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Spirits Soaring in Brooklyn

It has been decades since you could get a gin and tonic or a whiskey sour mixed with spirits distilled in New York City.

That will change this spring, when two new distilleries, The Shanty, also known as the New York Distilling Company (79 Richardson Street, Williamsburg) and The Breuckelen Distilling Company (77 19th Street and 3rd Avenue, Sunset Park), are set to begin bottling rye whiskey and gin for the first time since Prohibition.

For The Shanty’s Tom Potter, it is a dream that was rekindled only after he retired from brewing award-winning beers at The Brooklyn Brewery for the better part of two decades. Over the past five years, he had been working at a food-related nonprofit and kayaking on rivers out West during his vacation time, when he discovered a string of small distilleries in towns nearby.

“I visited a couple dozen small distilleries and I fell in love with what I was drinking,” said Potter. “It is similar to the 1980s, when small breweries were starting up, the same thing is going to happen with distilleries.”

Potter and his colleagues, Jason Grizzanti of the Warwick Valley Winery & Distillery, the consulting master distiller, and Allen Katz, who serves as chairman of the board of directors of Slow Food USA, hope to produce gin and rye whiskey from their Williamsburg-based distillery. Housed in a one-story steel shed with a tin corrugated roof, a block from McCarren Park, the building is still undergoing a hefty permitting process, but Potter is optimistic spirits will begin to flow by early next year.

“All the little guys will be trying to take a piece from the big guys, like Jack Daniels, Johnny Walker, Jameson. On the gin side, we’ll be trying to take a piece away from Beefeaters, Bombay Sapphire or Hendricks,” said Potter. “I think there’s an opportunity for local companies to reassert their heritage and once again make rye whiskey in New York.”

Brad Estabrook of The Breuckelen Distilling Company agrees that the new companies will not be in direct competition, though his distillery will only produce gin at first.

Estabrook’s gin epiphany came while he was flying over the United States, perusing the pages of an in-flight lifestyle magazine, where he read that the federal government was reducing restrictions on micro-distilleries.

“From a business perspective, it’s difficult to make whiskey at a micro-distillery,” said Estabrook. “We’re making gin because it’s something we like to drink and make it more quickly because it doesn’t need to age. It has a lot of taste and flavor, and it is interesting to drink.”

The process to distill gin is still a complicated one. Estabrook begins the process by buying wheat from upstate farmers, milling the grain into flour and mashing it with hot water to covert starches to sugars. After the mash sits in plastic fermentation vessels for several days, it is put into a giant copper still with a blend of botanicals, where it steeps, is distilled again, and then diluted and filtered before it is finally bottled.

“Our alcohol will be a little different because of the character of the wheat,” said Estabrook. “It will have a lot more character than mass-produced flour at the grocery store.”

When open, Estabrook envisions a tasting room, as well as sales in several liquor stores and wine shops throughout Brooklyn, catering to locally made food products and relationships with cocktail-driven bars and restaurants.

“There’s a great cocktail scene around here; different bars are creative at making some great cocktails and gin is a major component,” said Estabrook.

We’ll have ours straight, no chaser.

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