The state of New York City’s craft beer, wine and spirits renaissance is strong. Let us reminisce: First there were the beer bars, emerging to introduce craft beer to the denizens of New York. Then came the breweries like Brooklyn Brewery, and later Chelsea Brewing Company, Sixpoint Craft Ales, Kelso of Brooklyn, and Barrier Brewing, reclaiming the city’s once-rich beer brewing heritage. The wine wave rose to a crest, with Red Hook Winery, Brooklyn Oenology and The Brooklyn Winery all making wines with regional grapes right here in Brooklyn. And distilling, another urban art once lost, was reborn with the emergence of King’s County Distillery, Breuckelen Distilling Company, and now, the New York Distilling Company.
The New York Distilling Company, founded by former Slow Food USA chairman and cocktail historian Allen Katz with Brooklyn Brewery co-founder Tom Potter and his son Bill Potter, a veteran of the city’s fine dining scene, opened their shared distilling space and bar, The Shanty, in Williamsburg just over a year ago.
While their first two gins, the Perry’s Tot – a rarely-spotted, intense and peppery ‘navy strength’ gin – and the Dorothy Parker – a milder version with gentler citrus and floral notes – have been embraced by the city’s spirit lovers, their first barrels of rye whiskey have just begun to age, slowly ripening for release in a couple of years.
We met up with Allen at The Shanty to talk gin, cocktail culture, slow food, and the connections between them.
So Allen, tell us what you’re up to. What are you distilling now?
Right now we’re doing two gins, and a couple of weeks ago we started mashing rye. We’re about to start distilling a rye whiskey, but that won’t be ready for a couple of years.
One of the gins is called Perry’s Tot, which is our navy strength gin. It’s named for a former U.S. Navy officer who was the first commandant of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. He was a local character, and we like naming things after local characters. And he’s of an era in the 19th century when navy strength gin would have had resounding distribution, at least in the British realm.
Navy strength gin really refers to the proof the gin is bottled at. In American ‘proof’ it’s at 114, or 57% alcohol. People are sometimes taken aback by that – it sounds really strong compared to most gins we’re used to here. They fear they’ll end up on their knees! But they just haven’t tasted it before. It’s quite good.
There’s a wonderful British tradition of navy strength gin. I believe their ships are still commissioned with navy strength gin kits. But at the time, back in the day, they not only were commissioned with the gin kits – the ships were stocked with barrels and barrels of this very strong navy strength gin. Officers were often paid in gin!
The gin onboard the navy ships had to be of high enough proof that if it were accidentally compromised – if the barrel broke, hit by cannon fire, or after being knocked around in rough seas, and the spirits mingled with the gunpowder stores – the gunpowder would still fire. The higher proof meant that the water content in the gin was low enough that even if it mixed with gunpowder, the gunpowder would still fire.
Navy strength gin doesn’t really exist in the United States. It’s a British tradition. So we thought it would be a great thing to make. It’s something different. It’s not wild and crazy – it’s a traditional gin with a long and storied history, but no one was making it here. We were excited to produce something that wasn’t out there on the market. We wanted to add something to the conversation. When you’re distilling or making anything, really, it’s always about adding something to the conversation.
The other gin we’re making is called Dorothy Parker American Gin.
Why Dorothy Parker?
I’ve always loved Dorothy Parker, going back to my college days. There was one reading at my wedding, and it was a Dorothy Parker short story.
And we really had a genuine desire to name a product after a woman. There were no distilled spirits that we could think of named after a woman. We had Perry’s Tot – named after this strong naval officer. We wanted to do something with a different style altogether.
We call it American gin simply to differentiate it from London gin, British gin. There are a lot of conversations in the bartending and mixology world about gin. What is gin? There are a number of boutique or craft distilleries making gin, and being wonderfully creative with it, so there’s an interest in defining it in some way. And the consensus is that in order for it to be gin, you have to be able to taste juniper.
There’s a strong presence of juniper in both our gins. The Perry’s tot has very classic botanicals, with the addition of wild honey from up near Seneca Lake that that gives a nice balance to the spice and bitterness of the gin The Dorothy Parker has a combination of classic and contemporary botanicals. Juniper has the strongest presence. Coriander has a strong presence. And then there are elderberries and dried hibiscus petals at the tail end. It’s twelve parts juniper to one part elderberry, and twenty six parts juniper to one part dried hibiscus petals.
