At Van Brunt Stillhouse, he with the bushiest beard makes the best whiskey

I show up at Van Brunt Stillhouse just on time, or actually a little late. As soon as I find Andie behind the tasting room bar and tell her why I’m here, she directs me to Jason the tour guide. He is already leading a group of twenty through the distillery. I gather that Van Brunt is big on whiskeys. They have moonshine, an “American” whiskey, bourbon, rye, two single malts, rum and grappa.

Before I get into those I sampled, I want to say that Jason is a character and a great tour guide. I guess the best tour guides are those that have genuine fun each time around. The second best are the ones you can’t tell are faking it. Either way, Jason easily fits in the top two. I’m sure he gets this a lot, and maybe he even likes it, but Jason looks like Central Casting’s idea of a young Brooklynite circa 2012. Think big bushy beard, man-bun perfectly in place, plaid shirt just the right amount of worn, tight-ish jeans with cuffs rolled above the ankle, brown dress shoes, no socks. His enthusiasm goes a long way. And he has perfected the art of not knowing an answer while making his audience laugh. I don’t know what Jason does full time (since tours are only on weekends) but I hope his talents aren’t being wasted solely at Van Brunt.

The tour, like the distillery itself, is nothing out of the ordinary. In fact, if it weren't for Jason's engaging demeanor, the place would probably be as fun as watching whiskey age - its essentially a warehouse with a tasting room tacked on. 

There is one point during the tour, when Jason is walking us through the physics of wood interacting with liquid that another bearded fella comes sneaking past us, back to a bottling machine in a corner. We are told this is Brandon Hill, a former distiller at Van Brunt. He still gets full reign of the place, to conduct his experiments. Lately, he's been distilling a traditional Korean berry-based soju that he calls Tokki, or "rooster" in Korean, since that is the year it was launched (2017).

It's once the tour is concluded and everyone heads to the tasting room that the fun begins. I have to give Andie a lot of credit. She is one of those servers that, no matter how busy, can anticipate a customer's needs before he or she can express it. For instance, the room is cozy to begin with. Now, it is teeming with visitors eager for their free cocktail. They have formed around the bar. Right before Andie gets swallowed up, I tell her I will wait at a table for my tasting and she should take care of the thirsty horde first. 

I'm sitting maybe a minute when Andie comes over, five bottles cradled under one arm and an equal amount of mini snifters in the opposite hand. Amazing. There's even a little placemat for tasting notes. I'm touched by the details but also by Andie's attention to them. She even lingers a bit, giving me the scoop on other Brooklyn distilleries.

I start with the clear spirit, meaning moonshine. Whereas most moonshines are made from corn or rye, Van Brunt's is all malted barley. Once it is aged, it becomes their single malt whiskey. Unaged at 90 proof, this moonshine has a crisp nose of slightly sweet wine. The palate is more sweet grape, grass, apple and a little bit of wood on the finish. I imagine it would be really good served ice cold on a hot day.

I move down the row to the American Whiskey. It is 80 proof and has a mash bill that's 35% wheat, 35% malted barley, 15% corn and 15% rye. This, like all Van Brunt whiskeys, is aged in new oak barrels for at least a year. The nose is fairly strong of grains, like a pile of oats left out in the rain. Hiding behind there is a cloying chemical smell that reminds me of paint. The palate is a different story. It's smooth with creamy cornbread and dollops of melted butter. You could even say this whiskey drinks like a breakfast.

Next up: bourbon. Van Brunt's is 80 proof and the mash bill is 65% corn, 20% wheat, 10% malted barley and 5% rye. The nose is very strong, with a mix of grain, corn, wood and grass. The palate has considerably less going on. I'd say it's mostly a grain and wood flavor with an oily mouthfeel. 

The rye is also 80 proof and made from 75% rye and 25% malted barley. The nose is distinctive rye, with spicy wood notes. The palate has a mix of sweet and bitter that reminds me of melon rind, followed by clove and spice.

The single malt is 84 proof, all from malted barley. The malt lends the nose a sweet essence, underlaid with grain. When I take a sip, I get deep notes of wood followed by some light grass on the finish.

I consider myself lucky because my tasting includes a limited release that just came out and is probably finished already. Van Brunt partnered with local brewery Other Half in a couple ways. First, Van Brunt lent Other Half used rye barrels in which to age the latter's Imperial Stout for a year. In return, Other Half made a special unhopped version of the beer for Van Brunt to distill. That whiskey went into new oak barrels for eighteen months. The result is an 80 proof single malt that smells surprisingly minerally for something that started its life as a stout. The palate is very bright and floral, with a sweet creamy finish.

I finish with what was Van Brunt's first product: Due North Rum. Their site has a clever story about colonial sailors being paid, or at least supplemented, with rum. Rum was the most popular spirit in the colonies for a long time, due to the prevalence of molasses shipped in from the Caribbean. To reward a sailor for particularly noteworthy work, the captain would give a higher proof rum than usual. That special rum was distinguished by the sailors as "Due North."

Van Brunt's version comes completely from granulated sugar. Despite the backstory of sailors' good behavior warranting better proofs, Due North is a standard 80 proof. It's aged for two years in used bourbon casks using a solera system. That's where the barrels are arranged in a pyramid. At regular intervals, half of each barrel goes into the barrel below, while being filled by half from the barrel above. This method is said to preserve consistency of flavor.

Due North's nose is of rock candy and bubble bath. The palate goes to a welcomed darker place, with syrupy candy, cola and some wood. I get the feeling that this rum may be a tad sweeter than what those rough and tumble sailors were used to. Yet even today, it would make a nice bonus.

Once finished with my tasting, I figure the least I can do is bring all these glasses up to the bar. That's where I find Andie and Jason cleaning up after the group, mostly departed. They want to know about my travels, where I've been and where I'm headed. Right now, I've got a bad case of the whiskey munchies, so all I can think about is finding somewhere to eat. Luckily, when you're hungry in Brooklyn, there's plenty of folks who would love to feed you, in as an authentic, old-timey way as possible. If they're wearing a tie-back apron or bowler hat, all the better. 


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