Before Prohibition, New York City was home to more than 1,000 farm distillers, who made alcohol from fruits and grains, but the 1919 Volstead Act changed everything—destroying the industry in less than a decade. When Prohibition finally ended, new legislation added prohibitively expensive licensing fees for distilleries, increasing bootlegging activities and putting an end to most legitimate distilling.
But an exciting new day is dawning. The Farm Distiller Act of 2007 reduced licensing fees from nearly $50,000 to $1,500, and is spurring a burst of new distilleries in the Empire State. As of 2009, 12 to 15 distillers operated in New York, and Ralph Erenzo, distiller and partner of Tuthilltown Spirits, tells us a recent count shows about 30 distillers in New York—12 of which are in Brooklyn.
Increased access to high-quality ingredients and advances in technology also are helping to fuel the recent distilling boom; the madness is particularly hot in the rye department. But producing and aging whiskies like rye and bourbon takes time. Whiskey is generally aged before sale, sometimes as long as 20 years, and in order to make a profit as whiskies get their age on, distillers are crafting vodkas and gins. The vodka craze has somewhat passed (although plenty of artisans are making good local product!), but artisanal gin is gaining popularity and remains exciting for its infinite variety of aromatics herb and spice blends, and, more importantly, both liquors are quickly turned into revenue.
So while we're waiting for the local whiskies to barrel-age, we've checked out a few of the local gin distillers breaking in to this multi-billion (with a B) dollar industry to see what they're up to.
Distiller: Greenhook Ginsmiths, American Dry Gin (Retail $33)
Fruit and floral notes are the standout at Greenhook Ginsmiths, and they would be lost without Greenhook's vacuum distilling process. Removing air pressure from the still enables lower temperature distilling, which preserves the volatile aromatic components. This isn't necessary in rum or whiskey distillation, but with gin, the herbs, spices, and especially the delicate floral elements degrade in the heat. "Traditional methods break down aromas, but vacuum distilling allows the flavors and aromas to come through bold and bright," says Steven DeAngelo, distiller and co-owner at Greenhook.
DeAngelo further explains their use of New York organic wheat: "It's more expensive but has a soft quality so it can carry a higher alcohol level (94 proof) without seeming hot." The core botanicals of juniper, coriander, chamomile, elderflower, and citrus are balanced with supporting notes of Ceylon cinnamon, elderberry, galangal, and orris root. DeAngelo explains that the orris root has only a subtle floral note (it's the root of the iris plant) but is mainly used for blending and boosting the other floral elements.
Local Libations: Momofuku Bar Manager John deBary loves the stand-out notes of the chamomile: "We use Greenhook American Dry in our Locavore cocktail at Momofuku Má Pêche. It's mixed with kumquat marmalade, blueberry, and lemon juice, a riff on the classic cosmopolitan. The ethereal floral character is nicely balanced with a great juniper backbone—a must for classic gin."
Alexander Pfaffenbach, service manager at Tribeca Grill loves the austerity of Greenhook's American Dry Gin. "It's incredibly clean and bright with subtle herbal qualities. For a gin drinker who is looking for a lighter, cleaner style than the heavy handed Tanqueray or Hendricks, Greenhook is best stirred and served up in a chilled martini glass." The crisp style did, however, inspire him to create a Negroni-style cocktail called The Grown Up.
Rustun Nichols, bar manager at The Ides bar at the Wythe Hotel in Williamsburg, uses Greenhook's American Dry gin in the Brooklyn Queen (named after one of the hotel rooms). Created by bartender Kevin Shafer, the gin is blended with grapefruit, Velvet Falernum, and sparkling wine, for a perfectly elegant and revitalizing summer cocktail.
