1985 might not seem like much of a year as years go--‘Take on Me,’ by a-ha, was on the charts for 27 weeks; you might have played the cassette in your IROC-Z Camaro or your Prelude. That said, it’s a critical time in the evolution of the spirits trade in the United States. The story goes like this: two guys named Elmer and Dale walk into a bar and forever changed the way we drink in this country.
Elmer, as in Elmer T. Lee, was in a bind. As an executive with Buffalo Trace, he had been tasked with enlivening an industry that had never fully recovered from Prohibition. Whiskey was what old men in raincoats drank; vodka was fresh and fun and easy, particularly when it danced with fruit juice. Lee wagered everything on the bet that the American drinking public was ready to fall in love with whiskey again. He was right, and his hunch filled a younger generation with dreams of craft whiskey and small barrels, spirits that were artisanal and unique.
Meanwhile in New York a restaurateur named Joe Baum was in a bind of his own. He was reopening the celebrated Rainbow Room in Rockefeller Center. His goal was to invigorate the cocktail program, at a time when America’s drinking tastes ran to Bobby Tonics and Cosmos. To that end he promoted young Dale DeGroff to run the bar. According to the lore, Mr. Baum handed DeGroff a copy of ‘How to Mix Drinks, or the Bon Vivant’s Companion,’ the seminal Jerry Thomas recipe book of American cocktails from the late 19th century. All of the beautiful concoctions that had vanished or gone underground during Prohibition were in the pages of that book, crying out to come alive again. The project was a revelation. Cocktail culture was reborn and New York City was the epicenter.
As young city bartenders took DeGroff’s lead and ran with it, a measure of dissatisfaction sank in as they searched for hard-to-find or even extinct ingredients for particular cocktails. In America, in particular, a dramatic consolidation in the whiskey business occurred as producers recovered from Prohibition. New York, for instance, once home to a thousand small distilleries, had none in the late 20th century. Refusing to be stymied by conditions as they found them, a few of these disaffected bartenders struck out on their own to make spirits they had read about but never tasted.
Fast forward to 2007, when the state of New York introduced the Farm Distillery Act. For those entrepreneurs willing to use New York produce in their operations, the cost of a license dropped from tens of thousands of dollars down to just below a thousand. As other states adopted similar incentives, the craft distilling movement began to spread across the country. New York alone saw the number of legally operating stills increase from a handful to a few dozen to over a hundred in less than ten years. And as these fledgling operations found their footing, distillers began to revive lost styles, the forgotten spirits that made the drinks in forgotten books really sing.
Meet Alex Clark, owner of Fort Hamilton Whiskey in Industry City, Brooklyn. A cocktailian bartender with Big City Restaurant chops and a South London accent, he stepped out from behind the stick a few years back to pen a love letter to 19th century New York rye whiskey. Personifying the trends set in motion back in 1985 (and 2007), he’s currently producing 24,000 bottles a year, everything from a very affordable high rye double barrel Bourbon to his house signature, a single barrel no-corn New York rye that’s voluptuous and full of flavor, equally at home in a cocktail or over ice at the end of the night. He recently invited me out to catch up, sample product, and tour his handsome new tasting room and distillery in Industry City, Brooklyn.
Michael Longshore: We were working together at Marea, back in the old days and at that time I remember you were just starting your business, so we’re talking 2016. Tell me something about what the early days were like. What made you get into this? How did you get started?
Alex Clark: Well I think making cocktails was how it all started. I started bartending with Sasha Petraske, who famously opened a bar called Milk and Honey in the late nineties, which of course was ground zero for the cocktail renaissance in America … and some of his protégées—Sam Ross and Mike McElroy …
Was that your first bartending job in New York City?!! That’s pretty impressive.
Well I wasn’t at Milk and Honey. I was the sister establishment called East Side Company. But Sasha owned it, and he ended up teaching me how to make these cocktails. And I was a pretty blank slate—I had bartended my way through college, and vacations, as a young man in London. So I knew how to pull a pint and pour a shot, but I really didn’t have any pre-conceptions—or misconceptions, most importantly--about cocktails, or classic cocktails. So I was a pretty blank slate. So he molded me (laughing) into a cocktail bartender. I got to learn the classics from him, and what was interesting at the time was you could get two rye whiskies: you could get Old Overholt and you could get Rittenhouse. If you were very, very lucky you could get Rittenhouse Bonded.
