Monday, June 6, 2011

New York Distilling History, Before the Current Boom

New York City distilling has been a hot topic over the past year or so, what with the advent of new micro-distilleries such as Kings County Distillery, New York Distilling Company and Breuckelen Distilling. At the recent Manhattan Cocktail Classic, Allen Katz and Tom Potter, partners in New York Distilling Company, gathered to remind the audience that Gotham has had a long relationship with distilled spirits, even if the names and products involved may not be as storied as those of New York City brewing history.

According to Katz, the first distillery in New York City was built in 1640. It was on Staten Island, and likely produced applejack. The town was still a Dutch colony back then, of course. A few decades later, rum was the tipple of choice. American rum from this era is associated with New England, but New York had its share of production. Katz said there were 16 rum distilleries in New York by the 1720s.

It will surprise no one who knows history that rich and prominent families were involved in this trade. The moneyed old clans have always found ways to make more lucre by producing, importing and distributing various drugs and intoxicants for the masses. In the case of Colonial America, the dignified Livingston and Lefferts families owned distilleries. The Livingstons were prominent in New York politics for centuries; one member was a signer of the Declaration of Independence; another signed the Constitution.

In the early 19th century, Hezekiah Pierrepont (from another famous New York family; his grandfather founded Yale) founded Anchor Gin, the first commercial gin produced in the U.S., according to Katz. Pierrepont, a massive land speculator, was largely responsible for the creation of Brooklyn Heights. He bought Philip Livingston's distillery at the foot of Joralemon Street and started producing gin. Anchor Gin, which was aged in barrels for twelve months, had wide distribution, being pouring at points as far as New Orleans. By 1819, however, Pierrepont had abandoned the business. Other distilleries include one run by William Johnson at 16th Street and Ninth Avenue in Manhattan. After distillery taxed were raised in the 1860s, there was a spike in illicit distilling.

During the 20th century, or course, New York didn't have much to boast about, distilling-wise. The 21st century, meanwhile, has seen a boomlet. Breuckelen and King County have been producing their gin and moonshine for a year or so now. Both are toying around with lightly aged spirits (gin in the case of Breuckelen, whiskey for Kings) but getting your hands on a bottle is a bit of a job.

Bottles from New York Distilling are imminent. The company won't be firing up its stills until, perhaps, August. At the seminar, Potter and Katz said they hoped to be selling product by the end of the summer.

What will those products be? They're largely keeping mum. But there will be gin. In fact, at least two different expressions of gin. They won't say which, but there aren't many to choose from; there's London Dry, Old Tom, Genever and, well, not much else. But who knows what they have up their sleeves. "We're going to look at all of the historical expressions of gin and we're going to try all of them," said Potter.

Rye is also in NYDC's future, as well as a bar directly in the distillery.

Also at the seminar was one Dan Prieto, proprietor of Cacao Prieto, a curious enterprise which will combine chocolate-making and booze-creation into one enterprise. He will be creating a variety of rums and liqueurs from cacao beans from the Dominican Republic. Brooklyn distilling has certainly become very interesting, very fast.

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