I'm a born-and-bred New Yorker, which means a lot of things. I rarely see Broadway shows. I can't remember the last time I visited the Statue of Liberty. Hell, I don't even have a driver's license. (If you can't get somewhere by cab, is it really worth visiting?) It also means that I, like many of my fellow New Yorkers, love to brag about New York. Whether it's Derek Jeter, Prospect Park, MoMA, our fine tap water, what have you, I'm more than happy to tell you how awesome it is. But until a few years ago, there was no way to combine my inbred Noo Yawk chauvinism with my love of a good glass of booze. While distilleries dotted the city and upstate from the 1700s on, after Prohibition... well, I guess New Yorkers were too busy drinking booze to make it.
That all began to change in 2004, when Tuthilltown Spirits, based in the Hudson Valley, started selling their vodka and whiskeys. It was the first time that made-in-New York spirits had been legally available since before Prohibition. Since then, distilleries have sprung up all over the state, and in the city as well -- especially Brooklyn, the East Coast epicenter of the cocktail-hipster community. Nurtured by a supportive network of local bars and liquor stores, and spreading the word using social media and word-of-mouth, it's a movement that's still in its infancy, but growing by leaps and bounds.
Any hopes I had of making this a comprehensive overview of New York-distilled spirits have been dashed by the tribble-like proliferation of new distilleries and brands. With a few exceptions, most of them are less than five years old. That doesn't matter so much with spirits that don't need to be aged, like gin or vodka. But with whiskeys, which need to be aged in wood for a decent amount of time (several years, in general), some creativity had to be used to speed up the aging process without the finished product tasting rushed. The fact that New York, while not in Kentucky's league, is already producing some fine whiskeys is testament to the ingenuity, know-how, and general awesomeness of New York's liquor laborers.
What follows are some of my favorite homegrown spirits from the Empire State. Given how many brands there are, and how small some of the distilleries are, I assume I've missed at least a few of the better ones. Feel free to clue me (and your fellow readers) in to some of your favorites -- come on, nobody's ever accused New Yorkers of being shy! And a word to the wise: a lot of these brands aren't available outside of New York. If that's not a great excuse to come visit, I don't know what is.
BROOKLYN GIN (Brooklyn Gin; 40% ABV, $40). Brooklyn founder (the gin, not the borough) Joe Santos made the news a couple of years ago when he sued the makers of the rival Breuckelen Gin, claiming their name infringed on his trademark. The fact that his gin is actually distilled outside the city, while Breuckelen is made in the borough, made the whole thing a little unseemly. But both brands are, fortunately, still around. And I still prefer Brooklyn Gin. Like many gins of modern vintage, its mix of botanicals is heavy on citrus, but at its core it's still a London Dry-styled gin, with a heart of pure juniper. And not to judge a book by the cover, but Brooklyn Gin's bottle is one of the nicest you'll see anywhere, New York or otherwise.
DOROTHY PARKER AMERICAN GIN (New York Distilling Company; 44% ABV, $31). The New York Distilling Company puts to rest any doubt that New York has become a gin lover's paradise over the last few years. Based in Williamsburg, with their own bar, The Shanty, next door to the distillery, this team of longtime spirits industry vets have come up with not one but two world-class gins. Dorothy Parker, named after the famed writer and raconteur of Algonquin Round Table fame, employs an interesting mix of botanicals including elderberries and dried hibiscus petals. It's slightly sweet, with a beautiful, velvety mouth feel, and makes a brilliant cocktail, whether you're going with simple classics like a martini or G & T, or more esoteric concoctions, many of which can be found at the Shanty (check out the Sauvetage, for instance).
GREENHOOK GINSMITHS AMERICAN DRY GIN (Greenhook Ginsmiths; 47% ABV, $35). One of the newest contenders in the New York gin wars, Greenhook is made using a copper still with a mercury vaccuum, thus lowering the atmospheric pressure and allowing it to be distilled at lower temperatures -- at least according to head ginsmith Steven DeAngelo. I don't know whether it's the mercury vaccuum or the botanicals, which go heavy on the elderflower and chamomile in addition to the juniper, that make this gin so damn good. Either way, it's a joy to drink. It's floral but not sweet, mild but not weak, smooth but not boring. The best comparison I can make is to a more floral version of Plymouth -- and to mention a gin in the same breath as Plymouth is never a bad thing. It makes a gorgeous martini and, surprisingly, it's even delicious neat at room temperature.
