Showing posts from April, 2017

Milk Street Distillery, or Two Brothers Making Rum in a Barn

You can tell right away that Gordon and Mike, of Milk Street Distillery in Branchville, NJ, are brothers. It's not so much in how they look as how they flip each other off when I ask them to pose for a picture. (Thankfully, they strike a  hands-in-pockets pose soon after). Even if they weren't related, these guys would have to love each other, for the amount of time they spend together.

Before deciding to devote their lives to making delicious spirits, the two were contractors for twenty-three years. The slowdown in housing construction, and a single article about a change to New Jersey's craft spirits laws, sent them on their journey. A quick restoration of a nineteenth century barn later, Milk Street Distillery is now the life of Branchville.

I show up 10am on a Tuesday, when things are a bit sleepier.  The drive out to Branchville takes me through scenic forests, valleys and farmland. I don't have to stop and read the historic markers dotting the highway to know th…

Hard Way is the Jersey Way at Claremont Distillery

At this point, I've been on the road touring distilleries for about three weeks and I've noticed a trend. In distilling, as with any type of multi-step manufacture, there are various shortcuts one could take to save time, money, cut down on waste, and so forth. The customer would never be able to detect, in the resulting spirit, if any of these shortcuts were taken.

There are plenty of distillers who make their spirits without shortcuts. They call their way old-fashioned, authentic, "hand crafted," etc.  Or they don't draw much attention to it all. I understand, if someone takes steps that others may consider 'unnecessary,' why they would feel compelled to seek acknowledgement for it. If they didn't, no one would know the difference.

I write all this as a long-winded introduction to Chris DeGasperis, head distiller at Claremont Distillery in Fairfield, NJ. They are the only distillery I've encountered so far making vodka from potatoes; no easy f…

Silk City Distillers: Ghosts of Newark Haunt this Whiskey

Tim and Jim, the men behind Silk City Distillers in Clifton, are exactly who you'd want to welcome you to New Jersey. That is, if you're not fortunate enough to be from here and have your old bedroom waiting for you.

Silk City has had its doors open for about eighteen months. That may not sound like long, but as I learn, New Jersey has been particularly slow in granting distilling licenses. The process took Tim and Jim about two years. There are plenty of other distilleries completing the process, so expect a lot more opening their doors soon.

Standing in the middle of their workshop, you can see all of Silk City's operation. There's a couple of fermentation tanks and mash tuns, and an all-stainless steel still in the corner. A far corner contains their in-the-works tasting room. Barrels are stacked up on a rack lining one wall. And of course there's Tim and Jim, joking with each other as they bounce around from one task to another. This is clearly a lighthearted …

Mad Scientists at Still the One Distillery

Even if you plan on having the teensiest of samples at Still the One Distillery in Port Chester, NY- hang on, you are in for a long day.

Before I meet either of the distilling geniuses here, I am greeted by the sweetest black lab, Branzino. That's right, as in sea bass. Most distillery animals are named Malt, Barley, Cooper, but not here. You know something is different at Still the One, as you're hands are licked clean by the most non-fishy dog ever.

Then there's distillers Ryan and Tyler. These guys might as well be brothers. Plaid shirts? Check. Lumberjack beards? Check. Finish each other's sentences? Nearly there. They met while working at another distillery. Tyler had been distilling for several years by that point. Ryan was just learning the craft, coming from a home-brewing background. The two ended up living together for a while. Ryan describes it as immersive an experience as you could possibly get: twelve-hour-days at the distillery, followed by tutorials wi…

Nelson's Green Brier Distillery: Every Family has Its Secrets

A more cynical person will feel like they've been had, by the time the tour guide gets to the big reveal at Nelson's Green Brier Distillery in Nashville. I can appreciate a good corporate mythology, so have to give the Nelson Brothers some credit. Here's the gist of the story:

In a 1850, a 15-year-old German immigrant named Charles Nelson boarded a ship head for New York, along with his family. Why? So they're descendants could be fat, immigrant-fearing, social-media-addicted Americans. Or in shorthand: a better life.

