A Still Grows in Brooklyn

A group of enterprising distillers are hoping that Brooklyn will soon be as well known for fine spirits as it is for craft beer. The borough that spawned Brooklyn Brewery, Kelso of Brooklyn, Sixpoint Craft Ales and Coney Island Brewing, is now the home of more than a half dozen distilleries producing artisanal gin, rum, vodka, grappa and several varieties of whiskey (including moonshine) that are earning praise from spirits and cocktail lovers around the city.

Kings Country Distillery became the first legal whiskey distillery in New York City since Prohibition when it was licensed to sell spirits in April 2010. David Haskell and Colin Spoelman, who met at students at Yale, decided to start making spirits in Brooklyn after Spoelman, a native of Kentucky, brought back some moonshine after a visit home. “We started by trying to make a better-tasting moonshine, which is unaged corn whiskey” said Spoelman, “and then started aging some in barrels to make bourbon.” They founded the distillery in a tiny industrial space in Bushwick and sourced organic cracked corn from a farm near the Finger Lakes. The response from whiskey enthusiasts was immediately positive and the tiny 600-square-foot facility struggled to keep up with demand, with production limited to only two and a half gallons of finished spirits per day. Haskell and Spoelman had hired full-time employees but kept their own day jobs while they began to look for a larger space.

After searching across the borough, they discovered a 100-year-old brick building in the Brooklyn Navy Yard known as the Paymaster Building because military personnel got their paychecks there in World War II. Haskell and Spoelman were drawn to the historic site and the central location of the Navy Yard. They began production in the 7,000 square foot space in early 2012 and produce about 3,000 liters of bourbon and moonshine a month using New York grain and traditional distilling equipment. Kings County's moonshine won “Best in Category” for corn whiskey at the 2011 American Distilling Institute’s Craft Spirits Conference and the distillery won silver medals for both whiskies at the 2013 Conference.

The distillery at the Navy Yard is open for tours and tastings from 2:30 to 5:30 pm every Saturday. There is no phone but reservations are not needed and tours are very informal. Tours, which cost $8 and include a tasting, last about 45 minutes and run every 20-30 minutes.

Brad Estabrooke of Breuckelen Distilling Company
Brad Estabrooke left his day job in finance to launch Breuckelen Distilling Company in 2009, renting space in an industrial area near Red Hook. “I was committed to making spirits totally from scratch,” said Estabrooke, “and producing it all here in Brooklyn.” He bought a custom-made still from Ulrich Kothe in Eislingen, Germany and focused initially on gin, sourcing wheat from Oechsner Farms, an organic farm near Ithaca. Estabrooke sold his first Breuckelen Gin in July 2010 to rave reviews from gin lovers. “My gin has a different flavor profile from the traditional London Dry gins,” said Estabrooke, “with a lighter juniper flavor and other botanicals like rosemary and grapefruit peel.” Estabrooke also credits the smoothness of his gin to his process of distilling each botanical separately in base spirit before blending them together to make the finished product. With his gin launched, Estabrooke next began using the same base spirits to make a wheat whiskey, which he aged in new oak barrels from Kentucky. His whiskey hit the market in June 2011 and Breuckelen’s gin and whiskey are both selling well in bars throughout the borough and in Manhattan. Estabrooke has since added bourbon to his product offerings and is also looking to add rye whiskey.

(l to r) Tom Potter, Bill Potter, Nate Dumas, Allen Katz of New York Distilling
New York Distilling Company was launched in 2009 in a former warehouse in Williamsburg that was renamed The Shanty by its co-founders, Tom Potter, Allen Katz and Bill Potter. Tom Potter is no stranger to start-ups, having been a co-founder of Brooklyn Brewery in 1987. After retiring from the growing craft brewery in 2004, Potter traveled the world in search of kayaking adventures before returning to Brooklyn in 2008 and starting work on establishing a distillery. He joined forces with Katz, a leading expert on distilled spirits and cocktails and the Director of Spirits Education & Mixology for Southern Wine and Spirits, and his son Bill, who has trained as a distiller and gained his Spirits Specialist certification (CSS) from the Society of Wine Educators.

After finding The Shanty and beginning extensive renovation of the building, including bringing in all necessary utilities, the Potters and Katz enlisted the help of consulting distiller Jason Grizzanti. Grizzanti is the co-founder and director of operations at Warwick Valley Winery and Distillery in the western Hudson Valley, and is recognized as one of the most experienced artisan distillers in New York, having trained at both the Seibel Institute in Chicago and Heriot-Watt University in Scotland. Warwick Valley Distillery has another connection to Brooklyn since it is also the contract distillery for Brooklyn Gin, a company launched in 2010 by Park Slope resident Joe Santos.

With Grizzanti’s assistance, New York Distilling refined the recipes for its initial spirits on Warwick’s Christian CARL still, the same manufacturer from Stuttgart, Germany that was making a new still for The Shanty. With construction completed in the fall of 2011 and its new still in place, New York Distilling began producing its first spirit, an American dry gin that will be marketed as “Dorothy Parker American Gin” in honor of the famous writer and tippler. “This gin has a distinct aroma from the inclusion of hibiscus and elderberries,” said Potter. Next up will be “Perry’s Tot Navy Strength Gin,” named after Commodore Matthew Perry who was in charge of the Brooklyn Navy Yard from 1841-43. These gins hit the market in December 2011 followed by an American Rye whiskey made with New York State grains sourced from the Peterson Farm in Lake Geneva.

Van Brunt Stillhouse opened in April 2012 near the Red Hook waterfront, founded by Daric Schlesselman, an editor with “The Daily Show.” The first product was Due North Rum, a full-flavored light rum, and Van Brunt is now also producing Red Hook Grappa, made from Lieb Cellars Pinot Blanc grapes, and a malt whiskey. Plans are in the works for additional spirits including a rye whiskey.

One of the newest distilleries to open in Brooklyn is Industry City Distillery, which opened in 2012 in the old Bush Terminal in Sunset Park alongside the Gowanus Expressway. The distillery makes sugar beet vodka and uses a process that produces a distinctive flavor quite different from typical flavorless vodkas. Their first sprit to hit the market was Industry City Distillery No.2 Vodka, and they are currently producing No.4 and hope to have it available later this year. Tours and tastings are given every Sunday afternoon and for more details you can email tours@drinkicd.com.

With the early success of these start-ups, it is not surprising that more distilleries are in the works. While no one expects a return to Prohibition days when there were an estimated 50,000 stills operating in Brooklyn, someday soon the Borough of Kings may be reborn as the Borough of Spirits.

Breuckelen Distilling Company
77 19th Street
Brooklyn, NY
(347) 725-4985

Industry City Distillery
33 35th Street, 6th Floor
Brooklyn, NY
(917) 727-5309

Kings County Distillery
Brooklyn Navy Yard, Bldg 121
63 Flushing Avenue
Brooklyn, NY

New York Distilling Company
4065 Richardson Street
Brooklyn, NY
(718) 412-0874

Van Brunt Stillhouse
6 Bay St
Brooklyn, NY
(718) 852-6405

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