So it’s a little different – a bit of a floral and citrus note with the juniper, a combination of the classic and contemporary. Again, we want to add something to the conversation about gin, and I think we’ve done that with the Perry’s Tot and the Dorothy Parker.
Those are just our first two gins. We’re working on others now that will be out next year.
What do you know about the history of gin? What was gin doing on 19th century naval ships?
Gin, in its origins, is Dutch. The Dutch created a kind juniper-infused whiskey aged in cognac barrels, called jenever, which is the Dutch word for juniper. It was used to treat a variety of ailments, and it was wildly popular in Holland.
In the 17th century, the Dutch king William of Orange invaded Great Britain and became the king of England. He became a sensation. If you were going out on the town, you wanted shoes like his, a hat like his. People wanted to drink what he was drinking, and he was drinking jenever.
William of Orange was protestant, and therefore hostile to catholic France. He heavily taxed or outright banned the importing of most products from France, including French brandy, which had been very popular in England. So French brandy disappeared at the same time as jenever arrived on the scene, and it became hugely popular.
Before long, the British said, “Let’s make this stuff here! Why bring it over from Holland?” And they couldn’t quite do it. They couldn’t quite replicate it in the Dutch style. They started making a neutral grain spirit flavored with juniper and other things, and that became gin, and people were crazed for it.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, people were drinking more gin than water in the U.K. The water would kill you. Gin was a distilled product, so it wouldn’t kill you. And that’s how it became popular with the British Navy.
So with gin, it’s basically a neutral spirit flavored with juniper and other botanicals. Is it in the use of those other botanicals that the distiller gets to be creative?
You get to be creative with the juniper as well as with the other botanicals. You can vary the amount of juniper you use. Do you soak it before you use it? What other botanicals do you use, in what amounts? Those are the things that give a gin its distinctive character.
How do you make gin? What’s the process?
In the still we start with neutral grain spirit – ours is made from corn. We add New York City water and our botanical recipe – they’re all in the still together. And then we close the door and we cook them. We cook them as low and slow as possible, but the process is intense. The temperature gets up to around ninety degrees Celsius in the kettle.
Bill Potter: The boiling temperature for alcohol is lower than it is for water. So you want to keep everything in the still above the boiling point for alcohol and below the boiling point for water, so you’re evaporating alcohol infused with the flavors of the botanicals, without evaporating water.
Allen: As you heat it, the botanical-infused alcohol becomes vapor which rises up into the still where it enters a condenser, where it cools and turns back into liquid. That liquid is captured as your final distillate. It comes off the still at room temperature. And it’s blended with filtered water to the desired bottling proof.
The distilling equipment is pretty spectacular looking. What’s the story with it?
It’s a hybrid distilling system – we’ve got a pot and a column still. Typically you’d have a pot or a column, not both. Ours are connected, but they don’t have to be. Connecting them is a pretty modern thing, and it’s a trend in boutique or small-scale craft distilleries now because it allows you to be a lot more versatile. We can make a lot of different spirits with this configuration. There are a few offshoots of gin or rye whiskey that we’d like to pursue, and having the pot and column will allow us to do that.
Bill: The still is made by a German manufacturer called Christian Carl, of Stuttgart. They’ve been making stills for generations – since the mid-19th century. Outside of the versatility of the layout and how thoughtfully it’s been planned, the actual technology of the pot and column stills is quite old. The pot still technology is hundreds of years old, and the column still technology is over a hundred years old. So our stills were handmade, custom made for us, but the underlying technology has been around for a long time.
So tell us about the rye whiskey.
There are very few American craft distilleries making their own rye whiskies, so we wanted to make one ourselves. It’s interesting to be at the forefront of the acknowledgement of rye whiskey as an important part of American heritage. And in this case I mean ‘American’ as the United States. Rye is much more popular in Canada. If you go back to the mid-nineteenth century – if you look at books and recipes of that era – you see that the dominant spirits are gin and rye whiskey, American rye whiskey.
After prohibition ended, there was a major shift. There was a major consolidation of spirit manufacturing and marketing companies. Hundreds of distilleries and breweries were gobbled up by major corporations, and the big corporations started distilling all their spirits and beers the same way. So as a lot of those local spirits and beers disappeared, or retreated from regional markets back to the very small areas they originally served, a lot of variation and creativity in brewing and distilling was lost. And that’s what happened to rye whiskey. There were hundreds of distilleries making their own rye, from New York to Maryland, Pennsylvanie, Indiana, all the way through to Wyoming. And they’re all gone.