That’s not a bad place to start!
It’s not a bad place to start, but ultimately, when you look at those original recipes, like a Manhattan, for example, which was invented in the 1800s, what whiskey were they using for that drink? And the answer is well maybe a Pennsylvania rye, but probably a New York rye. And I was thinking to myself, why doesn’t New York rye exist? What happened here? So if you look back you realize that Prohibition killed all of the distilleries in northeast America, and so Rittenhouse and Overholt are Pennsylvania rye names, rye brands, that ended up being distilled in Kentucky, with corn added to the mash bills to make it cheaper and sweeter. So ultimately the real style of rye whiskey that was around when those cocktails were invented didn’t exist. So that was the moment when I was like “hmmm. Somebody should probably do something about that.”
Fast-forward a couple of years, a friend of mine was launching a distillery in Red Hook called Widow Jane. I got on board and figured out the branding and the whiskey and the style, and we developed the brand and launched it out of the back of a Honda. Running around New York like a crazy thing in the wild west days of craft distilling in this city, and we made it very successful. Then I think it was about 2014 I left Widow Jane to re-evaluate my life and potentially launch a brand of my own. So that was the moment when I think I decided “hey! It’s time for that rye game to come into play.” And at the time rye had been starting to gain traction, because people had been looking for the authentic recipes that I’d learned with Sasha from the old cocktail books. That’s when I—I had a bit of a reputation from the whole Widow Jane thing, a good reputation I think, I started bartending again to pay the bills, and that’s how I ended up on your doorstep at Marea. We had just bought a house in Brooklyn, when I quit Widow Jane, which was not great timing …
…having a mortgage. And starting a whiskey company …
And also it was a gut renovation job. So it was like Gut Renovate a House! Launch a whiskey Company! Get a job bartending! All at the same time …
Can’t stand prosperity can you?
Two of those three things would work at the same time, but three wasn’t really functional. The minute the house was done, I started focusing on the whiskey project. We started putting barrels down in 2016—my first barrels were in Industry City Distillery, which was here on the sixth floor of 35th Street. Overlooking New York Harbor. Beautiful space. They had a bit more room than they needed. So I begged them for a little corner, which they gave me, which was very kind of them. Without them, this project probably wouldn’t have gotten off the ground.
So I put in—I think—thirteen barrels was my first batch, and let them sit for about eighteen months, and then spent eighteen months scrambling around trying to find more money for more barrels, because, like I say, it’s a terrible game—you’ve got to spend all the money on all the barrels that you think you might sell, if you’re lucky. Years in advance of actually selling them. And then assume you’re going to be successful and make more and more barrels, because surely in year two you’re going to need more barrels than year one and year three three’s worse than that …
Six years of cash flow, that’s all you need …
Exactly. You’re actually not far from the truth there. So don’t quit the day job was the first rule. Have a very understanding wife was the second rule, still is. So we’ve been cobbling it together ever since. We started with a single barrel rye, which is a very classic New York style, by that I mean there’s no corn in the mash bill. It’s ninety percent New York State rye grain and ten percent malted barley, also from New York. It’s non chill filtered. It’s bottled at ninety proof. Non-chill filtration means it’s got a richer texture and a rounder mouth feel. Just a better drinking experience.
So what I did was I went back and looked at what mash bills were being used back in the day. What distillation techniques. What barrel sizes they were using. What the storage conditions were. And Industry City actually ticks a few of the boxes. You see that giant generator there, it’s a steam generator, and each courtyard has its own giant steam generator that kicks out steam during the winter, so all these buildings are heated. And that’s traditionally how New York rickhouses were built, with steam generators in them. So that during the winter when the temperature dips—outside—the temperature is warm inside. So you can compete time-wise with Kentucky. Your whiskey picks up flavor faster than it would just sitting out in a field in New York in winter, where freezing temperatures, you get minimal interaction between the wood and the whiskey--you won’t get the conversation happening between the wood and whiskey that makes for banging product. So, step one, this place is heated, we’re going to get an advantage for our whiskey barrels, not to mention that the sixth floor up there is boiling hot during the summer, it’s easy one-ten on a daily basis, so our first barrels got really well cooked. Really well cooked. Then we put batch two down and three down and started working out of Black Dirt (distillery) and put down a couple of hundred barrels there and ultimately signed a lease of our own a couple of years ago to build out our distillery and tasting room, which we’ve achieved.
