counterparts.

Van Brunt began by distilling rum, using organic, unprocessed sugar sourced from the Himalayas. From there, the stillhouse has extended its offerings to grappa, moonshine and four styles of whiskey, which you can swig in person at the tasting room, open every weekend from 1 p.m to 6 p.m.

Red Hook Winery, 175 Van Dyke Street

Products: Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot

This waterside winery doesn’t distill spirits, which makes it an ideal stop on the trail for those who prefer a glass of wine to hard liquor. As described by owner Mark Snyder, “New York State viticulture—its history and future—is the fundamental focus of Red Hook Winery.” The winemaking team includes two diverse Napa Valley talents, Robert Foley and Abe Schoener, who strive to showcase in their wines New York’s unique climate, geology and meteorology—elements they indicate make the state unlike any other growing region in the world. The operation is still fairly small, sourcing from 15 different local vineyards to produce as many as 26 wines per vintage. The winery even splits every lot of grapes in half to allow each winemaker room to experiment and “let the juice tell the story.”

Snyder, another Brooklyn native, built the winery from scratch in 2008 and believes that Brooklyn’s future remains bright thanks to small producers like himself and his neighbors. With an impressive roster of wines ranging from North Fork Chardonnay to Jamesport Merlot, the winery is always eager to share its locally-produced bounty with the community, and offers tours every weekend and daily tastings from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Sixpoint Brewery, 40 Van Dyke Street

Products: Sixpoint Sweet Action, Bengali, The Crisp, Resin, etc.

It may not distill spirits either, but Sixpoint Brewery played an important role in the resurgence of Brooklyn’s homegrown drinking culture. Opened in 2004 by experienced homebrewer Shane Welch, Sixpoint began in a small garage in Red Hook, long before the other distillers in the area hit the scene. By now, you surely recognize the brewery’s logo, a combination of the nautical star and the six-pointed brewer’s star that emblazons the trademark slim cans.

You might be familiar with Sixpoint’s core beers like Sweet Action cream ale and Bengali IPA. While those year-round brews are Sixpoint’s bread and butter, the brewery is determined to remain true to its original attitude of homebrewing experimentation thanks to its Mad Scientist series. Every two months, the brewery creates a unique style of beer that blends craft and chemistry. One of the more recent products of the series includes Kelpie, a black porter flavored with fresh and powdered seaweed, inspired by Scottish tales of a mysterious creature that lurked in local lochs. Though you can’t tour the facility at the moment due to renovations, you can find Sixpoint brews near you by using the Sixpoint mobile app.

Breuckelen Distilling, 77 19th Street

Products: Glorious Gin, Glorious Gin: Oaked, 77 New York Wheat Whiskey, 77 Local Rye & Corn Whiskey

Brad Estabrooke was one of the early pioneers of the now-booming Brooklyn craft spirits movement. His career path as a Wall Street trader left him unfulfilled, and he found himself energized by the handmade products lining the shelves of his neighborhood Brooklyn markets. Following an intense period of self-education and preparation, Estabrooke’s distilling dream came to life in 2010 with the first bottle of Glorious Gin. His mission? To make spirits entirely from scratch with New York state grains in his home borough.

Instead of beginning with a neutral base spirit like other gin distillers, Breuckelen uses a wheat spirit that’s distilled like whiskey—a method that gives Glorious Gin a richness akin to Dutch genever. The gin’s characteristic flavors (juniper, rosemary, grapefruit, lemon and ginger) along with local grains and Brooklyn water, have earned Glorious Gin attention from local bartenders and international distributors alike. With expansion in the works, Breuckelen Distillery is not currently hosting tours, but you can find its gin and whiskey—all made from scratch with local grains—in stores all over the country.

Industry City, 33 35th Street

Product: Industry Standard Vodka

The goal of this three-year-old Sunset Park distillery is clear: Use science to make spirits better. Developed by the team of guys behind the industrial cooperative City Foundry, Industry City came about after the team started applying technologies developed in science over the past 50 years to the distillation of spirits. The result? A sustainable urban distillery that produces vodka distilled from sugar beets made on equipment designed and built in Brooklyn.

The team is constantly workshopping new approaches to address energy efficiency, waste streams and water usage while producing great spirits. It shows: The distillery’s sugar-beet vodka is distinct in both its flavor and distillation process, bearing a warm, smooth flavor and rich texture with a finish of fruit notes and spice. That happens as a result of a continuous fermentation process, fractional distillation and a special blending process that avoids any additives or charcoal filtration. Science nerds can take a peek at the nitty gritty distillation process during tours every Saturday at 3 p.m.

