The Distant Past and Recent Rise of New York's Brewing and Distilling Industry

Categories: In The Spirit

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"Anyone can homebrew in any size apartment with a stockpot, a bucket and a jug. I promise you it's true," writes Emma Christensen, author of True Brews. "Sugary liquid + yeast (and the occasional friendly bacteria) + time = delicious fermented beverage." Take the process one (considerably more technical) step further by distilling, and you have spirits. Beer, sake, rum, moonshine--it's all possible with a few ingredients, creativity, and patience.

And that accessibility is what spawned this state's robust brewing and distilling industry centuries ago, though the forefathers of alcohol creation had a bit more space than the average square footage of a modern New York City apartment. New York's first brewery opened in the 1640s, and it was operated by the Dutch West India Company. Early on in the New Amsterdam settlement, beer was a vital source of both tax revenues and nourishment. Before the 1842 Croton Aqueduct, New Yorkers had no source of clean water, and the preserving quality of hops and necessary boiling process of beer-making made it safer to drink the frothy brew. Also, let's be clear, the Dutch liked to drink--and so did almost every other immigrant group who arrived on the New York shores shortly thereafter.

By 1810, New York state was home to over 400 working breweries comprising the largest brewing industry in the nation. From the 1840s to 1880s, the state also produced the most hops in America. British taverns sold ales, and lagers came on the scene with the arrival of German immigrants, modernizing the brewing world.

"In the colonial period, we learn, brewers were among the most distinguished New York families," writes Edward Rothstein for the New York Times, "whose names still resonate: Murray, Beekman, Van Cortlandt, Rutgers. Vassar College's founder, Matthew Vassar, directed his family's brewery in Poughkeepsie, which was one of the nation's largest in 1836, with storage depots in Manhattan and Brooklyn."

The early Dutch settlers had a taste for brandy and rum as well. Immigrants brought libations from their home countries, but it didn't take long for them to simply make their own. As early as 1664, rum was being distilled on Staten Island, made from molasses the Dutch received from the West Indies. The drink was ultimately shipped to Africa and traded for slaves or bottled and shared with friends.

When the War of 1812 reduced the New Englander's supply of molasses, settlers turned to whiskey, distilled using native grains. By 1825, New York state had more than a thousand small distilleries, and they flourished until 1920, when Prohibition became law, and New York's strong brewing and distilling history came to a close.

That is, until recently.

In 1979, the Cranston Act legalized craft- and home beer-brewing, and more than 20 years later, in 2002, the New York state legislature passed the farm distillery license, opening the door to spirits-makers to once again set up shop here.

With these changes, hops, malted barley, and yeast began bubbling away in kitchens, basements, breweries, and distilleries around the city. Now gin, rum, vodka, whiskey, moonshine, absinthe, lagers, ales, and more are reducing and fermenting and steeping all over the place. More than any time since the early 20th century, New Yorkers are drinking craft brews and spirits made on New York soil.

Matt Brewing Company, Blue Point Brewery, and Brooklyn Brewery led the way in New York craft brews, and in 2010, Kings County Distillery opened the first New York City distillery in the DUMBO Navy Yard, producing moonshine and whiskey in small and big barrels. New York Distilling Company, Van Brunt Stillhouse, and Greenhook Ginsmiths, among others, soon fired up their own stills.

And these are just the places with licenses. Full-time computer engineers, architects, and traders are coming home to check on their batches of hoppy IPA, absinthe, and vodka. One of these people is Kevin Herson of Doc's All Natural Spirits. After a day working in agricultural commodities trading, Kevin returns to his Harlem brownstone, heads down into his damp cement-block basement, and checks on his latest batch of Doc's absinthe. Spelt, anise, and mint litter the basement table along with flasks and old-school rusting scales. He even has a fountain pen to hand-write the labels for each bottle.

Kings County Distillery began as a personal challenge. Co-founder Colin Spoelman wanted to see if he could make the drink of his teenage years, Kentucky-style moonshine, in his New York apartment. The experiment worked (after a few tries), and Spoelman began to play not just with sugar but wood chips and eventually barrels--and his moonshine hobby became a full-fledged whiskey business.

These are just two of the many unique stories I have heard as I've explored the new New York brewing and distilling scene. In the coming weeks, I will debut short episodes featuring these brewers and distillers, in which I'll share their stories, showcase their process, and drink their products as I continue to report on the passionate people who are reinvigorating this industry.

To receive updates and follow me as I hopscotch my way through the five boroughs in search of unique libations, follow me on Facebook and Twitter. Suggestions are also welcome.

Also, check out the New Yorker's very cool interactive map on the rise of craft brews across the U.S.

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