Since Prohibition, thirsty New Yorkers have lived in a very barren distilling industry. Yet suddenly distilleries are hatching wherever warehouses are still available to house them. In result, it’s natural for at least one operation to separate themselves from the rest. We sat down with renowned New York Distilling Company Co-Founder and President Tom Potter to talk distilling resurgence, and of course gin— but not just any gin— New York’s finest gin and our pick of the litter.
Why did you want to open a distillery in New York City?
Distilling here is natural. This city had hundreds upon hundreds of distilleries before prohibition. Yet, it’s been a long time since there was a recognized distillery… there may have been the license to handle alcohol, but there hadn’t been a working distiller in a long, long time. But, with the rise of craft brewing and producing wine, I think it was inevitable that distilleries were going to open up here once again. So, in 2008 I started looking into it. I had been retired for a while and my son and I wanted to start a distillery. Pretty quickly we found Allen Katz to be our third partner. After that we found this location.
It was sort of in the great recession of 2009. Real estate was more available than it might have been before. This big space was available and it was perfect for what we wanted—which is a combination of retail where people could find us, but also it had to work on a commercial scale— it needed to have a space that was clean and efficient and easy to manufacture in. The concept is simple: good retail and manufacturing. This area right here has a wonderful new zone that the city created for small manufacturers. I think for me, distilling comes as a natural outgrowth from my past in brewing. I love the beverage “alcohol” and I like making it, and I’m proud to make it in this city.
When did you open your doors?
We opened on a very propitious day. It was December 5, 2011. So it was the anniversary of Repeal Day. Prohibition was repealed in 1933. This was not completely coincidental. We wanted to open as soon as we could. When the licenses came in it was going to be around that week, so we picked that day. We thought it’d be lucky, so far it has been.
How would you describe the profile of your Perry’s Tot gin?
Perry’s Tot is a navy strength gin. It’s a style of gin that has been around for more than 200 years. An ancient honorable style. It’s what was required by the Royal Navy. Aboard ship there would be the navy strength rum and the navy strength gin. Rum for the men bellow decks and gin for the officers. For a couple hundred years there were many suppliers to the crown. One of the most famous distilleries was Plymouth, and they maintained the product, but for the last 40 or 50 years it hasn’t really been available in the United States (this style of gin was not available, but definitely not forgotten).
When we distilled it in 2011 we were the first to distill it or sell it in the United States. It’s an over-proofed spicy spirit by tradition. The strength is 57%, which was required for navy strength. It’s juniper forward, lots of coriander, cardamon, sweet cinnamon and there is a tiny bit of star anise; on the citric side, to balance the spice, it has a nice melange of orange, lemon and grapefruit. All these botanicals are extremely traditional. Yet, we do introduce one botanical that’s not, wildflower honey. Used not as a sweetener but as a botanical. None of the sugar comes across but the aromatics do, so you get a certain grassy-like quality. And through some wonderful alchemy, I’m not quite sure why, the presence of the honey tends to soften the rest of the build. It’s a very, very strong gin but at the same time it’s pretty smooth. That’s sort of the achievement: to have a spirit so strong, but very drinkable and with layers of flavor—not just one note of high alcohol.
Where do you source your gin ingredients?
Both the Perry’s Tot and Dorothy Parker gins are based on the technology that was available after 1820, which is the invention of the patent still which allowed you to distill the base spirit to a very high degree of rectification, which meant that it was the botanicals that really gave all the flavors to the gins. In both of these cases we view them as modernistic gins and they are global products. These are gins that source the botanicals I spoke about from all around the world. We may get lemon from California and Orange from Florida but cinnamon from Java and the juniper berries from Greece or Albania. Gin is a world product. The great cities of the world that made gin were a part of spice trading empires.
The Chief Gowanus is sort of a loving recreation of a very specific local recipe. It was found in the 1809 New York Distillers Manual by Dave Wondrich, a famous cocktail historian. In this case we were looking for all local ingredients because that’s what they would have used. This gin uses a local rye whiskey as a base. We source our rye from a farm up in Geneva New York. We also use ingredients that could have been available here, say, juniper and cluster hops. The idea is that it only has two botanicals: juniper and hops. It’s very unusual. First, it’s only unusual to have two botanicals. Second, the hops are completely a whacky gin botanical; but, the two work really well together.
Does the way in which you source your ingredients build limitations on the product your producing?
We have not had problems to date. Of course the prices vary from season to season or year to year. Our main limitation is just having enough of the raw spirit base to make the Gowanus. For instance, we can only make 50 cases a month. But that’s the function of our ability to make the whiskey. What the Gowanus is, is our own rye whiskey base, which is then redistilled with juniper hops.