It seems like immigrants stories swing between biblical hardships and Forrest-Gump-like accidents of luck. Herr Nelson's is no different. His father supposedly fell overboard the steamship and sunk to his death, due to the gold bars he sewed into the lining of his jacket. There went all the family's savings.

Starting from scratch and moving to Nashville, Charles and his brother bounced around different manufacturing trades, crossing paths (and so…

I went to a hoedown and a distillery broke out

Only by chance did I pick the perfect day and time to visit Rebecca Creek Distillery in San Antonio, TX. You wouldn't think Wednesday around 11am would be a particularly exciting time. But on this day, the country duo Smithfield are performing, promoting a reality show they're in the process of filming.  There's also a camera crew for a syndicated network show called "Best Of." The show is about to name Rebecca Creek the best Texas craft distillery for 2017, so they are capturing footage. Local TV news and a country music station have joined in as well. Add a decent bbq food truck (I'm sorry I was surprised by how good they were) and a tasting bar run by lovely Helena, and you've got yourself a party.

Because this is a big event for Rebecca Creek, I get to meet quite a few of their folk.

At the top of the totem pole there's founder Steve Ison. He tells me how once he conceived the idea of Rebecca Creek, he knew he would need the business acumen of fr…

Copper Shot Distillery: Sippin' whiskey in the dark with some good ol' boys

I can't imagine what Mike and Steve must have thought of me as they watched me approach Copper Shot Distillery from the safety of their porch. I say "approach," but it was more like slide down a muddy hill.

It started raining on the drive over, my poor wipers straining to keep up with the onslaught. I'm told this kind of rolling deluge is common to central Texas, regardless of season. This is the first time it's rained in my now-week-and-a-half foray into the state, so I'm taking it in like the tourist I am.

Copper Shot Distillery is hidden in a recreated or restored old West village, to the right just as you cross the bridge into downtown Bastrop, TX. The problem with sticking to authenticity is that dirt roads turn to mud in rain.

I park in what I assume is the parking lot, atop a hill overlooking the distillery. It appears that the most direct way down is a quick stumble/slide down the hill. When I get to the bottom, I look up and there's Mike and Ste…

Joe Alecci means business at Bone Spirits

I don't know if it's just because I told Joe that I write this blog, but speaking with the distiller at Bone Spirits in Smithville, TX, one gets the feeling that he's got a message for the world. That message is: Joe feels personally responsible for every ingredient that ends up in one of his bottles. That's a lot to take on.

As he sets me up for the tasting, I ask about the name of the distillery. He says it's short for their philosophy of "bare bones." No additives, no extra enzymes or additives to get the yeast to start breaking down starch. All spirits bearing the name Bone must start with grain delivered in sacks through his retracting doors. He is so worked up, I suddenly have an image of Joe swiping the plastic cup from my hand, soup Nazi style: "no gin for you!" I sink into the safety of the bar stool as Joe presses on.

Localness of ingredients is a recurring theme among the distillers I meet. It's fortunate that Texas grows a lot o…

Can you get great BBQ in Brooklyn?

Yes, but you'd be forgiven for thinking "no." I thought the same, until I happened upon Hometown Barbecue by chance.

I was in Red Hook, killing time before a distillery tour, so figured the waterfront area would be where all the food places are hiding. Ikea? Check.  Fairway Market, "Like No Other Market"? Check. But not much in the way of restaurants. There's Brooklyn Crab. As the name suggests, they are pretty focused on one thing.

Then I smell Hometown Barbecue before I realize it's there; announcing itself with the unmistakable scent of wood fire and meat smoking atop it. I'm inside immediately, where a line is already forming along the dining room wall. I quickly grab a bloody mary from the bar and claim my spot.

The bloody is very good, though not particularly hot. When I ask the bartender if he can make it extra spicy, he explains that the mix is pre-made, by way of apology. There's a great tang in there - more smoky than straightforward …

How am I not supposed to get addicted to Edwards Ridge Coffee Flavored Rum?

