by Sherry Chen
On Wednesday, July 10th, Slow Foods NYC and Astor Center played host to the 2nd Annual Spirits of New York Event, where spirits enthusiasts partied like it was the end of Prohibition and sampled intoxicating libations featuring spirits produced by local, New York-based distilleries.
While the event allowed revelers to get their buzz on locally, it was also an opportunity to feature the rising tide of artisanal spirits producers that are bringing back small scale, regional production to the New York area, which in turn has helped boost the local food economy. Governor Andrew M. Cuomo has publicly committed to resources to help support local distilleries, including plans to promote state-produced spirits sales and tourism, as well as the introduction of regulatory reforms that will reduce business costs for craft distilleries.
In a press release issued earlier this year, Cuomo stated, "The new New York State is all about creating an environment for businesses to succeed and grow. Our new entrepreneurial government has focused on partnering with the private sector to find ways to reduce burdens and support growth in sectors such as our state's vibrant wine, beer, and spirits industry."
The growth in regional distilleries has proved a boon for local farmers, many of whom are providing the grains to produce the spirits. This symbiotic relationship was the subject of A Local Grain Renaissance in the Northeast, a film produced by GrowNYC and OGRIN, which premiered alongside the Slow Food NYC event in the Astor Center Screening Room. Joel Elder of Tuthilltown Spirits, one of the participating distilleries at the event, was interviewed describing the significant upswing in local distilleries in New York alone, and how most of these producers are sourcing their raw materials locally from nearby farmers.
Not only does this partnership contribute to a local and sustainable food economy, but it produces spirits that taste better. In the film, Elder mentioned how local ingredients provide Tuthilltown's own whiskey with more flavor and character, something I definitely agree with. As I sipped their Half Moon Orchard Gin at the event, I was struck by how smooth the gin was going down, and how I could taste slightly sweet notes in it. It was especially effective as a cocktail, absorbing the basil herb, sour mix and bitters in a cohesive and refreshing drink. You can learn more about the benefits of local grain production by watching the video online here.
There's no doubt that using local ingredients enhances the flavor profile of spirits — a lot of the ones I tried were very smooth and accessible, without being totally bland. There was none of the fiery burn that you get with a lot of cheap, mass-produced brands and it was very interesting learning the stories behind the different distilleries. Many of them were reclaiming distilling traditions that were lost with the Prohibition Era or with cultural diaspora. Prohibition Distillery, for instance, was inspired by the illicit spirit of the Jazz Age, in which it was "better to imbibe than to implore." Their 100% American corn grain Bootlegger 21 New York Vodka was so clear and crisp, it almost tasted like water going down — the perfect blank canvas on which to build a cocktail. Nahmias et Fils is a distillery that revitalized the production of mahia, a unique spirit made of distilled figs that was historically produced by the Jews of Morocco. The spirit faded from memory following the Jewish exodus in the region, but husband-and-wife team Dorit and David Nahmias is bringing this refreshing "water of life" back to the States in their Yonkers facility.
Atsby Vermouth seeks to capture the romance of European vermouth in its own proprietary American blend. Its vermouth is certainly dreamy, going down like a complex wine with intriguing hints of herbs; the blend of local stars like North Fork chardonnay and Finger Lakes apples must have something to do with the taste. Owney's of Bushwick is bringing quality rum production back to the East Coast and is truly keeping things local by using good old New York City tap water in its rum. As this varied list indicates, the local spirits movement in New York is extremely colorful and diverse — just because something is local doesn't mean you're limited to a few, dull options.
The event also featured local producers of bitters, syrups and mixers that were key to the amazing cocktails that were served that night. Morris Kitchen's artisanal fruit syrups lent the cocktails the right touch of elegant flavor and sweetness. It's clear they take the terms local and seasonal very seriously — they are partially supplied by a forager who travels seasonally to procure wild, edible ingredients. The refreshing grapefruit, hibiscus water and ginger syrup cocktail they mixed was my favorite of the night, a perfect drink for a warm summer day. Hella Bitter, which raised funds for its operations from a 2010 Kickstarter campaign, featured its aromatic bitters in a fragrant jasmine tea, gin and lemongrass punch, while Q Drinks supplied their sodas as mixers for the event.
It's not easy being a small batch, craft distiller. Applying for a distilling license can be extremely expensive, something that large-scale distillers can easily expense but something that smaller, boots-straps producers find much more burdensome. That's why it's important that we support these local distilleries so that they can build the scale to better absorb the costs of doing business and continue to provide more variety and choice for consumers.
Many of these products can be purchased conveniently at established retailers such as Astor Wines & Spirits, Chambers Street Wines, Downtown Cellars, Union Square Wines & Spirits and more. You can look up an individual distiller's website for distribution details (see below for a list of participating distillers at the event). Or you can even roll up directly to the distillery itself! Many of them like Owney's and Industry City Distillery offer tastings and plant tours. Who knew getting buzzed in your backyard could be this much fun?
More event photos: Click here.
Participating Distillers, Bitters & Syrups: Barrow's Intense Ginger Liqueur, Black Dirt Distillery, Breuckelen Distilling, Cacao Prieto LLC, Catskill Distilling Company, Dutch's Spirits, Greenhook Ginsmiths, Harvest Spirits, Industry City Distillery, Jack from Brooklyn, Nahmias et Fils, The Noble Experiment, Tuthilltown Spirits, Uncouth Vermouth, Van Brunt Stillhouse, Prohibition Distillery, White Pike Whiskey/Fingerlakes Distilling, and Hillrock Estate Distillery. New York distillers joined by local producers of bitters and syrups - Hella Bitter and Morris Kitchen. Also, mixers provided by QTonic.
Sherry Chen is a New York City-based food writer with a passion for delicious, locally-sourced meals. You can read about her food adventures at Gab and Gobble and follow her on Twitter @cheriejeune.
Photos by Cynthia Regidor