Brooklyn whiskey-makers take a shot at the big leagues
Annual Whiskey Extravaganza lands at the Weylin Hotel
The Whisky Extravaganza, a national tour of spirit tastings, culinary pairings and masterclasses promising to “ignite your passion” for whiskey, arrives in the borough for the first time this Thursday.
Now in its 20th year, the gathering has been “fostering a broader and deeper appreciation” of whiskey in attendees by exposing them to brands from around the world in carefully “curated experiences,” according to promotional materials.
With previous stops at ritzy Manhattan outposts such as Gustavino’s, the Metropolitan Pavillion and The Union League Club, the Whisky Extravaganza of 2019 lands at the Weylin, the tony event space housed in the Williamsburgh Savings Bank building, which recently underwent a $27 million reimagining.
For $95, ticket buyers can enjoy unlimited tastings, a signature glass and lite bites from select restaurant partners, including Le Bon Magot and Beehive Cheese. The Connoisseur package — $195 per person — additionally nets you a Glencairn labeled tasting glass and access to the masterclass, offering a “deep dive into whisky distilling, flavor profiles, history, traditions, and the evolution of the American single malts in a fun and intimate setting.”
The soiree’s debut in the borough fits right in with Brooklyn’s deepening bougieness — and it casts a spotlight on the area’s dynamic local whiskey scene. After meeting its initial demise during Prohibition, Brooklyn whiskey was reborn less than a decade ago and continues to mature, both commercially and creatively.
“There’s a good bit of whiskey lovers in the community,” said Heather Rogers, the Whisky Extravaganza’s event coordinator. “As we put a lot of thought into the event, and start to evolve it, Brooklyn looked like the right demographic, right community, for us to move the New York event to.”
The Weylin, according to Rogers, will now serve as the event’s permanent home.
Though the Whisky Extravaganza will spotlight various whiskey types from abroad, Brooklyn is sure to provide plenty of libations that will excite locals and industry insiders alike.
“Whiskey is something that takes time, you can’t rush it,” said Allen Katz, co-founder of Williamsburg’s New York Distilling Company, and the instructor of the event’s masterclass. “So the interest, in part, if you want to relate it to other things in Brooklyn, is the craftspersonship of taking the time to make something from scratch, but also to have the patience to let it evolve into something unique, hopefully, and something of high quality as well.”
Case in point: The whiskey makers of Widow Jane, the Red Hook distillery founded in 2012, recently revealed a new 12-year-aged bourbon. When whiskey distillers emerge, their initial market offerings are usually aged just two years, sometimes less. But as barrel time passes, whiskey’s flavor becomes more colorfully nuanced. The new Widow Jane black-labeled bottle is 99 proof — higher than most bourbons — and described by the company as “more intense, more complex and with dark fruits, crème brulee, and a creamy finish.”
Brooklyn distillers are showing off the diverse results of experimentation with various barrel types and distillation perfection, which has a multitude of benefits for consumers and businesses.
Restaurants and retail stores can now purchase “private barrels” of Brooklyn whiskey, according to Michele Clark, vice president of operations and art director for Widow Jane. A restaurant manager can examine their menu and “choose a unique barrel that goes with their program,” while liquor store owners can sell exclusive bottles or special holiday releases from their own shelves.
Clark said such offerings are “a little more curated for those looking to really go beyond just having a nice bourbon” who want to select “something that goes specifically with what their agenda is.”
And with refinement comes distinction.
The craft movement — the renaissance of which is generally understood to have begun within the past two decades, across various industries — had to push through early phases of uncertain innovation.
“For a while, craft spirits were really getting ditched,” said Lisa Wicker, president and head distiller of Widow Jane. But then, “Everybody stepped up what they were doing a notch. … Now nobody will discount them, because now we know the quality is there. ”
The first to tackle the challenges of developing whiskey in a Brooklyn-born distillery since Prohibition was Colin Spoelman, a Kentuckian who partnered with David Haskell to open Kings County Distillery in 2010.
