It's all Corn and Chocolate at Widow Jane Distillery
The importance of a first impression is well known, especially as it relates to the customer experience. I start off my recap of Widow Jane Distillery in Brooklyn, NY with this reminder, since I'm a bit mixed on my reception there. On one hand, we have Bridgette. She is a lovely and bright 20-year-old who recently started working at the distillery. In addition to (wo)manning the gift shop, she leads half a tour of the facility. I say "half" because two distinct types of products are made at Widow Jane. There are the whiskeys that bare its name and there is the chocolate that goes by the name Cacao Prieto. Since Bridgette is underage and has not sampled Widow Jane's goods, she is responsible for all things Cacao Prieto. She is the one that greets me when I arrive and is very helpful in coordinating a (distillery half) tour for me.
When I come back at the appointed time, I meet Sienna, a Brit transplanted to Brooklyn. Sienna is Bridgette's other half, in a couple ways. Sienna is of-age and very familiar with the Widow Jane products, so she leads the distillery portion of the tour. I would classify her as the dark, suspicious yin to Bridgette's glowing yang. (I'm surprised to learn, when I do a Google search, that yang is considered the "male" energy). When I ask Sienna about where they source their corn from, she seems simultaneously unsure and reluctant to give an answer. I don't think her attitude can be boiled down solely to her Britishness.
In fairness, Sienna gives a great tour. She is very knowledgable about the distilling process and alcohol in general. It's only when a question threatens to tip her from the script does she become apprehensive. Examples: "Is Widow Jane considered a 'farm distillery'?" New York law requires farm distilleries to source at least 75% of their resources from within the state. That question received a rambling non-response, that ended up with Sienna mentioning they source from wherever the best ingredients are found. And a question as simple as, "what caused the founder," a Dominican named Daniel Prieto Preston, "to start making whiskey?" elicited a defensive rejoinder along the lines of "well why not?" Okaaaaay. The lesson is: temper your expectations if you want to learn more than how whiskey is made in theory. And try to catch Sienna on a better day, assuming they exist.
Altogether, I tried about twelve spirits that afternoon: Bloody Butcher High Rye Bourbon, Wapsie Valley "Single Expression" Bourbon, Bloody Butcher "Single Expression" Bourbon, Wapsie Valley High Rye Bourbon, Yellow Corn Bourbon, Hopi Blue Bourbon, Wapsi Valley and Barley Whiskey, rye-inspired whiskey (one finished in new oak, another finished in applewood), 10-year-old bourbon, unaged rum and cacao rum. For the names I've capitalized, these spirits are made with that specific heirloom strain of corn in the name (bloody butcher, wapsie valley, etc). As I've learned elsewhere (see my post on Ironroot Republic), heirloom corns give a wide range of flavor profiles. Widow Jane has gone so far as to have the famers they work with engineer their own strain: Baby Jane, which is hybrid of Wapsi Valley and Bloody Butcher. I didn’t get to try a spirit made with that strain.
Despite my mixed experience with their personnel, I leave Widow Jane with a happy buzz and an overall good impression of their product. It’s my first of what will be three distillery visits in Brooklyn that day.
The sunshine feels particularly warm on my face. It’s a beautiful clear Saturday afternoon, following a couple days of storms. I’m sure I am dawdling down the sidewalk, as I take in all the cool, faux-industrial facades of businesses in the neighborhood. (A blacksmith? Really? Must be for all those horses you see clomping around Red Hook.) As much shit as people may like to heap on Brooklyn for being over-hyped, passé, or simply too pricey, it does have this one advantage. In the area where a housing project –with its residents hanging out front, blasting music- bumps up against the trend set and their fancy facial hair, nobody bats an eye at the white guy in a biker jacket and boots, not quite managing to walk a straight line.