A Daily Show Editor Makes Whiskey at Van Brunt Stillhouse in Red Hook

One gets the idea that with Van Brunt Stillhouse, unlike other Brooklyn distilleries, it’s never certain what the public will get from year to year.

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In the office of Daric Schlesselman, an old clipping from the Oct. 10, 1875, issue of The Brooklyn Eagle hangs on a bulletin board. Under the headline “Raid on Illicit Whisky Stills in Brooklyn,” it tells how federal officials, accompanied by local police, busted a number of illegal distilleries along the lower Brooklyn waterfront.

Among them was “a place on Tremont Street, between Van Brunt and Richard streets, where an illicit still was found in full operation, with a capacity of which was about three hundred gallons. This, together with the fixtures and 5,000 gallons of molasses mash and a quantity of rum, was seized.”

Nearly 140 years later, very near that same Red Hook address, there is again a still producing rum. But this time, it’s not in violation of the law.

Van Brunt Stillhouse, name notwithstanding, stands at the corner of Otsego and Bay streets. Thrown into operation in early 2012, it is the passion project of Schlesselman, son and grandson of Midwestern farmers and a refugee from the television world (he’s a video editor at Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show).

Van Brunt Stillhouse may be the quietest member of the burgeoning Brooklyn spirits community. It can’t claim to be an early pioneer, like Breuckelen Distilling, which opened its doors in Sunset Park in 2010. It hasn’t published a book, like DUMBO’s Kings County Distillery. And it doesn’t get wheelbarrows of press, as does Williamsburg’s New York Distilling Company.

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The distillery building itself is nearly anonymous. Walking by the former paint factory Van Brunt calls home, you’d get no hint that a German-made Carl still was churning away inside, save a small hand-painted sign. When Schlesselman named the distillery, he was looking for a space on nearby Van Brunt Street. He kept the name because he liked the “Dutchness” of it. Beside, “Oswego Stillhouse” wouldn’t have much of a ring.

The spirits house won a more tangible street presence starting in December, when Schlesselman set up a public tasting room in a corner of the distillery. Come warm weather, he plans to punch out a couple large windows to let some light in.

Van Brunt Stillhouse first distinguished itself in the fast-growing Brooklyn distilling world early on by rolling out, as its first product, a rum called Due North. That was original; at the time, no one in Kings County was making rum. But that debut may turn out to have been a red herring. For, at heart, Schlesselman is a whiskey man, and whiskey is what he plans to focus on from now on.

“I’m happy that I made the rum,” he said, “but I made the rum under the misapprehension that it would be a little bit easier to bring to market than the whiskey. It took a little longer than I anticipated to age it.” (Though Due North was launched as a youthful four-month rum, the bottles on the shelves today have spent a healthy 16 months in barrel.)

“I’ve actually been successful getting whiskey to market faster than I anticipated. I think, had I known then what I know now, I don’t know that I would have done things the same. I would have made rum in the future. But it would not have been my focus initially. My passion is about whiskey.”

In its short life, Van Brunt Stillhouse has produced enough varieties of grain spirit for Schlesselman to be able to refer to the distillery’s “family of whiskeys.” There’s the flagship, a four-grain distillate dubbed “American Whiskey”; a bourbon; a malt whiskey done in the Scotch style; and, most recently, a limited-edition rye. This last, as you read these words, has probably already disappeared from shelves.

“I can’t produce rye in any production capacity at this point,” explained Schlesselman. “It gets in the way of my making the other whiskeys. Once it’s sold, we’re not going to have any more rye for a while.”

Van Brunt also produces grappa. Like the rum, it is another local novelty that helped net the distiller some attention in its first days, but a product that will likely not play a major role in the company’s future.

“See those?” asked Schlesselman, pointing to five large glass demijohns full of liquid sitting on the distillery floor. “That will be the total extent of my grappa output this year.”

“It’s a labor of love,” he said of the process of making grappa, the high-octane digestif distilled from the skins, pulp, seeds and stems of used wine grapes and typically associated with Italy.

“It’s an immense amount of labor for very little product. It’s not a big part of our business, but it’s a fun part.” In 2012, he made three different grappas using grape skins from Lieb Cellars on Long Island, Brooklyn Winery and Red Hook Winery. Like most things created at Van Brunt Stillhouse, the 100 cases produced vanished quickly. In the future, the grappa may be sold in the distillery’s tasting room only.

Schlesselman developed his affinity for grains and hard work in his native Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, where his father worked in farm banking.

“I grew up around farmers,” he said. “My extended family were all farmers.” However, Daric’s first career — “unfortunately,” he says — was in television. He still works regularly at The Daily Show, using his spare time and vacations to run the distillery.

“One of the things that I found with television that’s very frustrating is that it’s very ephemeral,” he said, explaining his career 180. “Once you’re done, it’s gone. I get immense satisfaction from things that are more permanent and earthy. At some point I decided I wanted to shift my career to something agricultural.” To supplement what he had learned as a home brewer and distiller, he paid the Kilchoman to allow him to work at that Islay Scotch distiller for a week in November 2010.

“He’s very precise, very technical,” said Miles Kahn, a producer at The Daily Show. “That precision goes down to the way he makes his products.” Kahn, like a few others at the program, is an investor in the distillery.

“I heard rumblings of people on the show investing,” he said, “so I said ‘Do you have any shares available?’” At present, the benefits of being a shareholder in Van Brunt Stillhouse amount to “bragging rights,” said Kahn.

Schlesselman found an early convert to his bottling in Brendan Casey, who is the bar manager at Applewood in Park Slope, a restaurant that has long hosted special “Meet the Farmer” dinners. Casey suggested a first-ever “Meet the Distiller” event, in which Van Brunt’s spirits would be showcased. The 2012 event sold out.

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“After that, I approached Daric,” said Casey. “I asked him if he needed a hand, someone with knowledge behind the bar.” Since then, Casey has acted as a sort of unofficial local brand ambassador for Van Brunt. He also lends a hand distilling a batch of booze here and there.

“I like his take on whiskey, his approach to it being a unique blend,” said Casey. “He likes to experiment.”

Schlesselman does indeed seem like a tinkerer. One gets the idea that with Van Brunt Stillhouse, unlike other Brooklyn distilleries, it’s never certain what the public will get from year to year. Schlesselman’s first batch of malt whiskey was a “straight-up Scottish-style mash bill,” he said. With the next batch, however, he experimented with caramelized malt, creating a different, smokier expression. He preferred that version, and that’s what went into the second bottling of malt whiskey. As mentioned earlier, the character of the rum has changed over the months, and two of next year’s grappas will be nothing like their predecessors.

“That’s part of the fun of being a craft distiller,” he said, sipping from a dram of the here-today-gone-tomorrow rye that was just then being bottled and labeled on a table on the far side of the distillery. “You don’t have to stick with one style.”

FIND OUT MORE: Click here for our Q&A with whiskey-making Daric Schlesselman on his other great passion: Grappa. 

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Robert Simonson writes about cocktails, spirits and bars for the New York Times. His book "The Old-Fashioned: The World's First Classic Cocktail" was published by Ten Speed Press in May. With his visit to Van Brunt Stillhouse, he thinks he's finally seen every Brooklyn micro-distillery. But he's not sure.