Going With the Grain

How one man left finance for fermentation.


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Inspiration can come in surprising places. For Brad Estabrooke, it struck at 30,000 feet. Back in 2007, after paging past the Dog Dung Vacuum and Clip-On Bangs in the SkyMall catalog, the soft-spoken finance guy stumbled upon an in-flight mag article about America’s burgeoning craft distilling movement.

He paused and began to read it intently.

“This sounds like a blast,” he thought.

Then 30, Brad was looking for a new career to parachute into. He’d followed the paint-by-numbers path to success: majoring in economics, taking a job outside Boston as a bond trader with Fidelity, eventually landing on Wall Street. But something didn’t feel right.

“This is supposed to be a ‘good’ job,” he recalls thinking. “People want this job. But within a month, I realized I wasn’t happy.”

In between his long weeks of spreadsheets and suits, a very different lifestyle caught his eye.

“My girlfriend and I found ourselves roaming the small shops and markets in Brooklyn on the weekends. We saw all these cool things people were making. I kept thinking: ‘How great would it feel at the end of the day to turn a commodity into something special?’” And after reading that story in the sky, he longed to leave finance for fermentation.

Steeping in Brooklyn culture, the distilling dream gained steam and by late 2007 it had come to consume him. Perhaps the Fates got involved, for the following year, the markets collapsed and Brad’s division was laid off.

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“I took four months off and went ice climbing in Canada,” Brad remembers. “But I couldn’t shake the distilling idea.”

Today, it’s hard to recall the days when Brooklyn wasn’t home to multiple spirits startups. But back then, nothing was happening. “There weren’t even rumors of anyone starting out when we were,” remembers Brad.

But the distilling scene was poised to pop. With the passing of a statewide farm distillery bill in 2002, small producers could now buy a license for just $1,450 (down from a whopping $50,000). The bill was an attempt to get New York back on the spirits map, a place it had once held with honor. At the turn of the 19th century, the Hudson Valley was flush with barley and rye. Abundant grain for bread also meant abundant grain for hooch, and the state boasted over 1,000 farm distilleries. The governor saw the opportunity for craft distilling to foster farming again, and Estabrooke believed the time was ripe for selling small-batch booze, made right in Brooklyn.

He knew that to do it, he would have to go all-in, both financially and existentially. So, using some of the skills he’d acquired in the financial world, he began to do his homework—and we don’t just mean lots of drinking.

“I met with business counselors. I wrote a business plan. I sold some shares to friends and family, and began to spend all of my time working on this.” He devoured books on distilling, and decided gin would be his focus. He pounded the pavement looking for a home for his workshop and eventually set up shop about as philosophically far from Wall Street as one can go: on the banks of the Gowanus Canal.

Not exactly a stretch of artisan bliss that you’d walk your mother down at night, the home of Breuckelen Distilling at 77 19th Street stands among a mishmash of industrial outfits. He built a tasting room with storefront windows framing the space, with a gleaming, custom-built German copper still at its center.

At the heart of every bottle of booze is what’s known as the “base spirit.” It is this essential foundation that the distiller builds upon—be it by adding different types of botanicals (in the case of gin), or a barrel-aging regime (for whiskey). Making base spirits is time-consuming and costly, so many distillers (including many who use the term “craft”) buy the base from industrial operations that sell to the pharmaceutical industry, hospitals and distillers alike. Purchasers of such stuff can do many things with it, including mixing the pre-made base spirit into existing batches, redistilling it, diluting it or simply putting it into bottles and slapping labels on the front.

But from the beginning, Brad made a choice that would add an immense amount of work to his process: “I decided to start from scratch, and that everything would be made from New York grains.” It takes him 126 hours to create enough base spirit to make 100 cases of gin. “I could save myself a lot of time and effort,” says Brad, “by just having it show up on a truck. But if we use New York grains, Brooklyn water and age it here, it automatically has character.”