PERRY'S TOT NAVY STRENGTH GIN (New York Distilling Company; 57% ABV, $32). The first and, so far, only navy strength gin made in the States is called "navy strength" because its alcohol content is high enough so that gunpowder will still ignite even if the sailor firing the cannon has spilled his 5 o'clocktail on it. The "Perry" in the name refers to 19th century Navy Commodore Matthew C. Perry; a "tot" is a sailor's daily ration of gin. Now that we've got all that out of the way... this is a fantastic gin. At 114 proof, a less deft distiller might render this stuff a harsh firewater. While it's definitely spicier and more powerful than NY Distilling Co's lower-proof gin, Dorothy Parker, it's also beautifully smooth and rounded, with notes of star anise, cinnamon and most interestingly, wildflower honey from upstate New York. I love it in fruit juice-laden cocktails. It's also delicious in a martini, but with an alcohol content this high, don't try drinking three of them at lunch.
HUDSON BABY BOURBON WHISKEY (Tuthilltown Spirits; 46% ABV, aged less than four years, $40/375 ml bottle). This is the one that started it all for me -- the first New York-distilled bourbon I ever tried, and probably the first one that most spirits fans had ever heard of. Made from 100% corn -- a rarity for bourbons, which usually mix in at least a little rye and/or barley -- and, if my information is correct, aged for a mere three months, this is a vibrant and slightly unbridled whiskey that belies its youth when taken neat. But drop in an ice cube and the cinnamon/clove sweetness takes a back seat to rich notes of caramel, chocolate and tobacco. Tuthilltown also makes a "four grain" bourbon which employs corn, rye, barley and wheat that's quite good, though not up to the level of the Baby Bourbon.
HUDSON SINGLE MALT WHISKEY (Tuthilltown Spirits; 46% ABV, aged less than 4 years, $45/375ml bottle).. A New York distillery trying to make a bourbon worthy of Kentucky is one thing. But trying to make a Scotch-style whiskey worthy of Scotland... now that takes chutzpah. Hey, at least they didn't spell it "whisky." Created entirely from malted barley, Single Malt is aged in new charred American oak barrels, unlike Scotch, which is aged in used bourbon barrels. The nose is quite sweet and redolent of dark fruits, while the taste is a lot different -- quite dry and grainy, with a wee touch of honey on the tip of the tongue. Drunk neat, it's just a little harsh, but with a little water it really opens up nicely and becomes both smoother and more complex. I'm not going to throw out my bottles of Macallan or Highland Park, but this is a very enjoyable whiskey.
KINGS COUNTY DISTILLERY BOURBON(Kings County Distillery; 45% ABV, aged 10 mos-1 yr, $23/200ml bottle). Based in a 325 square-foot commercial studio in Williamsburg, Kings County is the oldest continuously operating distillery in New York City -- it's been up and running since 2010! Needless to say, its bourbon is rather young. Made from organic New York State corn, it's aged for less than a year, but it's done in miniature barrels (about 1/10 the size of a typical whiskey barrel), which increases liquid-to-wood contact and speeds up the process. The light golden amber finished product, packaged in no-frills flasks, tastes to me about halfway between a moonshine and an aged whiskey. You can still taste a lot of corn, as well as cinnamon, caramel and peppery spice. On first sip, I thought it wasn't quite ready for bottling yet, but it got better with each successive taste. Now, I'm a big fan. Try it with a little water and see if you don't agree.
McKENZIE RYE WHISKEY (Finger Lakes Distilling; 45.5% ABV, aged less than four years, $40). At the turn of the millennium, ordering a cocktail made with rye was a challenge in most bars, and only a handful of brands were available in stores. Today, the cocktailistas have embraced rye, and new brands are sprouting up faster than weeds in an abandoned ballpark. McKenzie is one of my favorite New York ryes. Employing about 20% malted barley in its distillate along with native-grown rye, and aged in sherry oak casks, it's both fruitier and nuttier than most of the bold, spicy ryes I've tried. It's only aged for about a year, but it's placed in tiny 5-gallon barrels (traditional barrels hold 53 gallons), so the aging process happens much quicker. Despite being a relatively hefty 91 proof, this is one of the smoothest ryes you can find -- great for sipping neat, and a great starter whiskey as well. (McKenzie also makes a nifty bourbon, called, appropriately enough, McKenzie Bourbon.)