Distiller: Brueckelen Distilling Company, Glorious Gin (Retail: $34)
Gino Di Stefano, one of the five "jack of all trades" that keep Brueckelen up and running, explains that their gin stands out from others because they distill the individual botanicals separately and blend after the distillation process. Milling 8,000 pounds of Ithaca-farmed grain per week, they are not seeking neutral spirits, but rather highlighting the flavor of the New York organic grain. Lemon, ginger, juniper, rosemary, and grapefruit are the botanicals here, but juniper takes a back seat, setting Brueckelen's "Glorious Gin" apart from the others. A velvety body with honey character, the gin is more floral than pine, with a viscous, buttery mouthfeel. There is a smooth heat and citrus finish that complete the flavor profile, which is quite good as a sipping gin, without the need for mixers.
Local Libation: Rye House's selection of whiskey can be overwhelming, but the friendly staff immediately makes you feel welcome. In fact, the entire bartending team contributes to cocktail development, and if our sampling of the Baroness cocktail is any indication, they're doing it right. Mixologist Jennifer Wood developed the drink, and its balanced blend of citrus, lavender and Brueckelen Distilling's Glorious Gin are a refreshing lift at this popular watering hole.
New York Distilling Company, Distiller: Perry's Tot – Navy Strength Gin (Retail: $30)
The core botanicals in Perry's Tot are juniper, coriander, lemon, orange, and grapefruit. The secondary, more gentle spice notes are cinnamon, green cardamom, and star anise. "A tiny amount of wildflower honey from upstate New York gives the gin a floral earthiness, particularly on the nose and front palate," says Allen Katz, co-founder of New York Distilling Company. He explains that Perry's Tot is best used in cocktails like a classic gin and tonic or gimlet, but Katz admits the secret here is "with this strength, 1.5 ounces goes a long way."
Katz explains the historic references in the name and properties of their gins: Perry's Tot is named after Matthew Calbraith Perry, who served as Commandant of the Brooklyn Navy Yard in the 1800's. Navy Strength refers to the unusually high 57 percent ABV. Sailors were paid in gin and rum, so plenty of spirits were on board and vital to daily life. If gin was spilled into the gunpowder, the high ABV didn't destroy the gunpowder, allowing it fire normally. "Tot" simply comes from the British slang for a shot of spirits.
Local Libation: Tom Richter, mixologist at NYC's The Beagle, uses Perry's Tot for his take on the gin and tonic. Using his own Tomr's Tonic, Richter's Tonic and Gin lets the subtle honey and botanicals in the gin add a new dimension to a classic cocktail
The Beagle's Bar Manager Dan Greenbaum is also a "big fan of Perry's Tot and [the other spirits at] NY Distilling Co. We're doing a drink on the menu now called the Lifetime Ban, which has some fino Sherry, blanc vermouth and Perry's Tot, stirred with mint. It's a play on an old drink called the Cooperstown."
Distiller: New York Distilling Company Dorothy Parker Gin (Retail: $31)
Another gin from New York Distilling Company with historic roots is its Dorothy Parker gin. The prohibition satirist was a "damn good drinker," explains Katz, and somewhat unconventional for her time. So is the gin: more contemporary in style, with stronger notes of juniper, coriander, and lemon and orange peel. Nontraditional components are the elderberry and dry hibiscus petals. The fruit and floral notes are predominant on the nose, so Katz recommends using "Dorothy" for a gin sour, "but it's also nice in a more bitter gin cocktail like a Negroni, because the fruit and floral notes recess nicely in mixing with other modifiers."
Local Libations: Alexander Pfaffenbach at Tribeca Grill admires the remarkable floral qualities of the Dorothy Parker gin: "Perfect to mix with champagne or sparkling wine, spinning off of a French 75."
At New York's Pouring Ribbons, Partner and Head Bartender Joaquín Simó explains the Death & Taxes cocktail, named after a collection of Dorothy Parker's poetry. Over the course of Pouring Ribbons's first seven months, it has proved to be our most popular drink. Not too shabby for a gin drink with vermouth and slivovitz, an ingredient lineup that hardly sets most drinkers' hearts afire. But using top-notch products makes creating delicious and balanced drinks a much easier task."