Down along the Brooklyn waterfront in an industrial, light-filled garage, distiller Brad Estabrooke is busy bottling Breuckelen Gin in the borough’s first distillery since Prohibition. In a hoodie sweatshirt and jeans, boyish Estabrooke could easily be mistaken for one of the tens of thousands of thirty-something Brooklynites reconciling a creative tendency with the reality of rent and groceries. He looks a bit tired. Fair enough, he was up until 10 p.m. last night, working alone (though he does employ one full-time employee), hand-bottling the nineteen cases that now sit at his feet, all of which he will later be delivering around New York City by himself.
But that’s par for the course since August of 2009, when Breuckelen Distillery was just a raw space in a converted boiler room. Two years later, Estabrooke is producing 200 cases a month of his Breuckelen Gin (the name is taken after the Dutch spelling of the borough) and has recently moved onto other spirits. He’s been selling a wheat-based whiskey for several months now and a rye is in the works.
After reading an article in an in-flight magazine on the reduced legal restrictions that had previously stifled small distilleries in the United States, Estabrooke took the armchair fantasy the rest of us nurture while having a glass of gin and turned it into an actual glass of gin.
Referring back to that period, Estabrooke, who at that time worked in finance, recalls a defining moment during a conversation with his girlfriend: “I remember us talking about how we had good jobs, how people want these jobs…but I was miserable. We saw all these people in Brooklyn making their own things, their own businesses, using business models that they put together on their own. I thought, how rewarding would that be.” As life would have it, shortly afterwards, Estabrooke was laid off. Unemployed and unable to motivate himself to look for the same kind of work, Breuckelen Distilling was hatched. With some savings of his own and pitching family and friends for the rest, he went for it. The results have been pretty impressive coming from a guy whose previous distilling “experience” was back in 6th grade making a crude water distiller for a science fair.
So how exactly does one go from “finance guy” to Breuckelen Gin? Reading a lot, apparently. “Anything I could find in the library,” Estabrooke explains. “Interviews with other distillers. All of it. It was a really scrappy way of getting information together…I still think it was a ridiculous long shot.”
As for choosing gin, Estabrooke says he stuck to a few simple rules. “It had to be local ingredients. It had to be something I liked to drink. And it had to be something I could sell right away.”
The recipe evolved over a year and a half, culled from all sorts of inspirations. He even attributes a particularly memorable risotto he had one evening flavored with rosemary and lemon. Eventually, he narrowed it down to a handful of flavors — notably juniper, rosemary, lemon, ginger, and grapefruit.
Estabrooke explains the category of gin as, “a made-up style. It has a little in common with a genever because we make the base spirit for the gin here from wheat. We don’t purchase a neutral grain spirit. So it has the character and flavor from the wheat. In fact, the first whiskey we’ve been selling is made from the same base spirit that we distill the gin from.”
As for the “77” label that will adorn the forthcoming bottles of whiskey? “It’s our address. There are only really six or so large whiskey distilleries that actually produce hundreds of the brands. Ours is actually made, bottled, and aged here at 77 19th Street, Brooklyn. It’s pretty novel.”
Yes it is, novel, indeed.