Obsessive Brooklyn locavores (locaholics?) have a new prey: small-batch spirits and wines, made right here in the borough. Sure, the small quantities can mean higher price points, so not a lot of bars feature them in their house cocktails (or else can’t yet get their hands on a bottled product)—but that just makes the hunt more exciting. Here then, is our brief guide to the best of local booze in Brooklyn. Happy drinking!
Kings County Distillery
When April 15 rolls around next week, Colin Spoelman and David Haskell will reach for bottles of moonshine and whiskey—but not because it’s Tax Day. The date will mark the Kings County Distillery’s two-year anniversary, making it the oldest of Brooklyn’s microdistilleries—but the co-owners won’t be in full celebration mode just yet. They’re in the process of moving the company’s operations from Williamsburg to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where they’ll occupy a 100-plus-year-old building not far from the York Street F stop. The new shop will feature a tasting room (the old location was too small to house one) and, if the soil tests come back ok, a patch of ground for growing corn. The duo plans to use the harvest for their moonshine, which the American Distilling Institute crowned best in the country last year. For now, the microdistillery relies on corn yields from organic farms upstate and malted barley from Scotland for its ingredients.
Whaddaya mean there’s a winery in Brooklyn? Ok, technically the grapes are trucked in from the Finger Lakes area and California, but once the tiny red and green orbs cross the threshold of Brooklyn Winery in Williamsburg, they’re goners. Winemaker Conor McCormack and her crew work the grapes on site, and visitors to the warm, wood-paneled space can see their handiwork in the stacked barrels visible behind the venue’s glazed walls. They can also feed on the winery’s fine grub, sip on wine tapped directly from barrels, and listen to live music. Soon the curious and connoisseurs alike will be able to buy the outfit’s goods beyond the winery’s walls: 2012 is the year it goes distro. There are just five cases of the Riesling left, says co-owner John Stires. The unlucky who miss purchasing one of the precious bottles can look forward to a new pinot noir, “orange chardonnay,” and rosé from the winery in June.
Kelso of Brooklyn
Don’t let this brewery fool you. Just because it’s not as long in the tooth as Brooklyn Brewery, which started in the 1980s, doesn’t mean it’s a babe in the woods: Proprietor Kelly Taylor began his career in San Diego as a brewmaster at the city’s sole brewery in 1991. In fact, much of the staff at Kelso has spent time at breweries on the West Coast, and has a deep understanding of the craft. Taylor, who runs Kelso with his wife Sonya Giacobbe (the brewery derives its name from a combo of their names), believes New York’s scene is about fifteen years behind its more established West Coast counterpart, but thinks economies of scale skew the comparison. “Every day more and more places open that have 10,000 square-foot beer gardens. It’s insane the amount of beer consumption that can happen here in the city,” he said, comparing it to smaller markets out West. Suffice to say, Kelso is doing well, with beers like its nut-brown lager popular among afficionados. Look for the saison it’ll release in May—it’s one Taylor and Giacobbe featured at their wedding, so you know it’s good.
Van Brunt Stillhouse
Offering perhaps the widest range of spirits from Brooklyn’s growing microdistillery scene, Van Brunt Stillhouse will debut its amber rum at its official opening in Red Hook on April 28, as well as grappa and—eventually—whiskey and moonshine. (Beware the competition, Kings County!) Operator Daric Schlesselman was distilling a Scotch-style malt whiskey as we went to press, but because of the aging process, which can last a year or more, the batch won’t be available until 2013. No matter—his rum is ready now due to the shorter aging period (about three months), as is his grappa, which he developed from Red Hook Winery’s pomace, the grape skin and seed left over from the winemaking process. Today’s grappa is from a pinot noir grape, and we can attest to its smooth deliciousness. Adventurous locaholics who want to give Van Brunt’s wares a go will have to travel to Red Hook distribution spots like Dry Dock and Good Fork to find the elixirs until Schlesselman branches out to
Started by brothers Philip and Steven DeAngelo, this Greenpoint-based microdistillery is one of the newest on the scene, having just opened to favorable reviews in February. Already, mixologists like Sam Anderson at Hotel Delmano in Williamsburg are experimenting with the aromatic, 94-proof (higher than most) liquor, which uses New York state wheat for its base and features a range of natural additives, such as Irish root, chamomile, coriander, and elderflower. True to inventive form, Anderson recently paired it with egg whites, cinnamon, vanilla syrup, and lime and lemon juices in a delectable concoction he’s considering adding to the bar’s spring menu. Consumers interested in making their own Greenhook potions might pair it with Q Tonic (made locally in Dumbo) for the classic G&T, though the gin is only carried in Manhattan and Brooklyn for now.
Making bitters for his roomie Eddie Simeon was initially a hobby for Williamsburg-based freelance filmmaker Ben Harrison, until he wanted to make a “large” batch of fifty bottles of the non-potable liquor, a classification that allows it to be sold on grocery store shelves alongside, say, vanilla extract. He crowdfunded the project through Kickstarter last April and, after receiving an overwhelming response (he asked for $960 and received $2,456), decided to turn his pastime into a business. Joined by Simeon and partners Tobin Ludwig and Jomaree Pinkard, Harrison now markets his products in Brooklyn and at a handful of West Coast outlets. Hot Bread Kitchen recently selected the group for its incubator program in Spanish Harlem, so soon Hella Bitter will have a proper manufacturing space for its product, which pairs naturally with gin. Heavier, stickier, thicker and, yes, more bitter than others of its kind, Hella Bitter gets mad points for straying beyond the relentlessly local focus of other distillers and brewers in its naming process, though, who knows? Once the Brooklyn quartet hot-foots it to Harlem, Hella Harlem Bitter could have a nice ring to it.
Brooklyn Winery, Greenhook Ginsmiths and Hella Bitter
Photos by Samantha Sutcliffe
Van Brunt Stillhouse Photo Courtesy Van Brunt Stillhouse