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 duo. (Jim's brother John is also a partner in the distillery. He is not there on the day I visit.)

When we get to chatting about their 100% rye whiskey, I learn about Silk City's famed farmer. They get all of their New Jersey grains from one source. Apparently, rye is hard to come by in New Jersey and they had to convince this farmer to plant rye especially for them. He is therefore one of the only farmers growing rye in the state. Tim brags that this farmer was rated "best young farmer of the year." This is my first time back in New Jersey in a while, so my reserve of Jersey humor may have atrophied from lack of use.

Anyway, the rye is currently being aged one year in new oak, fifteen-gallon barrels. It's set to be released this New Years Eve.

I try a bourbon, the only spirit they've released so far. It is 90 proof and one year aged. The mash is 68% corn, 21% wheat, 14% barley and 7% rye. All locally grown except for the barley. When will these young Jersey farmers start stepping up their game, and grow some damn barley already?

The nose is that classic grain wood smell most would associate with Kentucky's best, and a little bit of sweet. Similarly, the palate is sweet caramel candy with just a twinge of burn, to remind you that you are drinking alcohol.

The only other bourbon I try is their oat bourbon, also on year one of two. The mash is 51% corn and 49% oat - so basically the least corn you can have in a spirit and still call it "bourbon." I sample it directly from the barrel (I love the mental image that phrase gives me). It is very strong: 125 proof. Once the burn dissipates, I get a sweet and oaty nose, like a hearty sprinkling of brown sugar on your oatmeal. The palate is more spice and a flavor I can only describe as 'barnyard.' The high oat proportion also lends it an oily mouthfeel.

There's going to be mixed reactions about another bourbon Tim and Jim have aging. I didn't try it, but am including it here because I think it's extremely cool.

Tim and Jim know a microbiologist who, as a hobby, goes around to abandoned buildings, collecting rare strains of yeast. So next time you're bored and are thinking of a new hobby....  Anyway, for the Silk City boys, he brought some yeast back from the old Ballantine Brewery building in Newark, abandoned since the company shut in the 1960s. It looks like Pabst took over the name and continues to brew a beer called "Ballantine." It's from their website that I learn that the original had been brewing in the Newark location since 1840. That is some pretty geriatric yeast, but I guess they keep working into deep old age.

Silk City took their bourbon mash and added the salvaged yeast. It's currently aging in a 30-gallon #3 char barrel, also at the one-year mark out of two. I'm told the backstory because I ask Tim about the barrel with "Newark" handwritten on the bottom. I think it's very appropriate, given all the rediscovery lately, in the New York region, of the potential of long-neglected slums to be transformed, seemingly overnight, into profitable real estate. Newark bourbon should serve as a delicious metaphor, even if its maturation takes a little longer than Newark's gentrification.


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