Most of us enjoy raising a glass (or two) of wine, beer, or a fine spirit with friends – particularly in this season of good cheer. While some know something about where those drinks come from, or how they are made, only a fortunate few get to see vintners, brewers and distillers at work, painstakingly shepherding raw ingredients from sacks and crates, through mills and presses to tanks, barrels and stills, always tinkering and mashing, checking and testing, heating and cooling until they’ve been transformed into the glittering gold or ruby red elixirs that dreams, and parties, are made of.
In an effort to give us a glimpse behind the scenes with some of Brooklyn’s finest beverage alchemists, Photographer Valery Rizzo visited The Red Hook Winery, Sixpoint Craft Ales in Red Hook, Breuckelen Distilling in Sunset Park and King’s County Distillery in Bushwick.
Red Hook Winery
On-site winemaker Christopher Nicolson; at right, three of The Red Hook Winery's forty-five different wines, made in Brooklyn using grapes from the North Fork region of Long Island and one vineyard from the Finger Lakes.
Handful of soon-to-be-pressed red grapes that were fermented on their stems (what winemakers call "whole cluster" fermentation).
Christopher punching down an active fermentation of red grapes.
The winery's many stainless-steel fermenting and blending tanks sit beneath a skylight.
Smelling and tasting. Cellarman and champion harvest worker Benjamin Nicholas and Christopher Nicolson draining, via pump, the "free run" wine from a completed fermentation.
Smelling the "free run" or wine that has been drawn off of skins/stems/seeds and that has never been pressed.
Benjamin Nicholas, draining "free run" wine from a completed fermentation. The barrel room, where wines age for up to three years.
Sixpoint Craft Ales
The somewhat famous door to the Sixpoint Craft Ale brewery, or, as they like to call it, The Laboratory.
One of the brewery's many fermentation tanks. Head brewer Ian McConnell kicking the grain through the mill above into the mash tun below, where it is mixed together with hot water.
Brewer Sean Redmond uses a hardwood maple mash paddle to evenly infuse the grain together with the hot water in the tun. After the mashing process, the hopper is removed from the mash tun into a large bin.
The brewers, Sean Redmond, Ian McConnell and Pete Dickson holding handmade old style wooden mash and whirlpool paddles they use in the brewing process.
Jars of dried hops waiting to be added to the wort boiling in the kettle. Two carboys of Pete's homebrews in fermentation, the right one contains cherries.
Logistician Chris Kavanaugh brewing a special beer for a charity event "Beer for Beasts" showcasing creative beers, food and entertainment, all in the name of compassion toward animals.
View inside the mash tun, where after the mash is stirred to a proper consistency, the active part of the mashing process is complete and thermometers gauge the enzymatic conversion of the beer.
Brewer Pete Dickson maintaining all the brewery's conditioning tanks and fermentors.
Keg-filling device hanging from the ceiling and CO2 regulator in between two tanks, created by the brewers themselves as is much of the other equipment used in the brewery.
Craft brewers have developed an all-natural clarifying process to extract clear wort from the mash, called recirculation. Here, the first runnings are recirculated back through the grain until they have brilliantly clear wort.
Grains remain in the mash tun after wort. The sweet liquid is drained through the slotted grates at the bottom of the tun. Sean and Ian work hard to clear the tun of the remaining grain or hopper.
The mashing process is complete. Some of the converted starch (sugar) has now dissolved into the hot water and has become a solution. This malt-sugar solution is known to brewers as wort.
Once the sweet wort is collected and transferred to the kettle, it's time to apply the heat and fire, add the hops, and turn the sugar solution into beer before starting the first and secondary fermentation processes.
Brad Estabrooke, founder of Breuckelen Distilling, an artisanal distillery located in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.
In the left corner of the distillery Brad uses a grain mill, creates the mash, adds yeast and transfers it to large fermentation tanks. His Boston Terrier, Charlie, often appears on bottles, packaging, and the distillery's mail box.
Currently they make two gins: their flagship gin and a darker, barrel-aged version as well as two whiskeys. One is made from wheat and the other from rye and corn. Gin derives its dominant flavor from dried juniper berries.
To make their gin from scratch, they start with 100% organic whole wheat grown in upstate New York. The wheat is added to a grain mill and finely milled into flour moments before it's needed.
The wheat spirit is re-distilled with raw botanicals of juniper, grapefruit and lemon peel, ginger and rosemary. The distillery uses a copper pot still which separates the wheat alcohol from the water.
Stainless-steel intermediates or spirit collecting tanks occupy one corner of the room.
The distillery is housed in a high-ceiling industrial space with a skylight, which used to be an old boiler room, supplying heat to the surrounding buildings. Here, Brad is adjusting the temperature in the pot still.
The spirit dripping off the still into jars, ready to be sampled. Brad smells and tastes the spirit.
Hydrometers and thermometers are used to determine the proof or alcohol content of the spirits. The right part of the still is the cooling tower, where the vapor is chilled causing it to condense as a liquid.
The entire bottling process is also done by hand, filling, corking and sealing each bottle with hot melted wax. Partner Gino Di Stefano hand dips every bottle in wax and sets them aside to dry before boxing and delivery.
The bottles themselves are also sustainably produced and together in one day Brad and Gino can finish 32 cases or 384 bottles, ready for delivery and drinking.
Kings County Distillery
Kings County Distillery in Bushwick, Brooklyn, specializes in hand-crafted bourbon and moonshine made from local organic corn from upstate New York.
Native Kentuckian Colin Spoelman is co-founder of the Distillery, which is housed in a small 325-foot room of a warehouse and produces all of its whiskey in five 8-gallon stills.
Bottle labels for Kings County Distillery, the first operating whiskey distillery in New York City since Prohibition.
Distillate or alcohol emerging from the stainless-steel stills into large glass jugs.
Organic cracked corn from the Finger Lakes and Scottish malted barley are the main ingredients for both the moonshine and bourbon and are mixed together into large pots of boiling hot water; other grains such as rye are used for upcoming projects.
Yeast is then added to the mash and left to ferment in large plastic tubs, breaking down the sugars. Distiller Chris Elford mixing the grains by hand together in pots of hot water.
The Distillery's tasting room is open for tours and tastings on selected days each month. Their moonshine recently won “Best in Category” for corn whiskey at the American Distilling Institute’s Craft Spirits Conference.
Five stainless-steel stills sit on top of burners, while the moonshine trickles through rubber hoses into several glass jugs sitting on the floor. To the right, water comes to a boil before organic corn is added to start the mash.
Chris and Colin pour huge jugs of the finished moonshine into barrels for aging. The thing that sets them apart is the sincere care that goes into hand-crafting each bottle of bourbon and moonshine.
All photos © Valery Rizzo. All rights reserved.
Valery is a Park Slope-based professional photographer with a love of good food and all things Brooklyn. You can find more of her work on her website, and you can follow her food adventures on her photo blog, Eating Brooklyn.