As Manhattan's first distillery since Prohibition opens to the public, Vicki Denig takes a look at the city’s distilling scene and recommends four other NY-based distilleries to visit.
America’s craft spirits industry is booming – and New York is home to one of its fastest-growing markets. Featuring over 160 craft distilleries, the state is no stranger to well-made, small-batch spirits. For those looking to taste their way through a robust market, there’s possibly no better place on the East Coast to go.
Colin Spoelman, founder of Kings County Distillery, has seen a massive growth in New York’s distilling culture over the past decade. ‘In the beginning, more than half of the average visitors believed that bourbon could only be made in Kentucky; now people travel and ask about local spirits,’ he says.
Spoelman notes that just over a decade ago, craft distillers entered a market that was monopolised by corporate giants. ‘About a dozen distillers produced 99% of American whiskey,’ he says. He adds that small producers have initiated a revolution and built enthusiasm for all whiskey over the past decade or so.
However, what sets New York’s scene apart from others – aside from the delicious whiskeys of course – is its sense of camaraderie. ‘I feel very close to our peers in NY distilling,’ says Spoelman. ‘Once we were competitors, but we all share a common project: trying to articulate what defines NY whiskey and sets it apart from more established (and more commercialised) heartland bourbon.’
From a product perspective, Spoelman states that rye has long been a dominant theme in New York’s distilling regimen. More figuratively, a focus on ‘getting geeky’ about ingredients and process, as well as creating a culture of openness and transparency, have also long been themes in the state.
‘Whiskey appreciators have been a niche audience for a long time, but that group is growing at lighting pace,’ explains Spoelman. ‘The average visitor is a lot more informed and curious now than 10 years ago – and my hope is that it all just keeps going.’
He describes today’s whiskey aficionados as: ‘Better consumers that do better for the world when they know and care about what they buy and drink.’ Judging by the pace at which the scene is growing, the future looks bright.
Best distilleries to visit in New York
Great Jones Distillery
686 Broadway, New York, NY 10012
For the first time since Prohibition, a Manhattan-based distillery has opened its doors to craft whiskey enthusiasts – and it promises to give New York City’s longtime distillery base of Brooklyn a run for its money. ‘Our aim is to celebrate the best that New York has to offer by using New York-grown grains, and ensuring that all aspects of our whiskey production are completed in the state of New York,’ says Rodrigo Braun, brand experience director at Great Jones Distillery. In addition to operating as a distillery, GJD also boasts an on-site restaurant, event space and retail shop, featuring a variety of artisanal products made in New York State.
Braun reveals that there are a number of exciting things on the horizon for Great Jones Distillery this year. From late January, the distillery will expand its hours of operation to seven days per week, which will accommodate tours and include the second floor’s bar. Additionally, the distillery will continue to experiment with exclusive bottlings, as well as adding distilling classes to its current tour and programming repertoire. The Grid restaurant will also add new specialty dishes to its menu throughout the year. Follow @greatjonesdistillingco on Instagram to stay tuned or sign up for the distillery’s newsletter.
What you need to know
Open: Mon-Sun 12pm-10pm / 2nd Floor Bar is open 3pm-10pm daily
Tour cost: $35 Signature Distillery Tour (3.30pm, 4.30pm, 5:30pm and 6.30pm daily); $60 Bourbon & Bites Tour (Mon-Tue, 7.30pm); $145 Canapés and Cocktails (Mon-Tue, 7.30pm); $110 The Shake Up (a hands-on cocktail class).
Tasting cost: Tastings included with tours.
Must try: Straight Bourbon, Four Grain Bourbon, Rye
Kings County Distillery
299 Sands St, Brooklyn, NY 11205
Kings County has been operating in the heart of Brooklyn since April 2010, at a time when craft spirits – particularly bourbon – were synonymous with big brands and Kentucky almost exclusively. Since then, Colin Spoelman, the distillery’s founder, has seen a ‘revolution built on enthusiasm’ for the craft whiskey sector. ‘We make all of our whiskey ourselves, which allows us to control more of the process on our custom-built equipment,’ he says, also citing the distillery’s emphasis on sensory evaluation, blending and warehouse conditions.
Spoelman explains that Kings County ‘infuses creativity into all our whiskey, hoping not to compete with Kentucky bourbon, but to expand the idea of American whiskey to include more flavours, more diversity and more transparency.’ In addition to tasting through the distillery’s staples, be sure to keep an eye out for its 7-Year Single Barrel bottlings, which have recently been released from the distillery.
