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 this place goes way back to beyond our forefathers. Everywhere I look are tilting wood mill-houses and tiny stone buildings. I can imagine Rip Van Winkle taking a nip from his Holland gin at every turn.
Mike's outside waiting for me when I pull up. "California, eh?" He's noticed my plates. "I guess you weren't kiddin' about driving cross country." This is what passes for a welcome in certain parts of New Jersey.
To be fair, Mike and Gordon warm up fairly quickly. They walk me through the process for making their spirits, from the delivery of the grain, to the milling done on premises, through the mash tuns, fermenters, and on to the 50-gallon pot still they assembled and customized themselves. They've since added two more column stills for rum and vodka.
Speaking of vodka, the brothers make an excellent one from 100% NJ yellow corn. They named it Black Vulture - a strange name for a clear spirit. When I ask about the name, Gordon shows me the black-and-white silhouette on the label. It's like a Rorschach test, not coming into focus. Then he points out the window, to the roof of a neighboring house. It's exactly like the label and I suddenly realize what I'm looking at on both. It creeps me out: a row of perfectly still, ginormous vultures, just watching and waiting. (For who? For us?)
The vodka has a malty sweetness to the nose, reminiscent of chocolate. The palate is smooth. There's that chocolate once again, this time with vanilla notes.
The rum is called Wooden Leg. Mike and Gordon seem to have all their legs in tact. Is there a pirate lurking nearby? There's not much of a story to the name, other than it sounding bad ass and old-time Carribeany. The rum is unaged and 80 proof, fermented from cane juice and black strap molasses. The nose has the unmistakable green sweetness of sugarcane. The palate is mostly smooth caramel.
I think it's because Mike sees how much I'm enjoying the Wooden Leg, that he busts out an unmarked bottle with just a thimble of amber liquid at the bottom. It's the same rum, aged in a two liter barrel for six months. It has a great caramel nose, and palate of sweet grain, followed by more caramel.
I learn about a local earthen dam that would break every now and again in particularly heavy storms. The last time was in 1955. Gordon gives me this background as run up to yet another bottle put out by Milk Street Distillery. This one is their Dam Break unaged rye.
It is 80 proof, distilled from all locally grown rye. The nose is dull pepper. The palate is a more distinctive black pepper plus sharp sourdough bread.
The Milk City boys have this same rye aging in liter barrels of #3 char American oak. I try it at two-months aged, though they are going for nine. It has that familiar grainy bourbon taste with some fruit on the finish.
Mike says he can't let me go without mixing me up a cocktail. It is 10:40am. "Perfect time for a drink," he declares. He and his brother have come up with a pretty extensive and inventive cocktail list. They do, after all, have plenty of spirits to work with. Since it's still morning, I have to opt for the bloody mary. Before even trying it, I'm pleased to see Mike stick a shortened Slim Jim and pickled green bean in as garnish.
I take a sip. Pure smoky chipotle-y magic. Mike tells me they make the mix themselves. He would tell me which peppers lend the drink its kick, but that would earn an ass-whooping from younger brother Gordon.
Maybe mid-morning is the best time to stop by Milk City Distillery. As long as one of the brothers can break away from their random construction projects, or tinkering with the still, to whip up this tasty mary. Just keep your eyes on those vultures when crossing the street.