They made me get on a motorcycle. I don’t know why I expected to visit a distillery located adjacent to a motorcycle shop—especially one named MÔTÔ Spirits and inspired by travel on two wheels—without donning a big blue helmet and black gloves and hopping onto a tiny bike named Twiggy, but I was very wrong. Once the folks behind the brand, Hagai Yardeny, Marie Estrada and Tim Harney, found out I ride a bicycle, they figured the motorized version wasn’t totally out of the question. On I went for the photo-op, blessedly freed by my nervous giggles from having to give kick-starting it a shot.
If you were hanging out with Yardeny and Estrada (and being served multiple shots of their spirits), you’d probably end up on a bike, too. That’s just the kind of energy they have and it’s one that’s evident in their bottles of small-batch rice whiskey and jabuka, an apple-based Croatian spirit they’re making with fruit from Highland, New York–based Bad Seed Cider Co.
Yardeny is the distiller while Estrada is “the boss” but it’s clear the hierarchy here doesn’t get too rigid. “He’s like my brother,” she says. They met about 12 years ago while living in the same semi-legal loft building in Williamsburg in which they still reside (now legally). The whole rice whiskey thing came about “accidentally,” Yardeny explains. “About eight years ago, a friend hit me up and said, ‘We’re going on a motorcycle trip to Bulgaria. Do you want to go?’” The answer was yes, and an obsession with travel via motorcycle was born.
“When you’re on a motorcycle, there’s nothing separating you from the people,” he says. “Literally: from the elements or the people. You get to experience something that’s very real and special. Most of the trips we’ve taken have been in the developing world, which is outside our comfort zone and outside the norm. Experiencing it before it becomes like what we’re used to here, in the States, is special.”
On one of these trips, he and his girlfriend headed to Vietnam, where they experienced hospitality unlike any before. “It was kind of a shit-show. We had the wrong gear. It was raining. But people were super nice to us,” he says. The rice-based spirit, offered everywhere they went, was a major part of that. Upon his return to the States, though, he couldn’t find any of what in Vietnam is known as rượu đế i. Just like anyone else would do in this situation, he went off to Home Depot to buy two pressure cookers and start experimenting, “which was kind of okay, until one of them blew up.”
That didn’t please his girlfriend (“I ruined her favorite pair of shoes and got it all over the couch”), so the operation moved to an unused bathroom at the end of the hall before eventually coming to its current location in Bushwick, inside a small room next to Harney’s motorcycle shop.
“At first, I was trying to re-create what we’d tasted in Vietnam, but then I realized that might not be commercially viable,” he says. Part of bridging the palate gap involved realizing that he was essentially making whiskey, just using rice as his grain rather than barley, corn, rye or wheat. Both the rice whiskey and jabuka are aged in American oak bourbon barrels, the former for 11 months and the latter for six. The whiskey is sweeter on the nose than the ones you’re used to, becoming pleasantly nutty and woody as you sip, while the jabuka is crisp and bright—a cider on steroids.
In February 2017, three years after that initial trip to Vietnam, MÔTÔ Spirits hit shelves. The bottles are currently being poured or sold at 28 places, like Bottoms Up in Crown Heights, Big Tree Bottles in Bushwick and Duke’s Liquor Box in Greenpoint. “Right now, everything is single barrel,” Estrada says. “We don’t think in terms of bottles, but barrels, and we’re going to keep it that way even though the volume is going to be significantly more. We want to maintain a small-batch feel.” To keep it sustainable, as well, she’s begun developing both liquid and solid soaps made from the probiotic rice by-product of the distilling process.
“I don’t want to fit into the buckets that already exist,” Yardeny says, by way of explaining what inspires his spirit choices. “It’s not just going with the flow, but a strong drive to find how I can do what I love to do and make it into a business that can support a lifestyle.”
Yardeny, who admits he doesn’t like leaving his block in Williamsburg except for these big trips, is spending the summer riding throughout Georgia, Greece and Croatia. Back in Brooklyn, we can look forward to whichever adventurous spirit he brings home.