WHITE DOGS, VODKAS & OTHER SPIRITS
CORE VODKA (Harvest Spirits) (40% ABV, $35). They don't call New York the Big Apple for nothing -- upstate NY has some of the finest apples you can sink your teeth into. When orchard owner Derek Grout had more apples than his farm stand could sell, he decided to do what Hudson Valley apple farmers have been doing since colonial times -- make booze from the excess. As such, you'd expect Core to taste a little different from traditional grain or potato vodkas, but it really takes your taste buds to the orchard -- so much so that it could almost be considered a flavored vodka. It's sweet, but not cloyingly so, and very smooth and buttery on the palate. It makes for a fine mixer, but if you really want to taste those apple notes, stick the bottle in the freezer and try it chilled, without ice. While vodka purists may not like them apples, I am loving Core to the core. I'd even try an apple martini with this stuff... maybe.
CORNELIUS APPLEJACK (Harvest Spirits; 40% ABV, aged 1 year, $40). From the distillery that brought us Core Vodka comes this simply amazing applejack, a spirit that peaked in popularity in the 18th century, but which is gaining back a following among spirits geeks and cocktail buffs in recent years. Thrice distilled and aged for a year in used Woodford Reserve (bourbon) oak barrels, Cornelius Applejack is a beautiful mixture of sweet and dry, its intense apple flavor mixing with dry woody notes, as well as hints of butterscotch and vanilla from the whiskey barrels. It's extremely well balanced, and much more smooth and refined than you might think an applejack could taste. Grout also makes a mind-blowing pear brandy (which I wrote about here), and he's working on a traditional freeze-distilled applejack which will hopefully make an appearance at some point soon.
KINGS COUNTY DISTILLERY MOONSHINE (40% ABV, $20/200ml bottle). Made from organic New York State corn mixed with a little Scottish barley, this was the very first booze (legally) distilled within the New York City limits since Woodrow Wilson's administration. And fortunately for all of us NYC snobs, it's a good one. I seem to always preface my mentions of moonshine (a/k/a white dog a/k/a un-aged) whiskeys with the obligatory "I don't like white dog" statement, but this really is one of the better ones. Rather than tasting like alcohol-soaked candy corn, this moonshine is beautifully reminiscent of hot buttered corn on the cob -- rich, without that icky sweet edge. I still prefer my whiskeys to make friends with a barrel or two before they meet my tongue, but for historical significance and plain ol' yumminess, this moonshine is highly recommended.
TOMR'S HANDCRAFTED TONIC SYRUP CONCENTRATE (Tom's Handcrafted; $12/200ml). OK, this isn't a spirit, but it's a fabulous cocktail accessory. (It's also made in New Jersey, but if the Jets and Giants can call themselves New York teams....) The dark color alone tells you that this isn't your standard tonic -- it's made using all natural ingredients including cinchana bark, which is the natural source for the quinine that gives tonic water its distinctive dry, bitter flavor. No high fructose corn syrup here! Tomr (a/k/a Tom Richter) employs a secret mix of herbs, spices and fruits, which rounds out tonic's traditionally rough edges and contributes some beautiful citrus and cinnamon flavors. It's nothing like any tonic I've ever tried, and it makes a fantastic G & T or V & T. All that's missing is the bubbles, which you add yourself via club soda. If you like tonic, this will expand your horizons. If, like me, you're not a big fan, you'll be surprised at how much you enjoy it.
VINTNER'S VODKA (Finger Lakes Distilling; 40% ABV, $29). WHOA. Made from locally grown grapes near the Finger Lakes distillery, the grape vibe is so intense, especially when drunk neat, that you could almost mistake this for a grappa. The difference is that while many grappas taste like firewater, the Vintner's is smooth and not harsh at all. Throw in an ice cube or two and the flavors smooth out a bit -- it still has slight eau de vie characteristics, but it's much more believable as a vodka. Compared to grain vodkas it's a little sweet, but not overly so, and it has a thick, luscious mouth feel. I usually use vodka as a mixer or, occasionally (when I feel like pretending it's 1975), in a martini, but I think this one is best on the rocks. It'll throw you for a loop, but in a good way.
WHITE PIKE WHISKEY (Finger Lakes Distilling; 40% ABV, $32). Aged for a grand total of 18 minutes (by law, all whiskey must be aged), one of the new white dogs on the market is also one of the more interesting, thanks to its recipe which employs spelt and wheat in addition to corn. A smart move, as this is one of the rare white dogs I've tried which doesn't overwhelm me with a sweet corn flavor. It's quite clean and smooth, and while you can taste the corn, it's also got a very dry and mellow vibe from the spelt and wheat. The White Pike folks claim it's a great mixer, but I like it best neat or with a few drops of water. Now if they'd just stick it in an oak barrel for a couple of years...