The single barrel was my attempt to reproduce old school New York rye whiskey. We’ve got the heated warehouse, where we’re storing the barrels to give that added advantage of time and flavor, and we’re using thirty gallon barrels—no staves--which are charred to a char three on the inside, so the inside of the barrel is burned for about a minute or so, so that char three as opposed to a char four gives us more vanilla and caramel and butterscotch-y notes which balance some of the spicier notes of the rye grain. Rye can—if you’re not careful with rye it can get a bit assertive, aggressive. There are plenty of ryes out there that do that, and I’m not a big fan of that, so I really wanted to make a rounder and richer style. So every decision that went into that bottle was based on how did they do it back in the day, how can we repeat that, and how do we make sure that we get something rich and fat, because that’s what those old ryes were.
Back in the Widow Jane days, I took a trip down to Kentucky with Dave Pickerell and visited Kentucky Bourbon Distillers. Drew Kulsveen is the owner down there and he pulled out a bottle of rye from 1909 which we started tucking into and it was FANTASTIC! And I was like I want to do that. I want that style of whiskey. And that’s what we’ve been aiming for, that original style, which doesn’t have corn in it, just rye and malted barley. But the combination of those two gives you a really luscious rich style of whiskey. Now a lot of people think, oh, if it’s just rye and malted barley then it’s not going to be sweet because you don’t have the corn in there. But it didn’t have corn in there and it was a FAT whiskey, and it doesn’t need the corn. So we’re pretty militant about not using corn in our ryes, in fact 100% militant, we don’t do it. The logic being that rye grows so well in the northeast and further north up into Canada because of the cold winters, that’s what they planted 200 years ago, 300 years ago that’s what grew here. The further south you go that’s where you see you see more corn coming in, if you go down towards the southern border, Mexico. The truth is, they weren’t really distilling corn until Prohibition, which knocked out all of the distilleries in the northeast of America and caused Kentucky to become the center of distillation in America where they were making medicinal whiskey during Prohibition. They kept their stocks going, they kept their inventory going, and the hardest thing to do as a distillery is to start from scratch. Because where are you going get to get your whiskey from for the first five, six, seven years. Are you really just making whiskey and not selling whiskey? That’s the problem.
That’s your model …
That’s my model! Only an idiot would do that. So I’m that idiot, I guess. Not for nothing, the Widow Jane model was buy whiskey from someone else, slap a label on it, pretend that you made it, and off you go. That’s why you have a seven year old whiskey and a distillery that’s one year old. They have a ten year old whisky now and they’re not ten, so how’s this working. It’s a great model, but it’s disingenuous, and I didn’t want to do that again. So Fort Hamilton was based on the idea that we’re going to be creative, we’re going to do it the New York way, and that’s hard, and probably a bit dumb. But like I said, don’t give up the day job, and have an understanding wife. That’s the magic sauce, right there.
Well that brings me to my next question which concerns the earth-shattering moment when the Daily Beast published the article that revealed to the American whiskey-drinking public that the tiny little craft distillery they discovered is actually buying contract whiskey. The elephant in the room of course is MGP (Midwestern Grain Producers). What’s it like working with them?
They’re a great distillery. They make amazing whiskey. That’s where High West comes out of. That’s where Templeton comes out of, Widow Jane. The list is long, as long as your arm. And it’s a great business model. Working with them is almost like a necessary evil, to an extent, just because the business model of whiskey is such a terrible, terrible business model. And until you have years of inventory under your belt it’s very difficult to get yourself into that position without some assistance. I would say that visiting MGP is a sensational experience. Seeing these tanks that hold millions and millions of gallons of whiskey, you see these fermenters that are fermenting hundreds of thousands of gallons at any given time, is stunning. And some of the best whiskey in the world comes out of there, so, yeah, people get upset by the whole MGP thing but nobody gets upset by négociant wine, so it’s almost like they’re held to different standards. But why, why are they being held to different standards? It’s tricky, but most Kentucky distillers swap whiskey with each other, so where it all came from to begin with is anybody’s bloody guess. There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors involved. But I think that what’s happened over the years is that people have demanded a bit more transparency. And MGP’s no longer a dirty word, when in actual fact people revere their whiskey for being some of the best in the world. But you have to be transparent about it. If you get caught out lying about where you get your whiskey from, people don’t have time for that.
