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 n...