“I wanted to create a little island of Kentucky culture within Brooklyn,” Spoelman said. “To be able to take something like small-scale distilling that really wasn’t happening in the ’70s and ’80s … that’s a really cool opportunity, and New York has been really open to it.”
After a two-year stint in East Williamsburg, Kings County Distillery operates today out of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. More than a dozen other distilleries producing whiskey, gin, vodka and other spirits have since been founded inside the borough’s boundaries.
“Kings County Distillery is unique and valuable to the Navy Yard, both as a tenant amenity and a distinguished manufacturer,” said David Ehrenberg, president and CEO of the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation, in an email. “The company is also one of a handful of public-facing tenants that provides the wider public with a glimpse of the rich manufacturing ecosystem we actively seek to develop here.”
Kings County Distillery produces a unique bourbon that’s reflective of its home tidings. “New York is a clash of all these different cultures, and so we take that logic and apply it to whiskey,” Spoelman explained.
In his company’s peated bourbon, the first of its kind anywhere, Scotland barley is exposed to Scotland peat, and then mashed up with New York State corn. The result: “We have something that nobody’s ever tried before,” Spoelman said. It’s comparatively less sweet, but bolder and more robust than other bourbons.
The business relationship Spoelman has cultivated with his corn provider has helped the craft spirit market boom out of Brooklyn and across the state, with support from the government.
“The real key is the link to New York State agriculture,” said Allen Katz, who helped organize the nonprofit trade group New York State Distillers Guild six years ago. “The support mechanisms [from the state government], whether it’s by licensing of a facility to make alcohol or other incentives, really come attuned to creating partnerships between manufacturers and the people that make the source material.”
Katz’s New York Distilling Company, for example, buys hundreds of thousands of pounds of rye from a Finger Lakes-region farmer.
“That’s a win-win that’s kept in state,” Katz said.
Brooklyn’s thumbprint is prominent in the Empire Rye standard as well.
Developed in 2015 as a way for New York State to promote its own whiskey type — similar to how Kentucky boasts of its bourbon — six distillers, three from Brooklyn, came up with the standard.
Among the parameters for a whiskey to qualify as an Empire Rye, according to its website, 75 percent of the mash must be New York State-grown rye grain. The whiskey is to be aged for a minimum of two years in charred, new oak barrels, and mashed, fermented, distilled, barreled and aged at a single New York State distillery.
“These small businesses are making world-class, award-winning whiskies and other spirits right here in Brooklyn while creating hundreds of good-paying manufacturing jobs and contributing to our economy,” said Hector Batista, president and CEO of Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, in an email. “We’ll put Brooklyn’s distilleries against Kentucky’s any day.”
A Chamber study found that “from 2010-2016, Brooklyn’s food manufacturing industry (which includes distilleries), grew by 22 percent adding nearly 1,200 new jobs.”
With all this man-hour and financial investment in whiskey fueling clear returns — which assuredly will grow, as Brooklyn’s demographics continue to evolve, bringing more new money into the borough — it’s no wonder the Whisky Extravaganza is finding a home at the Weylin.
Regardless, Brooklyn whiskey will carry on its crafting, pushing ever-broadening boundaries.
“We’re not elders, but we’re sort of in our adolescence, and we’re ‘finding our voices,’” Spoelman, who is 39, said of Brooklyn’s whiskey distillers.
His Kings County Distillery has “been in business for nine years,” Spoelman continued, “and we have a 4-year-old whiskey, and just next year we’ll be coming out with our own 7-year-old whiskey.”
He added with a laugh: “I’ll be close to dead when we come out with our 18-year-old whiskey.”
Michael Stahl is a freelance writer and editor. A former high school English teacher, he has written for Rolling Stone, Vice, the Village Voice, Narratively, Splitsider, Outside Magazine and other publications.
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