We always made our own spirit for the single barrel rye. Fort Hamilton single barrel is distilled in New York from New York grain, aged in New York, bottled in New York, and now enjoyed in seven states across America. The idea for the single barrel was always making our own stuff. We have dealt with some sourced stuff for other bottlings.
What was it like distilling for the first time?
Daunting. Daunting because you’re basically dealing with a bomb, a bomb that’s full of alcohol, which is like, people die doing this, that’s the truth of it. It’s all about good ingredients and getting a good fermentation going, understanding the process, the timing and temperature. Yes, we killed many a batch of whiskey by accidentally having the wrong pH, or wrong temperature, and killing the yeast. But yeah, you learn. It’s a lot of trial and error. I think that the beautiful part of distillation and whiskey in general is that there are so many variables, some of which are uncontrollable, you’re always going to get some strange results, some unexpected stuff happening.
What size were your test batches?
Well for efficiency’s sake you’re always trying to fill your still. We had a thousand liter still, and that’s what we were trying to fill. You don’t have to fill it up but you’re kind of being inefficient if you don’t. And that’s the thing with pot distillation, it’s an extraordinarily inefficient system of distilling. But it’s what everyone can afford and it’s the easiest way to do it. But it just takes a lot of time, because let’s say you have a hundred gallon still and you make a thousand gallon mash, you have to do ten distillations to collect a hundred gallons of liquid on the other side which you then re-distill to create your thirty gallons of whiskey …
… your one barrel …
Exactly! One barrel, and you’ve done eleven distillations. It’s like, oh, okay, this is going to take me some time. That’s why continuous column distillation is the most popular industrial form of distillation in America, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, that’s for sure. So we do pot distillations and we also do continuous column distillations.
Who did you buy your still from, or what kind of still are you using right now?
Vendome is the still we’re using right now …
… the gold standard …
That is the gold standard. And it must be made of gold too because pricing is extraordinary for those things. It must be carved from solid gold.
Rye is notoriously fickle in the still as well right?
It gets gloopy. And it can scorch if you put direct heat on it. But as long as you have an agitator and you’re not direct heating, which you shouldn’t do unless you’re using a moonshine still, then you should be fine. But yes, rye scorches, and we do like to distill on the grain, we think it makes for a better product. It does have a tendency to be quite gloopy and sticky when you mash it, especially as we’re not using any corn at all. I consider corn a filler ingredient, which gives you lots of sugar, which is the magic thing you want. The more sugary stuff you put in there the higher your yield. Obviously rye is a lower yield, it’s a slightly more expensive product to make. But, I think it’s worth it, it’s extra tasty, and it makes the best damn cocktails you’ll ever have, and that’s how we set out to build this thing, from a standpoint of deliciousness rather than profitability.
What is the next step—apart from finishing the buildout, moving your still in, starting to distill on sight—what’s the new frontier, you’re talking about gin?
We have our new still coming in here in the next couple of months, that’s going to be capable of making anything we want. It’s a pot-column hybrid still. We’ll be open to the general public in the fall. That’s going to be a big hurdle, getting some foot traffic in here. Can’t wait for that to happen. Gin will happen right when that does, and that will be something we use for cocktails, right here, on site. Because that’s what the world needs is one more gin. But we love our gin, so we’re going to get involved a little bit. We’re also going to be able to make single malt whiskey which is something we’re definitely going to start playing around with, doing some research and development on a mash bill that suits us and suits America. American single malt has a long future ahead of it, I think, and we’d like to be a part of that conversation. And then we’ll also be able to do more experimental batches, experimental mash bills, other rye styles. We also have barrel finishes in our future. We have rye barrels that are empty that we’ve sent to a mead producer who’s aging his traditional mead in them. We’ll take those barrels back and finish our rye in them. We have a maple syrup project on the go. Sherry finishes. PX finishes.
Anything with molasses?
Rum is a really tricky category. I think the only thing I might mess around with there is barrel finishes. You know, I joke with my wife about retiring and buying a distillery in the Caribbean, sit on the beach and make some rum. But that’s about as close as I’ll get to molasses. I don’t really want to do that in New York. We’ve got plenty of other things that are delicious, that we make here. So, you know, focus. Getting too sidetracked by other projects that aren’t core to your story is a problem that a lot of people have, so, I’m trying to be part of the solution, not part of the problem there.