I could go on and on about the graciousness of my hosts at Edwards Ridge Distillery in San Antonio, husband and wife owners, Luis and Christy. I mean, they run over from their day jobs just to open the place up for me, when I call at 5:30pm on a Monday.

The tasting room is cozy and nicely, though sparsely, designed. It looks like the kind of place I'd like to hang out at after work (plenty of room for a pool table, guys). Suddenly, I don't feel so bad about summoning Luis and Christy. They even have movie nights here on Wednesdays.

The spirits currently available -three rums and an amaretto- come from the same sugar and molasses mash, and are strangely made in a moonshine pot still (from Hillbilly Stills in Kentucky). I'm told bourbon is on its way. It's currently aging.

The unaged and aged rum are pretty good, and the amaretto too hazelnutty for me to appreciate. But I simply fall in love with Edwards Ridge coffee-flavored rum. It is the unaged rum, at only 35 proof,…

What do you get with a chemist who loves to drink? Alamo Premium Distillery

I park where my genius phone tells me Alamo Premium Distillery should be, but I'm sure I have the wrong place. All I see is this young man out in the parking lot, chopping wood. Keep in mind, I'm not out in the sticks somewhere. This is a shout from San Antonio International Airport. Hell, I see planes landing at the end of the street.

"Hi, I'm Patrick," he comes over with outstretched hand, once he looks up and has spotted me. Patrick is twenty-four and an apprentice for Noel, the owner, who I soon meet once we head inside.

I don't say this as a knock against Alamo Premium Distillery, just setting the context: it is housed in a garage not meant for visitors. I squeeze my way through loaded up pallets. A woman sits at a table off to the side, sticking these little test tube-looking bottles into parcels. Noel explains that a couple of businesses are run from the distillery, including a spirits of the month club. I think that's a great idea and want to sig…

Dorcol Distilling Company: Leading the Hipster Charge, Straight outta Serbia

I arrived at Dorcol Distilling Company before I was supposed to, leaving me with time to wander around the neighborhood. The locals here in San Antonio call it SoFlo, for south of Flores. As I walk around, I get the sense that I amidst a calm before a hipster explosion.

It's mid-morning, mid-week. That means no one on the streets and few businesses are open. I take stock of the buildings themselves. Red brick, corrugated iron, and the few windows are opaque with time and metal mesh. This is clearly an industrial part of town. The flashing, clanking boom barrier of a train crossing stops me in my tracks. And there goes the miles of freight cars, rumbling the ground beneath me. Nothing unusual so far.

At a corner, there is a former gas station. It's closed down, windows papered-over; antique pumps and old sign left in place. The building is covered in a fresh coat of black paint and the driveway looks pristine. It dawns on me: I'm looking not at an expired business, but the…

Keeping it Texas at Ranger Creek Brewstillery

There are some people you meet, and you can just tell right away that they are decent folk. That's how I feel about Josh and Allen, two distillers from Ranger Creek Brewing and Distilling.

Ranger Creek is in San Antonio, but I met Josh and Allan at the tasting room of Andalusia Whiskey Co. That's just how these Texan distillers roll. Everyone is real supportive of each other (and you've got to sample what's out there). One of the first things Josh says to me when I meet him, and I tell him of my journey, is that I've gotta come down and visit them. Already on my list!

Here I am, half a week later, ringing the doorbell at Ranger Creek.  And there he is, Josh, my host for the next hour. He dutifully sets me up for a tasting at the bar.

Ranger Creek is all about whiskey (and beer, but I'll be sticking to the hard stuff). There's quite a variety. First I try their white (unaged) whiskey, at 100 proof, which is distilled from a 70% yellow corn, 16% rye and 14% …

Hill Country Distillers: They're doing WHAT with cacti?

Hill Country Distillers' cactus-based spirits have a lot going for them, just don't call it Moonshine!

This directive, delivered to me as soon as I meet Cayce Kovacs, co-owner along with her husband John, is confusing because "Moonshine" is slapped across all of their labels. John will explain all when we sit down for a cocktail at the end of the day, on the lovely grounds at the distillery in Comfort, TX.

