If it weren’t for a particularly good article in an otherwise lame in-flight magazine, Brad Estabrook might never have started Breuckelen Distillery. Luckily for booze-loving Brooklynites, that article on the resurgence of small American distilleries inspired Brad to make an amazing small-batch gin under the BQE in Sunset Park, a block from the Gowanus Bay.
His determination to dial back from an unfulfilling desk job to real transformative work using local ingredients led him to hit the books to teach himself the ins and outs of distilling. Brad now has a truly distinctive gin on the market, and some very promising whiskey on the way.
I met Brad at the Breuckelen Distillery warehouse, where all the magic of distilling, as well as tours and tastings take place, on a sunny spring afternoon where he was gracious enough to answer some questions, show me around the heavy equipment, and ply me with some amazing spirits.
So Brad, how did you get started in distilling?
I graduated from college and worked in finance as a bond trader for about eight years, and I hated it. I wasn’t really going anywhere, always a junior guy at some desk. Liz, my girlfriend, and I wanted to move to New York and I knew I could get a job doing the same thing here. Within a month of moving here the job I had went bad. It was a bad decision – I was miserable.
We started thinking that we really wanted to make something, to make an end product that is totally different and unrecognizable from its ingredients – a real transformation.
So, we thought, what are some things we could make? We like to alcohol – I thought about wine or beer, but I think those things are a little bit harder to break into. I had never been to a small distillery – didn’t even know they existed. Until one day I was on a flight, and picked up the in-flight magazine, and the author of this food column wrote about the changing laws regarding alcohol distilling in the U.S. and that basically for the first time since prohibition, it was actually easier to start a small distillery. He wrote that the same boom that microbreweries experienced in the nineties would happen for spirits. So that’s where the idea came from.
I kept working, tried to save money, and a month later I lost my terrible job. Liz said to me, “If you’re serious about this, you should do it.” And right then I started working on it, unsure if it would ever actually come together. But eventually, the more research I did, the more feasible it seemed, and that’s when I started approaching friends and family members about investing in the business. And they did. Now they all own a tiny part of the business, I own the rest, and eighteen months later we turned out our first case of gin.
I had a few simple rules about what I wanted. One, I wanted to use local ingredients. Two, I would only make products that I liked to drink, because how else could I have a real appreciation for the product. And three, I needed a product I could make and sell quickly – I couldn’t wait for something to age.
The major spirits are vodka (which I don’t like), rum (which is made from cane sugar, not available locally), whiskey (which requires aging) and gin. Gin, I like. It’s made from wheat that I can source locally, I like it, and it’s ready right away. Did I mention I like to drink it?
(laughter) I think you might have.
With gin, the interpretation is wide open. Vodka is just one thing. But with gin the only rules are it needs that flavor of juniper berries – you can use any kind of grains, any other botanical flavorings, it can be aged, not aged…it’s so wide open. That’s great, but it’s also challenging – with all that leeway you have to develop and create a singular, distinctive product.
How did you come up with your recipe and how do you ensure consistency from batch to batch?
It’s all smell and taste really. With gin, and with many things, people really want a consistent product. We taste each batch side by side with other batches, and make adjustments. We distilled a bunch of different botanicals individually in separate tanks, and then we took the product of those tanks and blended them, to get the right balance of flavors. Liz and I came up with the recipe. We just sat with a bottle of each botanical and mixed them to try to find the right balance. You can test as many iterations as you can handle in one sitting, basically.
What’s the scale?
We bottle about 100 litres at a time. The gin is limited by how much we sell. Right now there are about 37 cases of gin here. We basically make a batch of gin and sell it, and once we start running low we’ll start on another batch. But in between we’re distilling whiskey, we’re barrelling, we’re experimenting.
Has it been difficult working with family/friends as investors?
It’s been awesome. They were really making an investment in me. Not really knowing anything about distilling, they were really putting a bet on me as a person. I would never have been ever to convince a stranger to give me money. I knew nothing about distilling, had never run a business, they would think I was crazy! I never could have put it together without my investors.
What was the learning curve like for you? Did you apprentice somewhere?
There haven’t been small distilleries in the US since prohibition, so there are very few opportunities for apprenticeship. The laws changed in 2001 – after September 11th, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms split. One section focused on taxes, and one on enforcement. For whatever reason, the tax collecting section made the process of getting a license for distilling much easier. There is no school for it, no real opportunities for apprenticeship, so I hit the library. I started researching the science of fermentation and distilling. I toured a few small distilleries. I hooked up with Ulrich Kothe, the maker of my still, and they put on some classes in the U.S., so I spent some weekends at those. They have really been great – I still bug them with questions from time to time.
We were here, and the distillery was really inspired by food entrepreneurs who were doing similar things. I mean like, Gorilla Coffee – they’re roasting beans here, that’s pretty cool. Or Q Tonic – they’re getting quinine and making real tonic. It’s about going back to the ingredients, and the transformation of raw ingredients into a finished product that is different, that’s somehow more than the sum of its parts. We were inspired by others doing that, and when we tripped across the idea of distilling we thought, where better than here? People seem really willing to support these independent start-ups in Brooklyn. We live here and love it. If we’re going to do this, why would we do it anywhere else?
How do you source your ingredients?
The wheat is all organic and grown in New York State. I reached out to NOFA, the Northeast Organic Farming Association, to let them know I was looking for wheat and rye for distilling. They hooked me up with a farmer who had just opened a flour mill. They’re just starting to bring wheat growing back to the Northeast. This one variety tastes so great. The farmer had planted it for bread, because his other customers are bakers, and it ended up being terrible for bread, but great for distilling. So next year he’ll grow lots for us. It’s great to work directly with the grower.
Is your recipe super secret?
For our gin, we distill wheat, and retain some of the character of the wheat. Most gins on the market use a neutral alcohol, but we distill in a way to retain the native wheat flavors. We use juniper, lemon, rosemary, ginger, and grapefruit aromatics. We also distill the juniper in a different way. Juniper is amazing and complex – you get everything from these heavy flavors like wood and pitch, to these light amazing floral aromas – all in one berry. We rectify the juniper spirit to really minimize the heavy flavors and highlight the nice light aromatics.
I think that even given it’s recent revival gin can be a hard sell, do you find that?
It is sometimes. So many people come in for tastings and say, “Ugh I hate gin…I had such a bad experience as a teenager when I drank it out of my mom’s liquor cabinet and got sick…” I really implore then to just smell our product. It’s different – it’s got really unexpected flavors. Everyone has it in their head that all gin tastes like Tanqueray, when in reality there are starting to be new styles that are not all so heavy. Like ours!
Do you have any cocktails you recommend?
Our gin works really well with in martinis, and I think sweet vermouth more than dry helps to accentuate it – especially with some of the great new vermouths on the market. It works great in a Negroni, with sweet vermouth and orange bitters. Or also with Miletti instead of Campari, which has a caramel flavor – great for people who like sweets!
Here’s a video interview with Brad from Brooklyn Independent TV:
The Breuckelen Distilling Company is located at 77 19th Street in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Check their website for