Kings County Distillery, 63 Flushing Avenue

Products: Moonshine, Bourbon, Chocolate Whiskey

Growing up in Kentucky is a surefire way to gain an appreciation for whiskey. But distilling whiskey in an urban apartment is considerably more difficult, as co-owners Colin Spoelman and David Haskell discovered when they started making illegal moonshine. Five years after the distillery opened in 2010, the business, located in the historic Paymaster building in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, is growing fast. Moonshine, peated bourbon and chocolate whiskey flow from the stills (coincidentally located 400 feet from where Al Capone was born), and the distillery borrows processes and pot stills from Scotch production even as it uses locally-grown corn.

Though Kings County doesn’t aim to compete with commercial distilleries in price or age, Spoelman certainly competes with the quality of the final product based on the integrity of the local ingredients and the creativity of his whiskeys. Taste the difference for yourself by touring the historic building on Fridays at 3pm or Saturdays from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.

New York Distilling Company, 405 Leonard Street

Products: Perry’s Tot Navy Strength Gin, Dorothy Parker American Gin, Chief Gowanus New Netherland Gin, Mister Katz’s Rock & Rye

“Purposefully different.” That’s how Allen Katz describes the spirits he creates at New York Distilling Co. in Williamsburg. His Perry’s Tot Navy Strength Gin and recently released Rock & Rye are prime examples of spirits that are unique to the market today but also familiar throwbacks to another era in American cocktail culture. Even the Chief Gowanus Gin recalls an early American recipe for Holland gin made from rye whiskey. Created with the help of drinks historian David Wondrich, the juniper- and hops-infused, 3-month barrel-aged Chief Gowanus is an homage to another time, but laced with modern innovation.

Each of these spirits is specifically developed for mixability and versatility in cocktails. You can find cocktails using the spirits at The Shanty, the full-service bar attached to the distillery that features the spirits made in stills just steps away. Shimmy up to the bar for a Tot & Tonic or 700 Songs Gimlet any day of the week and you may find yourself treated to live music in addition to a distillery tour, which run on weekends from 3 p.m to 5 p.m. Coming soon: the long-anticipated Ragtime Rye Whiskey, a straight rye that’s been aged for three years in full-size barrels.

The Noble Experiment NYC, 23 Meadow Street

Product: Owney’s Rum

When The Noble Experiment first opened its doors in 2012, Bridget Firtle was the only female distiller in the area. The CEO and founder had formerly worked as an analyst for the global alcoholic beverage sector—a fitting start for a budding distiller. Her work instilled a natural love of craft distilling, and, as a rum lover, she envisioned bringing America’s first spirit back to New York City. The result of her efforts? Owney’s Rum, a medium-bodied white rum made without artificial colorings, flavorings or additives.

Three ingredients lie behind Owney’s rum: filtered NYC tap water, 100 percent USA all-natural sugar cane molasses and proprietary yeast.  Distilled in a pot-column hybrid still, the end product contains bold banana notes, tropical fruitiness and a distinct smoky herbal quality. Firtle named the rum after Owen Madden, a Prohibition-era gangster and rumrunner whose smuggling activities aided in reviving rum’s relevance during his time. With more infusions and barrel-aged experiments on the horizon, it’s time to book a distillery tour, which take place on Saturdays at 4 p.m.

Greenhook Ginsmiths, 208 DuPont Street

Products: American Dry Gin, Beach Plum Gin Liqueur, Old Tom Gin

For Steven DeAngelo, the financial crisis was the harbinger of a fresh start. Working as a Wall Street broker and motivated by his love of gin and fledgling interest in the distilling process, he gave up his finance career to open a distillery. With no experience in the trade and no outside funding, DeAngelo and his brother Phillip launched the project on their own, producing their flagship product, Greenhook American Dry Gin in early 2012. The gin debuted to strong reviews and boasts a low-temperature vacuum-distilling process that perfume makers use to preserve aromatics, resulting in a fragrant gin with vibrant flavor.

Later that same year, DeAngelo created his Beach Plum Gin Liqueur, a tart ruby liqueur inspired by traditional sloe gin. Why beach plum? Real sloes aren’t native to America and shipping the berries proved difficult, so DeAngelo was struck with the idea of using local Atlantic beach plums, which are relatives of the sloe. The third product in the Greenhook trifecta is the recently-launched Old Tom Gin. The overproof bottling is crafted from pot-distilled corn, juniper and botanicals and aged in bourbon casks before being finished in Oloroso sherry casks. Tours are available by appointment on Saturdays only, so be sure to call ahead to try all three of Greenhook’s bottlings while touring the northernmost distillery on the trail.

Locations: Brooklyn New York
Series & Type: Travel

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