For now, I'm handed off to Sean, their part-time bartender and tour guide. You couldn't ask for a better brand representative than him. That's because Sean has been around since the beginning of Hill Country Distillers. He is the son of distiller James, and went to a "moonshine school" in Kentucky with Kaycee and John before the distillery opened. He has been known to lend his two cents when the spirits need a skillful nudge.

Since John will be leading a tour in a little bit, Sean sets me up for a tasting at the front bar.

The prickly pear spi…

Going over to the Dark Side: Derelict Airship's Absinthe

I'll admit it: although I've drunk it before, I've never really understood absinthe. Luckily, the Austin area has Derelict Airship, makers of Violet Crown Absinthe, to explain it to me and let me sample some of their version.

It doesn't take long for Matt and Jessica, two of the four owners of Derelict Airship, to launch into the history of absinthe, as we step into their sparse production facility. The type and style absinthe drunk today has its roots in France, where it was used for broadly medical and preventative purposes starting around the 1840s. Think of it as the Tylenol of the Nineteenth Century. Plus, it was very potent at proofs over 100. Some versions supposedly contained the psychotropic compound thujone, which would be extracted from the common ingredient wormwood.

For Matt and Jessica, the pursuit of absinthe is all about flavor. As they point out, there are plenty of other, though not necessarily legal, ways to get high.

Their absinthe is made from a n…

Bar Notes: A Bourbon Education at Homespun

I'll say this: though Homespun Restaurant in Dripping Springs, TX has a very small bar area, everyone crammed in there on a Saturday night is friendly and talkative.

The restaurant itself is hard to miss. I chose it only because it's at the intersection of Dripping Springs' two main thoroughfares. And then you will hear the music. On this particular Saturday night,  it's a trio -drums, guitar and singer- doing country covers that lures me in. (They didn't know a single Johnny Cash request, but sang "Take Me Home, Country Roads" about a half dozen times.)

I would have preferred to sit at a table on the wraparound patio, as the night is warm and that's where the band is.  But it looks like I wasn't the only one with the idea to stop in after a day of distillery visits. There are several large groups here.

So the bar it is, comprising of about eight wood chairs in a row and a beautiful carved top. Dark stuff in bottles abound. They clearly love thei…

Keeping it in the Family at Stinson Distilling

Visiting Stinson Distilling on a Sunday afternoon (especially when they've opened up the place just for me) is like dropping in on a family as they lounge around their living room. I feel like I'm interrupting a moment I shouldn't be in, even as Clint, the patriarch and owner, beckons me into the two-room workshop that is the distillery in Driftwood, TX.

Along with Clint, I meet his wife, Andrea, who mostly tends to the tasting room bar, and his nephew, Philip, a distilling apprentice of sorts.

Everything at Stinson is informal, and that starts to put me at ease. Clint leads me through to the production room, which is comprised of stacks of just about everything: totes, barrels, pallets of bottles and gallon jugs. You get the idea. I'm sure Clint knows exactly where everything is, but to an outsider like me, it makes as much sense as anyone's garage.

Clint leads me to the back corner, where I see a modest-sized pot still. It's from this 100-gallon still that&#…

Treaty Oak Distilling: Come to Party

I'm a little apprehensive when I pull into the parking lot of Treaty Oak Distilling in Dripping Springs, TX. It's not the rows of cars. The lot is more of an open field than anything else, so there's plenty of room. No, what has me concerned is the set of booming party buses idling in one of the rows.

These buses, and the sloshy revelers spilling in and out of them, are a common sight on wine country weekends everywhere. It's typically a bachelorette or birthday party (though we took one to tour wineries at my brother's wedding), but the behavior always evolves the same way. Early on, everyone's excited just to be together and starts sipping on champagne or whatever has been stocked on board. At this point, the volume and antics remain minimal. Fast forward a few more stops, and the music onboard is blaring. If there's a pole provided, some of the more extroverted ladies will jump on it.. because, you know, Beyonce came on. Then there's always the few …