This past weekend my wife and I got to tour the Breuckelen Distillery in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. We were part of a small group that Brad Estabrooke showed around the distillery thanks to Open House New York.
The distillery is located in a warehouse district sandwiched between the water and the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. While the exterior isn't much to look at, it took my wife and I a few tries to find the door amid all the industrial building, the owners are proud of their place in Brooklyn. Not only naming the distillery after Brooklyn but also their current line of whiskey is called "77 Whiskey" after the street address, 77 19th Street, and all the distilling and aging take place in Brooklyn.
While the outside of the distillery isn't picturesque, once you step inside you know it's a serious operation. A huge still, mixer, and tanks dominate the room, with shrink-wrapped barrels stacked on pallets next to sacks of grain. Over the next hour Brad showed us around the place and explained what role everything played in the process of turning water and wheat into whiskey. We even got to sample freshly distilled whiskey straight out of the still and smell the difference between the head, tails, and heart of the current batch.
While I enjoyed learning more about the distilling process, the story behind Breuckelen Distillery really resonated with me. Brad turned getting laid off from a high paying but unsatisfying job in finance into the launching point for a distillery. As opposed to many people who start a distillery, brewery, or winery, Brad wasn't a whiskey snob, he was simply fascinated with the idea of taking a commodity and transforming it into something special that people can enjoy. At Breuckelen they take wheat, yeast, water, and an oak barrel and turn it into great whiskey and gin.
This approach permeates how Breuckelen is run. They do everything from scratch when they can. There are no additives or extras or shortcuts taken. As Brad freely admits, this isn't always the most economical model since it is often expensive and time consuming. After all, there's a reason many of the larger and less expensive distilleries use additives and short cuts...it's cheap.
This theory of taking simple commodities and turning them into something great also extends to how they source their ingredients and labor. Realizing what makes them different from other distilleries is their location in Brooklyn and in New York, they source all their ingredients from local producers. Their whiskey distilled from wheat only uses wheat grown in New York; the rye and corn for their rye whiskey was all sourced locally as well. All the distilling and aging also takes place in Brooklyn.
Brad would prefer everything to be grown in New York City but sometimes they need to branch out. For the first few years they were unable to find oak barrels made exclusively from New York oak but this is now changing as more distilleries are opening up in the area.
They also ran into trouble with their gin since it can be hard to find juniper and citrus in the city. They had to turn to New York State itself. Another tour member floated the solution of picking the wild juniper berries that grow in Central Park...we all thought this was a great idea, plus it would get them a lot of publicity when they were arrested!
After the tour we had a wonderful 5 bottle sampling of their current spirits. They make 2 types of whiskey, one distilled from wheat and one distilled from rye and corn, both are aged in fresh oak barrels for several years. The un-aged whiskey distilled from wheat is also used as the base for their gin, which is then infused with various flavoring agents like juniper and citrus peel. Some of their gin is bottled right away but they also put some up in barrels, creating a very flavorful aged gin.
During our tasting we tried both variations of their 77 Whiskey, the wheat and the rye, as well as the Glorious Gin, and two types of barrel aged Glorious Gin. We really enjoy the flavor of the spirits and walked away with 2 bottles of whiskey, a gin and an aged gin.
All in all it was a great tour and fun to learn more about the distilling process. I always love to hear from people who are passionate about their work and have a well-defined viewpoint that they stick to.
Breuckelen Distillery sells their spirits in about half the country, so be sure to look for them at a liquor store near you. I'd highly recommend picking up a bottle or two if you like unique whiskey or gin. If you'd like a further look at the distillery, there's a great 6 minute Made By Hand movie about their start.