Brooklyn Vodka from a Homemade Distillery

April 16, 2012 Brooklyn Eagle Staff
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By Zach Campbell

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

SUNSET PARK– Max Hames showed up to his first day of work at Industry City Distillery expecting to find large copper stills, towering fermentation tanks, a bottling line and all the other tools of the vodka maker’s trade. Upon entering his new workplace, a completely empty Sunset Park warehouse space, Hames quickly learned that this distillery ran a little differently.

Industry City Distillery’s top-floor Sunset Park warehouse space now feels a bit more like the loft of a Bushwick chemist than a commercial vodka plant. Bicycles hang from the ceiling, cookware is strewn about the communal kitchen in varying states of cleanliness, and numbered beakers, bottles and jugs full of clear liquid dot every visible surface. Next to the leftovers from lunch, a contraption clamped to a vertical beam on the table brews coffee into an oversized beaker, slightly cracked and marked by the milliliter.

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Dave Kyrejko, ICD’s head distiller, happened on the company’s fermentation process accidentally. A biological engineer by training, he was working on building a series of symbiotic plant ecosystems that require large amounts of carbon dioxide to thrive. Rather than buying the gas, he decided to produce it himself through fermentation, a process that, he says, is cheaper and yields a cleaner product.

Fermentation also yields an alcoholic mash that can then be distilled to make spirits. By using a scientific method instead of the more traditional fermentation, Kyrejko had inadvertently found a far more efficient way to make liquor. He decided to turn this realization, called continuous fermentation and distillation, into a vodka business.

“At the start, none of us were qualified to be running a distillery,” he quipped. Before teaching themselves the distiller’s trade, the founders of Industry City Distillery worked in unrelated professions, ranging from teaching yoga to commercial salmon fishing. Two met studying art at Cooper Union.

They have quite literally built the place from the ground up. Beyond the entryway and kitchen, taking up a large portion of the distillery floor, is the manufacturing shop. Zac Bruner, the machinist and sculptor of the group, moved to Brooklyn from Providence, RI, at the behest of the others, bringing with him an entire machine shop and enough woodworking, welding, electrical and plumbing equipment to build the distillery from scratch.

Normally, start-up distillers will buy all the equipment they need, and start from there. Because Industry City Distillery’s unique fermentation and distillation processes use scientific, rather than commercial, equipment, buying wasn’t an option.“We do as much as we can in house,” explains Rich Watts, who handles marketing and design. Industry City Distillery prints their own labels on a letter press from the 1930's.

Setting up copper stills and steel fermentation tanks — the industry standard for liquor distillation — for commercial liquor production normally costs between one-quarter and  half a million dollars, Kyrejko said, adding that the glass setup that ICD’s processes require would cost nearly five times that.

The kind of glass they use is cheaper than plastic, Bruner later explained, and by building equipment in-house, ICD can build a distillery for one-hundredth the price of a standard operation.

“As far as we know we’re one of the few that have gone down this path,” said Peter Simon, who manages the business side of ICD. Simon explained that glass, aside from being cheap, is a far more efficient material for fermentation and distillation — glass stills leak far less heat than those made of copper or steel.

ICD uses sugar beets to produce vodka because the vegetable, aside from producing an abundance of sugar and energy, is easily found in New York. The distillers describe beets as a “responsible use of land,” and made a conscious decision early on not to use more traditional vodka starches like potatoes or wheat.

What makes Industry City Distillery unique is its highly scientific fermentation and distillation processes. The distillery’s “lab” is a sealed, trailer-like room full of 5-foot-tall beakers. Each tube is full of a clear liquid bubbling through thousands of small tan pellets, closely resembling Dippin’ Dots, the “futuristic” ice cream that was popular a decade ago.

The pellets are, in fact, yeast wrapped in an algae coating. Instead of a more traditional fermentation process, whereby yeast is combined with a sugar solution and water and left to sit for a time, the distillers at ICD continuously pump processed beet sugar through their yeast, and as a result are able to use much less energy and yeast in a process that requires no filtration.

“One batch of yeast by traditional methods will last us for a month of continuous use,” Kyrejko explained, adding that energy is also saved by not having to keep the wash at a certain temperature for days or weeks on end.

Industry City Distillery also uses an uncommon technique in its distillation process. Batch distillation is the process by which distilled liquor is refined by separating each compound out by its boiling point. Normally, a commercial distillery will separate its yield into four parts, or fractions, called fore-shots, heads, tails and hearts. The hearts are the neutral spirit that makes up the body of most liquors, often with small amounts of the other compounds added in for flavoring.

Peter Simon pours samples of their most recent run of vodka. Photo by Zach CampbellWhile a traditional distillery usually separates liquor into four parts, ICD separates it into 30, each having its own distinct flavor, then blending certain elements back together to create the exact flavor desired.

“We can, quite literally, separate out every chemical from an alcohol,” Peter explained. “If you want a sweet flavor, we can do that. If you want it to be earthy, we can do that. There’s even one that tastes like bananas.”

This is done to avoid the chemicals that produce a bitter or overly alcoholic taste, or another specific fraction that distillers refer to as tasting “like a boot.”

The boot fraction, upon further inspection, does live up to its name.

ICD’s current run of vodka tastes crisp and neutral, but slightly earthy. It lacks any of the rubbing-alcohol flavor that turns many off from the spirit.

The distillers hope to tweak their recipe to naturally produce different flavors. This is possible, in part, because all of their equipment is customized and built in-house.

“What we’re doing in the reactor room we couldn’t buy,” explained Rich Watts, who handles marketing and design. “There are pieces of half a dozen different industries here — all we’re doing is combining them.”

Because of the constant fermentation, the group is now producing far more carbon dioxide than Dave Kyrejko could have ever needed for his small ecosystems. The group is talking about eventually using it to power a small greenhouse for vegetables.

Kyrejko had a different idea: “Maybe we should have built a seltzer factory, too.”

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