So we’re trying to add to the conversation, add to the story of American rye whiskey. By making and selling our gin, and by running the bar here – The Shanty – we hope to generate enough revenue to invest in the rye whiskey project. We’ve just begun the process of making rye. We’ve just begun distilling. Unlike gin, Rye has to age appropriately. It takes however long it takes. It’ll probably be about two years before the rye is ready.
Allen, I know you were the chairman of Slow Food U.S.A. for some time. How did you end up in that role? Did that lead you to distilling somehow?
I was working in bars and restaurants in New York in the mid-90’s. I had never been to Europe. My interests at the time were food and music. A good friend of mine was a percussionist in a funk band. We waited tables together, and for several summers in a row he went to Germany to tour with his band. Ehen he came back, he would rave about it. They’d feed him, give him beer, and they’d pay him on top of it all.
So he wouldn’t stop talking about how great it was, and he kept telling me, “You gotta go to Europe. That’s where it’s really happening.” And after about six months of that, I said, “OK – I gotta do it.”
I saved money for seven or eight months, and took a six week trip to Italy. I had no itinerary. If I liked a place I’d stay a while. When I was ready to move on I’d have a long lunch, a couple glasses of wine, then get on the bus or the train and meander along to the next place.
I met these women on the beach in a little town called Viareggio in Tuscany. They lived in a little town a few miles inland, and they invited me to stay with them. And it was paradise.
They lived on this old estate. In Italy you find a lot of people who are cash poor and land rich. People without much money who live on these old crumbling estates. And it was that kind of situation. It was like a fantasy. It was my first time ever experiencing a way of living so foreign to the culture I grew up in.
I was fascinated by how they lived – picking their own vegetables every day, picking their own herbs. Going to the meat shop, the village bakery. Fish would come in every Wednesday, from the little fishing village ten miles away at the shore. Everyone’s lives revolved around lunch and dinner.
It was amazing. And these two women – they were cousins – were opening a cooking school. They said, “Allen, why don’t you come back? Teach at our cooking school?” At first I thought, “Cooking school in Italy? I’ve cooked alittle bit, taken some classes, but I’m not a professional cook.” But then I said, “That sounds fantastic.”
So I went home for Thanksgiving, then spent the better part of two years travelling back and forth and teaching at this cooking school in Tuscany.
I was getting paid to teach, but I was really the one who was learning, absorbing, and starting to daydream in a constructive way about what exactly I wanted to do with my life. My parents had impressed on me from a young age that the greatest pleasure in work is to work for yourself. I had always wanted to produce something. I didn’t know what it was, but I wanted to make something.
And that experience in Italy started to give me a better idea of what that might be. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do yet, but I knew I wanted it to be something with food and drink.
Slow Food, of course, was founded in Italy. You’d see the logo everywhere. I never paid much attention to it, but I saw it everywhere. I was aware of it.
After working at the cooking school for a couple of years, I started to think, in a very American way, “What’s next?” Did I want to teach people how to make panna cotta and gnocchi every week for the rest of my life?
So I moved back to New York. When I got back, I thought, “Oh shit…what am I going to do here?” And in a fit of melancholy, thinking, “Why did I just leave paradise?” I called information and asked for Slow Food. I had no idea whether Slow Food even existed here. It turned out that they had just opened an office in New York about eight weeks prior.
I called them and said, “You know, I think this is what I’m all about. If I can ever help, I’d like to help.” I started to volunteer. I loved it. We did a lot of thinking and talking. “Does this fit in our culture? Are we being realistic? Is there such a thing as slow food in the United States?”
Because it was in its infancy and because I was young and had more time to dedicate to it than a normal person would, they said, “How about being a regional director?” And I said, “What does that mean?” And they said, “You’ll figure it out.” Later on they said some of the regional people were going to become national people – “We’d like you to do it.” And I thought – if this means I can have a closer connection to the organization, it’s worthwhile.”
Other than my parents, Slow Food has been the great influence on my life.
When did distilling enter the picture for you?
While I was working with Slow Food I was doing roadtrips to cities all over the place. And there was always a recurring conversation during those hours and hours in the car – is there an American slow food? Can we lay claim culturally to specific gastronomies? And to this day I can only really think of two things that are really native to American culture. One is the barbeque of the American south, and the other is cocktails.
