The Holborn visited New York last autumn and among many decadent offerings sampled were the culinary highlights of the Big Apple. So sat we were, three white guys with double barreled surnames at a bar in west Brooklyn scoffing down some pulled pork when we decided to have a mid afternoon drink. A nice Gin & Tonic seemed appropriate, being British and far from home. Now as both of us are adoptive Londoners and exceptionally keen gin drinkers, we thought we knew a fair amount about the world of gin. The association between New York and ‘Mothers’ Ruin’ is not one I have made in the past. It was to my surprise then, when sipping on that expertly made G&T last September that I was pleasantly astounded by the quality of New York Distillery Company Gin.
Allen Katz, co-founder and Vice-President – Product Development wrote for us telling us his journey into the world of distilling and the story so far of the New York Distilling Company.
I always wanted to produce something. I had no idea that it would be alcohol, but even as a kid I had an urge to be creative – or at least attempt to be creative. After the fantasy of a career in music wore off in my 20’s I became fully engaged in food and drink. To my delight, I found an industry that was just as mad and experimental as the fine arts. I worked the rounds waiting tables, bartending, dabbled in cooking (though I never had the speed to do it professionally) and tried to pass myself off as somewhat of a professional in order to get invited to tastings and related events.
It was a stroke of luck, one of many, that set me on a course that would take me from cocktail enthusiast to consultant to distiller. After prodding from waiter-musician friends I planned a trip to Italy. I was 26 and had never been to Europe. It was a six-week daydream, a paradise of food, walking, talking, singing and…cooking. What started as a vacation turned into a unique professional twist when I was invited to work at a recreational cooking school in northwest Tuscany. How does this happen? I have no idea. Good fortune? Dumb luck? I didn’t care – I was living in Italy (and stayed for almost two years)! What I didn’t know at the time is that the experience would be course changing and life changing. Most of all, the work opened my daily consciousness to the relationship between food and its place of origin. I am proud to be a staunch supporter of local farmers and local food. I consider myself an activist.
The path I really started down was an exploration of American gastronomy. As I became engaged in the Slow Food movement in the US I had ample opportunity to travel to parts of the country I had not previously visited – so called secondary markets who, to my amazement, retained great food and farming traditions. I began to engage others in conversation – what was America’s food gastronomy? To this day I can still only think of two things that are authentically American in the history of gastronomy – Barbecue of the American South…and Cocktails. My course was set. I knew I had found my comfort zone and took opportunity to, quite frankly, drink. There is no research like tasting.
Our distillery opened to the public in December 2011. For me personally it was the culmination of a 10-year fantasy. Our unwritten and humble approach is to make spirits that are ‘purposefully different’. We love cocktails and so we do our best to make spirits that work well in mixed drinks. We also love the classics and thus chose to pursue two basic avenues of production: Gins and American Rye Whiskey. We stridently launched with Perry’s Tot – a Navy Strength Gin – for the express purpose that Navy Strength had not really been explored in the US for nearly a century. The reception has been terrific and by chance, the popularity of over-proof spirits fits nicely in our approach to revisiting lost and forgotten styles. Uniquely, we feel, it adds to the conversation about gin, its history and its usage. It is as splendid in a G&T as it is in a Gimlet.
As launching a new business goes, we were confronted with several delays – distilling is a ‘new industry’ in New York and, even with reasonable persistence, permitting for construction and licenses often wares on and wares thin. As we dealt with setbacks we worked on a second gin, a more contemporary bottling named for the famed American writer of the Prohibition and post-Prohibition era – Dorothy Parker. More a broad than a lady, Parker embodied the spirit of character that was no hold barred – a damn good drinker without apology; a feminist who supported equality for all minorities in an era when it was not as popular to do so; a woman and an egalitarian who could have a table in stitches with her acerbic wit. We call it Dorothy Parker – American Gin, not to imply a new category of gin but simply to state that this is not English Gin. Its primary components are quite classic but we also play folly with Elderberry and Dried Hibiscus Petals. These botanicals give the gin quite a fruit-forward note that, when mixed in a cocktail, recesses quite nicely allowing other flavors their due. We prefer it in a Negroni or just about any manner of gin sour.
The whiskey will come. By the end of 2013 we hope to have 200 full barrels of Rye aging. No doubt, we could sell each barrel just as soon as it is filled but that really isn’t the purpose. We are distilling a rough rye whiskey that takes time to mellow. While we will have a Rock & Rye this spring, our Straight Rye, with a minimum of three years of aging, will likely be released around Christmas 2014. It is exciting time that requires obstinate patience. We exclusively use full-size barrels which we feel, with appropriate time, will impart the elusive vanillin, caramel and even fruit qualities that are often found in the more renown bourbons and ryes. It is our hope, ambition and pursuit. The fun is in the pleasure of creating a product from scratch, from the pride of launching a new business and new products, and from sharing the results with the public and the industry.
Allen Katz is the co-founder of the New York Distilling Company in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. He makes Perry’s Tot – Navy Strength Gin, Dorothy Parker – American Gin, & Mister Katz’s Rock & Rye. He is content with a well-made Manhattan.