By David Flaherty, New York City Correspondent
When I approached the storefront in Brooklyn, well after dark, I began to wonder if I should pull out my walkie-talkie and call for backup — oh wait, I haven't owned a walkie-talkie since I was 10…shit.
As I was contemplating the childhood devices that could provide comfort on this barren journey, I noticed light spilling out on to the sidewalk ahead. As I neared the wall of windows, I glanced inside and that's, that's when I saw the still. My eyes met her gleaming copper sides, her long tower, and her shiny knobs. I was breathless. In a state of awe, I wondered if this was some strange spaceship that could fly into deep space, or perhaps a vessel to burrow into the floor and take one to the center of the Earth. I had arrived.
To say Breuckelen Distilling Company's name properly, you need to lower your voice a bit, add a syllable between the "Brook" and the "lyn" and affect a slight Dutch twang…at least that's what I learned in the first moments upon entering. A few hours later, I left stunned at the level of commitment that this small team is bringing to craft distilling.
First and foremost, they are focused on their ingredients and their ability to capture them in their purest form.
Estabrooke, owner of Breuckelen Distilling, is an interesting cat. At the shockingly young age of 32, he stands on the brink of an industry run by (mostly) men twice his age, many of whom come from families with long histories of distilling. Brad, however — a former financial trader on Wall Street — is entirely self-taught. After eight years of selling bonds, Brad (though successful in his own small division) was laid-off along with his entire department. He found himself at a crossroads. Return to Wall Street or turn a new life chapter? He did what any of us would do, really. He went ice-climbing, of course. And after a month hiatus, returned to New York with a desire to work for himself. He decided to open a small-production, craft distillery.
With no previous experience making spirits, Brad set off to learn everything he could from books, tastings and consultations with other distillers. Though very soft-spoken and one who calmly moved about his high-ceilinged storefront, it was clear that Brad doesn't approach things lightly or half-heartedly. He dives in headfirst with nary a glance for a life preserver. He thrives in the deep end.
The distillery is larger than I expected. At the center of the room, like a Queen looking over her subjects, stands the still. Off to one side, a collection of shiny metal jugs fills the floor near a chemist's table cluttered with beakers and gadgets. Across the way on the far wall, pallets of grain are stacked in piles awaiting their conversion to mash. Large, blue drums stand at the ready, many with bubbling mashes in various stages of fermentation.
Everything, and I mean everything, is covered in a fine powder. "It's from the grain," Brad says, "which we mill ourselves at the start of the process. The flour gets all over the place."
His office (merely a wooden table, computer and chair) was cloaked in a white sheet reminiscent of a Civil War General's tent on the battlefield.
One of his first realizations upon getting started was that many spirits-makers begin their gin by purchasing bulk amounts of neutral grain spirit. They use this as the base for which their botanical blends — many will use between 5-30 different botanicals, with juniper being the predominant one — are built upon. This can be bought from mega-distilleries creating thousands of gallons of the stuff.
This fact didn't sit well with Brad. Why would one not make their entire product from scratch, using grain they'd hand-selected and techniques that were their own? The base spirit is more than just a base; it is the heart and soul of the gin. He quickly steered right while others went left, and soon found himself visiting farmers in upstate New York and bringing bags of wheat back to Brooklyn where the experimenting began.
Using a massive pot that was once used to make batches of tomato sauce large enough to feed an Italian brigade, Brad began methodically teaching himself how to mash, ferment and eventually distill his own grain spirit. In doing so, he is capturing the unique terroir of New York's grain. He estimates that this painstaking process consumes four-fifths of his team's time and energy. But it's worth it, as the flavor, the mouthfeel and the aromas are wholly unique. This is liquid New York, with a richness and viscosity unlike any gin I've tasted.
He's fueled by the city, too. “Working in Brooklyn is inspiring. There’s energy here from the community that’s centered on craft production, be it small restaurants and chefs, or shops focusing on artisan products. You feel it all around you," he said.
Using five different botanicals (juniper, lemon peel, rosemary, grapefruit and ginger), Brad stumbled upon another technique that is unusual in the field of gin making. While most distillers add their botanicals to the neutral grain spirit in the base of the still where they are steeped and distilled together — or another technique known as the Carter-Head where the botanicals are held in a basket at the top of the still where the alcoholic vapors pass through the blend — Brad does something entirely different. He distills each botanical separately. That’s right: separately. I was shocked too. He has perfected the distillation of lemon peel, of grapefruit, of juniper berries, ginger and rosemary.
Once all five botanicals are distilled, he blends them together to make his final product. It's a strange way to do things. Almost more like a mad chemist or a crazed mixologist would approach it. But the proof is in the pudding. It is like no other gin I've tried. Full flavored with a wonderful complexity where each botanical shines through. But the real focus of the gin? The New York grain. The mouthfeel of the gin is what makes you take notice. A rich viscosity holds the flavors together and confirms all this extra attention to detail is worth it.
I asked Brad how he came up with the blend of botanicals he now uses. “My girlfriend and I were at a restaurant a few years ago and we had this incredible risotto. It was simply flavored with lemon and rosemary. And I thought, this is it, this is the flavor I want at the heart of my gin”.
Hundreds of distillations later, he has done just that. The rosemary note gives the gin a savory quality; with the lemon and grapefruit rounding out the fruit characteristics; and the ginger giving a a spicy dismount on the finish.
Inspiration can come in strange places. But for Brad Estabrooke, it is the state of New York and the city of Brooklyn that he honors above all else.
(The first two photos in this story are courtesy of Breuckelen Distilling Company)