There are certainly precursors to the cocktail – you can absolutely argue that the idea of a mixed drink originated in British culture, with punch. But the idea of mixing drinks and shaking them and stirring them with ice and then serving them in another vessel…if it’s not American in origin, it was keyed, developed and blossomed in America.
I just found that really interesting. I started picking up books – looking for late 19th century and early 20th century books on cocktails in used bookstores. And they raised all these questions. They were using ingredients I’d never heard of, measures I’d never heard of. I kind of went off the deep end. I got really curious not just about cocktail recipes and ingredients, but the history of cocktail culture.
New York, New Orleans, San Fransisco and St. Louis all had these unbelievable cocktail histories and stories to be uncovered and enjoyed – of larger-than-life characters and bartenders and bar and restaurant impresarios…the prohibition era. I just thought, “Wow, this is fascinating. This is American slow food. And there are stories there.” I got really interested in it and I started to make friends with other bartenders and people who were then just on the precipice of what was about to become this whole new vibrant cocktail culture in New York and all these other cities.
I got involved in the planning of a Slow Food event – a tribute to a guy named Jerry Thomas. Jerry Thomas wrote The Bon Vivant’s Companion, which was the first cocktail book ever published – in 1862. He was this wild and fanciful character, the rockstar bartender of his day. He was a forty-niner, a gambler, owned bars, lost bars, made fortunes and lost them. He worked in New York, San Fransisco, and St. Louis. He wore a diamond-studded tie pin. All his bar tools were crafted of silver. He was the first genius to say, “You know, I’m going to write down my recipes.”
I thought I was special. I knew about this guy and had found an original copy of his book. I had tried a bunch of his recipes. I thought I knew something. And we had a meeting to sit down and plan this event, this tribute, at The Plaza Hotel – we wanted to do it at a venue that existed when Jerry Thomas did. And one of the people at the meeting was the cocktail historian and writer Dave Wondrich.
When David started talking I said to myself, “I’d better keep my mouth shut and listen.” He just opened up a whole new world of information, stories. And that just reinforced my interest in it all. I knew that the world of cocktails, spirits, was somewhere I wanted to be. I wasn’t sure yet what I wanted to do, or how I wanted to be involved, but I knew it was where I wanted to be.
And after we did that event, in March of 1993, all kinds of door started opening for me. I started getting invitations to go to other events, to visit distilleries all over the world. I started to get a glimpse behind the scenes, an understanding of how these things were actually made. And I was fascinated by it. I had this Slow Food mindset, this American cultural mindset, and I started to think, “How do I retrace some of the steps pioneered so long ago, and maybe create something original?”
So I kind of found my place in that cocktail community. It’s an energetic community, filled with people that live and breathe this stuff. They’re actually doing their own research to codify recipes. It’s not just enough to say that a cocktail ingredient is derived from a particular fruit…it’s what genus of the fruit? What particular variety? Where is it grown? Where is that juniper from? There was constant sharing of knowledge, notebooks full of tasting notes. The ball is still rolling, but it’s been a great wave to ride.
For the last five and a half years I’ve worked for the largest distributor of wine and spirits in the country – Southern Wine & Spirits. I work for them as an educator and advocate. I provide presentations, conversations and tastings. I was in a more or less stable place. And I started to think, “It’s time to go back to that idea of producing something.”
So I started talking about it. I started talking out loud, saying, “This is what I’m going to do. I’m going to open a distillery. I’m going to figure out how to make it work.”
One of the people I had told about my plan knew Tom Potter. He said, “You guys should talk. I’ve been talking to each of you and it sounds like you both want to do virtually the same thing.”
Obviously Tom had a marvelously successful career launching the Brooklyn Brewery. I think at the time both of us thought this was something we wanted to do on our own. We each had our own ideas. We sort of danced around it. We had a great lunch together at Fatty Crab, and we realized that we were really on the same page. Tom had the experience to really know how to run a boutique beverage business, and to understand all the ins and outs of running that kind of business. I had eight years of experience focusing exclusively on distilled spirits, and prior to that working in food and beverage.
So we, along with Billy Potter, Tom’s son, decided it was worth pursuing. So then we started to look at exactly what it would take to make it work. We put together a plan, and now, here we are!
The New York Distilling Company, and their bar The Shanty, are located at 79 Richardson Street, between Leonard and Lorimer, in Williamsburg.