Can you walk us through the cookery of your Perry’s Tot and Dorothy Parker gins?
The distillation of gin is a fairly straightforward process. It takes about an 8 hour day. We combine the beginning spirit—the 50% alcohol— with about 50% water. Then we add the botanicals in our still here, which is about 250 gallons. Then we add roughly 60 pounds of botanicals, of which half, almost exactly, is juniper and the other half are the other botanicals which would include coriander, cardamon, cinnamon, lemon, orange, and then two untraditional botanicals which are elderberry and hibiscus. That’s what gives the Dorothy Parker its very flowery nose.
So, we put the 60 pounds of botanicals into the pot and we’ll raise the temperature to a point where the alcohol begins to vaporize but the water mostly doesn’t. Water boils at 100 degrees celsius, the alcohol begins to vaporize at about 90 degrees celsius. That process will take about an hour to get the still up to the point where it begins to actually distill. Then the vapor will travel up through the copper pot and through the spirit column which has a plate in it that act to intensify the rectification and also allows us to control the temperature. We can cool that down or add steam and we try to keep the temperature right where we want it. That creates the most consistent distillation. Then it comes to the stainless pipe, which is bathed in water and is our condenser. It condenses the vapor back into liquid that’s highly alcoholic. It’s about 70-80% alcohol at that point, but with the intended flavors and aromas of the gin.
The very first runnings are called the heads and those are not desirable. We separate those out; in the case of gin, maybe within ten minutes, we get into the hearts. This process takes 4-5 hrs. What’s really interesting about the distillation of gin is that it changes. It’s very dynamic over time. Some of the botanical elements are very much present in the earlier minutes and hours of the distillation. The citric elements are very much to the front in that first hour. If you taste it, you get a very exaggerated sense of the citric side. You might think it’s a very unbalanced gin, because you're not picking up the juniper, the spices. As the distillation goes on, the citric elements begin to soften and the spice elements become more prominent. So, by the end of the run, it’s super spicy. It’s only in the aggregate when the front, the middle, and the end are put together that you get a sense of what the gin is as a whole. At the end of the run there may be very little alcohol left. We’ve distilled most the alcohol out of it. At that point we cut it off and what’s left are called the tails. Heads at the front, hearts in the middle, tales at the back. Once the hearts are separated and collected, we will let it rest. Of course we’re taking taste samples throughout the process, but we will let it rest so the flavors and aromas merry together. Usually it rests for two days and then we’ll dilute it with filtered water to bring it to the proof level we had targeted. For the Dorothy Parker that’s 44% alcohol 88 proof. For the Perry’s Tot it’s 57% alcohol 114 proof.
Then we mix them very carefully to achieve the strength that we want. This has a big affect on the flavor. The flavor has been calibrated to be at its best at a certain proof. Partly for legal reasons, but also flavor reasons we need to bring it to the right balance. Once it’s proofed to the right level, then we are prepared to bottle it. A day of distillation, a couple of days for rest and marry, and a day to bottle. The yield will be anywhere from 150-250 cases.
For the Chief Gowanus we have to start with our whiskey. Obviously that requires us to make the whiskey first and making the whiskey takes considerably longer. It takes us a day to mash the whiskey and it will take us four days to ferment the grains. That’s five days to create a beer that is 8-10% alcohol. We’ll distill that twice to create a new make whiskey, then we distill it a third time and age it in barrels for about three months.
What’s the difference between a good gin and a lesser gin?
Mark Twain said that the difference between a good word and a perfect word is the difference between a lightening bug and lightening. The difference between pretty good gin and excellent gin is about that big. You know when you’re in the pocket.
According to your personal taste and proximity to your products, how are your three gins best served?
For the Perry’s Tot, a gin and tonic. Most people at home are going to keep it simple and probably three quarters of all gin consumed at home is going to be consumed with the gin and tonic. It may not be an excitedly different cocktail, but it is a fantastic cocktail. Dorothy Parker? My wife’s favorite is the Negoroni, even a dope like me can make it and it is beautiful. Gowanus? Over ice. Or, the most faithful way to have it would be in a punch.
Compare Perry’s Tot gin to one piece of music.
It would probably be a slightly off-color sea shanty; it would be a swaggering love em’ and leave em’ kind of sea shanty I think; blow the man down.
What about the lady?
The Dorothy Parker would be something clever and slightly biting, maybe that Carol King song You’re So Vain.
Name one deceased person you’d like to share a drink with?
Dorothy Parker. I think she would have been a fantastic drinking companion.
Anything exciting slated for NYDC in the near future?
Yes, we have a straight rye and a rock and rye that will be coming out soon. The rock and rye is going to be exceptional. Let’s put a date on October-ish.
New York Distilling Company
405 Leonard St, New York, NY 11211