Beer Before Whiskey
All photos by Keith Allison
In oversimplified terms, whiskey is distilled beer. So it makes sense that a number of new distilleries have been started by people with brewing experience. In New York City, there are several craft brewing success stories but none on quite the scale as Brooklyn Brewery and certainly few others whose origin story includes war zones, forklift jacking, and Mafia strongmen. The brewery, which sits in the heart of what was formerly a burnt-out and derelict neighborhood known as Williamsburg, opened in 1987 after the borough had been devoid of breweries for a decade. At one time, Brooklyn was home to no fewer than 48 breweries, but over the years, that number dwindled. By 1976, there were none.
While the New York brewing industry was busy collapsing with the rest of the city, a foreign correspondent by the name of Steve Hindy was busy covering minor international news like the Iranian Revolution and the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. By the time he was getting taken hostage during the Lebanese civil war, a slightly safer job in New York (slightly -- this was New York during the 80s, after all) looked very appealing. Because home brewing (and distilling) flourishes in places where alcohol is illegal, Hindy became interested in making his own beer while in Saudi Arabia. Once in New York, he continues to experiment with home brewing, serving his efforts to friend and neighbors. One of those neighbors was banker Tom Potter. And over those home brews, the two of them began to develop a scheme that became Brooklyn Brewery.
The story of how Brooklyn brewery came to be is told in casual but detailed style, should one chose to tour their Williamsburg facility. And why would one not choose to do that? It’s free, and there’s a beer hall attached to it! The once shady location now sits across from a posh boutique hotel and just up the street from Smorgasburg, a gathering of some of the city’s most in-demand restaurants and food trucks. Tours of the former matzo factory are free (sadly, beer is not) and attract a large but not unmanageable crowd containing tourists, New York locals, and beer enthusiasts. While you sniff hops and grains amid the fermenters, you’ll hear the story of how the brewery came to be, including the multiple armed robberies they endured, the theft and thrilling recovery of their only forklift, how they sort-of conned Milton Glaser (creator of the I Love New York logo) into designing their logo, and the day a group of well-dressed “union representatives” dropped by to politely suggest that the brewery might want to find some creative ways to funnel more money to a certain local organization.
The tour doesn’t take long, and while there are no free tastings, there is the cavernous beer hall attached to the brewery, serving up Brooklyn Brewery staples, special editions, and every now and then something you can only get there. Brooklyn Brewery is now one of the most successful independent breweries in the country. It’s a big, rowdy experience but a lot of fun. You won’t walk away having had a nerdy one-on-one with brewmaster Garrett Oliver (most of the brewing actually takes
place in Utica, though a current expansion of the Brooklyn facility looks to expand it to handing half of what’s done), but you will get a good
history of the brewery and a lot of great energy from the people.
Ten minutes later, you can be at the whiskey that came after the beer.
In 2012, Tom Potter launched The New York Distilling Company just a stone’s throw away from the brewery, in McCarren Park. Though nearby, the distillery seems a world away from the controlled chaos of Brooklyn Brewery. It's smaller and quieter, and where the brewery has a rowdy beer hall attached to it, New York Distilling Company is home to The Shanty, a small but expertly
run bar that serves up fantastic cocktails and occasional live jazz. When I walked in hoping for a tour, co-founder Allen Katz was hanging out at the bar and took us in the back to take a look at the converted warehouse that is home to the company’s stills and barrels. Where Brooklyn Brewery sees hundreds of people taking a tour on any given day, there were seven us at New York Distilling -- and two of those people were there with me.
New York Distilling is “not a craft distillery,” insisted Katz on our tour. “We’re a boutique distillery. To say we’re craft means we think the big distillers aren’t, and that’s just not true.” It’s a refreshing attitude, to acknowledge how good at their job the major distilleries are, and how much of even the largest distilling operations is hand-done and “craft.” What New York Distilling wants to do isn’t to duke it out with the big companies. rather, they want to find something the big companies don’t do but for which there might be an audience. The distillery's first two products were both gins. Perry’s Tot is a “navy strength” gin, named for Commandant Matthew Perry and “navy strength” meaning 57% ABV, the proof at which gunpowder might still be fired should the gin be spilled on it. Dorothy Parker American Gin, named for the Algonquin Round Table regular, uses an unusual blend of botanicals, including elderberries, citrus, cinnamon, and hibiscus. Their newest product, Chief Gowanus New-Netherland Gin, is a collaboration with local spirits historian and bartender David Wondrich. It’s another reach back into history, a “Holland gin” where rye whiskey is returned to a pot still with juniper and hops then aged for three months in an oak barrel.
Eh, OK. Gin is all well and good, but I’m a whiskey gent myself. So what about NY Distilling’s rye whiskey? Fortunately and unfortunately, they are taking their time with it. Full-size barrels, actual aging -- it’s going to be sometime in 2014, at least, before we get to sample that one (though an unaged version of the rye they’re distilling is used to make Chief Gowanus).
Until then, you’ll just have to deal with a free tour and tasting of the gins. Rough, I know.
79 North 11th Street, Brooklyn
Tel: 718 486 7422
New York Distilling/The Shanty
79 Richardson St., Brooklyn
Mon 6pm-12am; Tue–Fri 6pm-2am; Sat 3pm-2am; Sun 3pm-12am
Tel: 718 878 3579