Gin makers typically want no taste or aroma at all in their base. But for Brad, the base spirit would give his gin its soul, so he began the search for local grain. “I knew I wanted 100 percent wheat. That’s when I discovered Thor.”

Thor Oechsner has been farming in the Finger Lakes since 1991. Located just outside Ithaca, Oechsner Farms grows about 950 acres of organic field crops including corn, wheat, oats, barley and rye. Thor began educating Brad on the different grains and sending him samples for test batches. Settling on a Soft White Winter Wheat known as Frederick, Thor and Brad found its lighter color and milder flavor to be the perfect type of low-protein variety to build his flavors upon.

With local grain as his gin’s backbone, Brad turned to botanicals. Through a process of experimenting, he zeroed in on five—juniper, grapefruit peel, rosemary, lemon and ginger—inspired in part by a memorable risotto. And finally, on June 4, 2010, it was time to fire up that shining still. He’ll never forget the moment.

“We’re all standing around, and all of a sudden you can smell the aromas start to fill the place. Holy shit, this thing is going to work. After a year and a quarter, boom! Here it is.”

As you may have gleaned, Brad doesn’t do anything by halves. So while most producers add botanicals to the pot along with the neutral grain spirit, Brad distills each botanical separately, one at a time, and then blends the five parts by hand afterward.

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“We did them separately because we were ignorant,” says Brad of the rare practice. “We had no clue.” But the results, christened Breuckelen’s Glorious Gin, were sublime, and he’s stuck with the practice since.

“It was a great moment when I saw my grain come back as a spirit,” recalls Thor Oechsner, who remains Breuckelen’s grain grower today. “It nearly moved me to tears.”

Pedigreed ingredients and painstaking techniques aside, most drinkers care about one thing: what ends up in their glass. For someone expecting a Tanqueray, Breuckelen’s Glorious Gin offers a surprise. The mouthfeel is what first grabs you—a rich viscosity holds the parts together. What follows is a flourish of flavor—a patch of upstate earth reflected through a Brooklyn lens, with the rosemary bringing a savory note, the grapefruit and lemon lifting fruit to the forefront, and a ginger dismount that buttons it all up in a spicy finish.

Toby Cecchini, author of Cosmopolitan: A Bartender’s Life, was an early supporter, and hails Glorious Gin as “a super-rich form of new-world jenever [with] some very idiosyncratic applications for bartenders who can wrap their heads around it.”

Demand for their bottled gold has been so high that between 2010 and 2012 Breuckelen Distilling’s production grew sixfold, and the still is now in operation 24 hours a day, five days a week. Glorious Gin is distributed in nearly 20 states, as well as internationally in the UK, mainland Europe and just now hitting the shores of Australia.

Tom Potter, who cofounded Brooklyn Brewery 30 years ago and then the New York Distilling Co. in 2011, visited Breuckelen Distilling in the early days of planning his own venture.

“Brad deserves credit, along with Kings County Distillery, for opening on that level,” says Potter. “Our goal as craft distillers is to make distinguished products, and Brad’s is that. These are exciting times. And Brad, as one of the pioneers, has helped lead the way.”

But Brad’s not resting on his Glorious laurels. Breuckelen Distilling is now in the whiskey game, too, today distributing 77 Whiskey (100 percent wheat, aged a minimum of four months in new American oak) and 77 Whiskey (90 percent rye and 10 percent corn, aged a minimum of seven months in new American oak). Also in the pipeline are a bourbon and a malted wheat whiskey.

But Brad is most excited about a 100 percent malted barley, and when he describes it, you still hear the excitement of someone whose passion formed up in the clouds.

“It’s crazy expensive to make, but it’s New York grain that’s been malted by hand at Valley Malt in Massachusetts. It’s amazing. Such character. I mean, why wouldn’t we use that?”

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David Flaherty is Beer & Spirits Director for Hearth restaurant and the Terroir wine bars. He is sipping his way through a bottle of 77 Whiskey and watching the mailbox for his SkyMall clip-on bangs to arrive.

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