John Granata Jumped Out of the Sopranos and Straight into Jersey Spirits Distillery
John Granata of Jersey Spirits Distillery, in Fairfield, NJ, is a very likable man. As one talks with him, you get a sense of familiarity. Then it will dawn on you: oh yeah, he's in that episode of The Sopranos, where Christopher cuts in line at the bakery or the fried chicken joint or wherever. John was Pissed Off Customer #5. Ok, maybe not literally, but John is that type of Jersey every-guy you see at pizza parlors up and down the Garden State Parkway - just waitin' on his slice of cheese!
What I like about John so much is not just his openness -about himself, his business, about making booze- but his patience with my novice questions. In fact, there are several points during my visit where he'll pause mid-sentence and rewind to an earlier point in the conversation, worried he didn't explain it adequately the first time. You have to love that.
John tells me about his varied background, which touches on TV production, home-brewing and learning from his dad, a chemist. His biggest motivation to open the distillery was simply traveling around the country, with his partner in both business and life, Susan. They saw how other distilleries were making all types of spirits, in facilities large and nano. All it took was a change to the craft spirits law in New Jersey in 2013, and the rest is history.
We walk up and down this aisle between John's tanks and pot/column hybrid still on one side, and his barrel cage and bottling/labeling table on the other. I don't know ow he sneaks in a breath, as he gives me a college chemistry course condensed down to about forty minutes.
As much as I enjoy learning about the whole process, nuts to bolts, or starch to ethanol, if you will, I look forward even more to sampling the results.
First up is a slightly aged rum, just three to five days in a combo of new #3 and #4 charred oak barrels and used bourbon casks. It's 86 proof and manages to be yeasty and fruity at the same time.
John is experimenting with Jersey Girl. I don't mean that in a perverted, state-pride type of way. Jersey Girl is a brewery in Hackettstown. They like finishing their amber ale in Jersey Spirits' used bourbon barrels. After several months, they give the barrels back to John. Meanwhile, he distills the beer, hops and all, into a single malt whiskey. It ages in those same barrels for fourteen months to two years. I suppose the barrel exchange could continue ad infinitum or until the wood turns to pulp. Unfortunately, John deemed the spirit still too young for me to sample.
White whiskey is never too young, by definition, and John has plenty of it. The kind I try is 89 proof, and from a mash that's 63% corn, 15% rye, 15% wheat and 7% barley. The nose has a young, clean grain scent. The palate is a good mix of spice and earth how (what I imagine it's like chewing on the root of a chili pepper plant). John notes this earthiness goes away when barrel aged.
What happens to this whiskey when it's aged into bourbon? At 87 proof and eight months in new oak, it smells like grain and melon, and tastes like smoke, coal, cherry and wood.
The next whiskey is a treat, and not like anything I've tried before. It's a mashup of the white dog and maple syrup from a New Jersey farm. It's not aged. The syrup is mixed directly with the white whiskey. The result is a nose that is still distinctively of whiskey: mellow sweet tones. The palate, however, is a surprise. I brace for that familiar syrupy sweetness. Instead, I get wood and the deep, burnt twinge of sugar you typically get in aged rum. It finishes on caramel and a bit of spice. This whiskey is perfect for those mornings when the snow is freshly fallen and a stack of pancakes still piping hot.
When a bourbon has a significant portion of rye in the mash bill, it's called "high rye." I haven't been able to find a consensus among distillers on where the dividing line is for "low" and "high" rye. John isn't so sure either; but his bourbon definitely qualifies as "high," at 60% corn, 34% rye and 6% malted barley. It is 84 proof and aged for around one year. The nose is wood, with just a hint of typical rye pepper. The palate is more of that spice, accompanied by citrus and finishing on a sour note.
Risking overkill, Jersey Spirits has two aged rums. The Boardwalk Rum, a "light amber rum," is aged for only a matter of days in used bourbon or rum barrels. It is 80 proof and fermented from equal parts cane sugar juice and molasses. The nose is of sweet, toasted coconut. The palate has a good earthy spice and finishes buttery.
The truly aged rum -same mash as the other rum, 80 proof, aged nine to ten months in new oak barrels- has much more of the qualities found in aged whiskies. The nose is of overripe fruit and vanilla. The palate is like a creamy vanilla toffee candy. It finishes on a nice toasted note.
Back to the clears. There are two gins. The only differences are the proofs (84 and 88) and the botanical mix. The 84 proof is infused with seven botanicals, 70% of which is juniper. The 88 proof has 75% juniper out of fourteen botanicals. These botanicals are vapor-infused through a basket in the still's column, on the second distillation.
The 84 proof has a nose that is floral and sweet. Its palate is hoppy, moving through different herbs and flowers. The 88 proof has spice and licorice on the nose, and a palate of beef jerky, pepper and clove.
John pressure-infuses a number of flavored vodkas: cucumber, coffee, orange and lime. By pressurizing the distillate, it only takes half an hour to transfer the flavor from the particular food or drink into the vodka.
Lastly, John makes a clear spirit that would be called gin, except it does not contain juniper, so it cannot. The main flavoring ingredient here is hops. The spirit is accordingly called "Hopmonic."
There are three varieties, 87 to 100 proof. As you would guess from the one called "Citra," it is very bright, with lingering notes not only of citrus, but of bitter coffee. "Mosaic" has a damp dirt and clove nose, with a palate that is earth and mineral.
There's a Hopmonic that isn't available outside of the tasting room. It's appropriately called "Experimental." The nose has citrus, clove and pine. The palate is piney, with some fruit thrown in for good measure.
What did I learn from my (considerable) time at Jersey Spirits Distillery? A a lot of it was the mechanics and chemistry of how spirits get their flavor. Apparently, it's a hotly debated topic among distillers: with water, char/wood and starch-derived oils each having their own vociferous supprt. I'd peg John as a true believer in oils.
There's a lot about John with which to be impressed. I'd say it's the breadth of his imagination -I lost count trying to tally up the different bottles of booze- that makes Jersey Spirits Distillery such a fun place to visit. Of course, it helps when you have your own Jersey dude to explain it all, every step of the way. But even if you were to simply grab a seat at the tasting room bar and watch John pour samples of his potions, it will make you at first amazed, and then regretful, that New Jersey is still only known for inventing new spray-on skin tones, hair heights and those grease tributaries we affectionately call "a slice of cheese." John Granata and Jersey Spirits will show all a ya's that we don't need to revert to stereotypes to put Jersey on the map.