The Accidental Liqueur

Sugar and spice create a new vice.

BarrowsIntenseGinger_A_opt When Josh Morton began making commercial quantities of ginger liqueur, one of the many unexpected outcomes was the intense workouts. Recently Morton, 44, was undertaking the backbreaking, bicep-burning task of unloading a dozen 50-pound bags of cane sugar. That’s because what began as an innocent experiment at his former Manhattan apartment on Barrow Street has expanded from a few bottles for fun to manning the production of an average of 300 bottles per month — and growing.

Morton hadn’t planned for the ginger-infused project to take root. Ten years ago, he was perfectly content as the owner of a small business management–consulting firm. Even during day-dreamy speculations, he never imagined working in craft spirits — but he did dip his hands into kitchen experiments. Josh and his wife, artist Susan Weinthaler, frequently hosted dinner parties where Josh would excitedly share his latest mad scientist projects, infusing spirit with everything from blood oranges to peaches to horseradish. It wasn’t until a chef friend showed him the beautiful, heady flavors in real homemade Italian limoncello that Morton’s trajectory began to shift. Josh decided to replace the traditional lemon with ginger, the Morton family’s favorite flavor, in the limoncello formula and began creating a few bottles in their Barrow Street loft, tinkering with the formula, adding yet more ginger and reducing the sugar, before nonchalantly trying it out on a few dinner party guinea pigs. BarrowsIntenseGinger__opt3 His friends were impressed, and the most intense batches disappeared from glasses the fastest. Soon the couple became known for their ginger-infused supper soirees, and Josh began receiving encouragement to go pro. “My initial reaction? This shit is awesome!” said Kyle Devine, one of Josh’s early testers and the buyer for Brooklyn Wine Exchange. “I love gingery spice, so it really piqued my interest.” Initially, Josh scoffed at the idea. Large-scale duplications of his “ginger stuff,” as his hooked friends called it, seemed impossible. The legalities of brewing and bottling on a mass scale seemed as intense as the flavor of his fledgling liqueur — but not in a good way. He had a good job, a great wife and a toddler — founding a booze venture wasn’t on his to-do list. But in the summer of 2011 the idea followed him to his country house in the Catskills. After meeting Monte Sachs, the ex-veterinarian who had just opened Catskills Distilling 15 minutes away, Josh felt instant chemistry — a bond that doubled after Monte’s first sip of Josh’s liqueur, when Monte insisted production would be absolutely worth pursuing. Josh thought it could be a way to get started on a small scale without major capital. Another friend was offering to be an investor. Suddenly, it all seemed so simple. Well, not entirely. As with so many swan dives into new waters of entrepreneurship, there were a few obstacles. The upstate distillery was hours from his city home. Then, the investor pulled out. Nonetheless, Morton was now determined to satiate everyone’s ginger jones — and decided he would do it himself, right in the city. After a few sticky months attempting to scale up in the kitchen of his Barrow Street loft, in June 2012 Josh transplanted the operation into a 500-square-foot production space within Industry City, the multi-tenant complex in Sunset Park already home to the likes of Blue Marble Ice Cream and Soho Letterpress. In the beginning, it was just Josh, four walls of enormous carboy pickle jars and lots and lots of ginger. But Barrow’s is just as intense to produce as it is to taste: It is hand-bottled, hand-labeled, hand-numbered — all tasks Morton did solo for six months. BarrowsIntenseGinger__opt2 About a quarter pound of ginger has been used to create each and every 750-milliliter bottle. The ginger is shredded, strained and left to steep in a neutral cane-spirit base for about a month — unlike grain spirits such as Everclear, the cane spirit base allows the ginger flavor to come through more purely. Today Barrow’s Intense casts its amber glow on the shelves of Bowery & Vine, Rosetta Wines, Dry Dock, Bar Tabac, Tom Colicchio’s Riverpark or any of its other 60 purveyors; the spicy complexity of the 44-proof liqueur comes through whether its sipped with just a rock or mixed into cocktails. Josh still sits at the helm of his consulting firm, and the Mortons have fewer dinner parties these days, but the spirit of sampling lives on at retailers like Brooklyn Wine Exchange. “Josh does a great job of always leaving a few bottles in our fridge, which we’re more than happy to let curious customers try during tastings,” says Devine. “One sip and they’re hooked.” BarrowsIntenseGinger__opt1

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Christian DeBenedetti grew up on a hazelnut farm in Yamhill County, Oregon, and writes about food, drink and adventure travel for Esquire, Men’s Journal, Food & Wine and The New York Times, among others. He remains a terrible shot.