What you need to know
Open: Mon-Fri 2pm-10pm; Sat 12pm-10pm; Sun 12pm-8pm
Tour cost: $20 (45 minute tour). Offered at 3pm Wed-Thu; 3pm and 5pm Fri; 1pm, 3pm, 5pm Sat; 4pm Sun. Top Shelf tours (1 hour, 15 minutes and including two additional rare whiskeys) offered at 2pm and 4pm Sat; 2pm Sun.
Tasting cost: Tour includes four whiskeys.
Must try: Straight Bourbon, Moonshine, Corn Whiskey, Bottled-in-Bond Bourbon
NY Distilling Co
79 Richardson St, Brooklyn, NY 11211
According to Allen Katz, distiller and owner of NY Distilling Co, New York State’s distilling scene is the ‘largest, most diverse and competitive’ in the US. A decade after launching his distillery, Katz is continuing to evolve and expand, though like Schlesselman, he feels that NY Distilling’s stronghold is found in its rye. ‘If there’s one thing that highlights our particular outlook and contribution, it would be our singular and purposeful focus, from day one, on rye whiskey,’ he says.
In the future, Katz plans to craft more exciting rye whiskeys. Currently, the team is working on new blends, secondary barrel finishes and a one-of-a-kind rye varietal that’s already been 12 years in the making.
What you need to know
Open: Wed-Fri 5pm-12am, Sat 2pm-12am, Sun 4pm-10pm
Tour cost: Distillery tours not offered at the moment
Tasting cost: $15 Gin Flight (Dorothy Parker, Dorothy Parker Rose, and Perry’s Tot); $15 Whiskey Flight (Ragtime Rye, Applejack Barrel Finish, Bottled in Bond, House Single Barrel)
Must try: Ragtime Rye, Dorothy Parker American Gin
Van Brunt Stillhouse
6 Bay St Fl 1, Brooklyn, NY 11231
Now 10 years into the game, Van Brunt Distillery is expanding like never before. Founder Daric Schlesselman recalls that just a decade ago, only a handful of stores carried local spirits but now, almost every boutique shop has a section dedicated to the category. ‘I think all the NY distilleries are worthy of visiting,’ says Schlesselman, highlighting the ‘tremendous depth and variety’ amongst the state’s establishments.
Contrary to other regional bottlings, Schlesselman feels that NY state whiskeys – particularly its rye – have distinct points of view, as well as benefitting from a strong focus on grain bill and fermentation as sources of complexity before hitting the barrel. As Van Brunt continues to evolve and create new whiskeys, he coyly advises us to stay tuned for reveals of projects that are ‘still under wraps’. For now, a visit to the distillery (and a heft pour of its rye) will more than suffice.
What you need to know
Open: Wed-Fri 4pm-7pm, Sat 12pm-8pm, Sun 12pm-6pm
Tour cost: $10
Tasting cost: Included with tour.
Must try: Empire Rye, Bourbon
Widow Jane Distillery
218 Conover St, Brooklyn, NY 11231
Since Widow Jane’s opening in 2012, the number of craft distilleries in the country has increased tenfold, according to president and head distiller, Lisa Wicker. However, what sets Widow Jane apart from others – even other New York-based distilleries – is its special location. ‘Red Hook is such a unique place,’ Wicker explains, describing a ‘rawness, grit and intensity’ to the neighborhood. ‘It’s really its own piece of Brooklyn. Red Hook makes you work for it – you have to WANT to get there. And once you do, it rewards you.’
Wicker notes that Widow Jane proofs all of its whiskeys to bottle strength using limestone-rich water from the Rosendale Mines, a source that’s also provided raw materials to create the Brooklyn Bridge and the Empire State Building. Widow Jane has ambitious plans to greatly expand its output, as well as to grow its proprietary heirloom strand of corn. Although a visit to the distillery demands a trek, the journey – and liquid rewards – are well worth it.
What you need to know
Open: Mon-Fri 9am-5pm; Sat-Sun 11am-7pm
Tour cost: $20 Public Tour (Fri 3pm, Sat-Sun 1pm, 3pm, 5pm). $30 Private tour (available by appointment Wed-Sun).
Tasting cost: Included with all tours.
Must try: 10-Year Bourbon, Decadence Bourbon, Baby Jane Bourbon (a distillery exclusive), Lucky Thirteen Bourbon