In a 5,000-square foot barn by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the New York Distilling Company is working on some whiskey. One thousand of the barn's square feet belong to a bar, The Shanty, and the remaining 4,000 is a cavernous distillery. Most days, it's a one-man show, with Bill Potter overseeing tanks, thermometers, bags of grain, empty bottles, labels, and barrels and barrels of aging whisky. At the centerpiece of the action, there's Carl, a big, beautiful custom-built copper and stainless steel still.
Carl isn't just a nickname—it's short for Christian Carl, a family-owned company out of Stuttgart, Germany that's been crafting gorgeous distilling systems since 1869. The precise machinery is a shining example of stunning industrial design. At the NYDC, the beautiful piece is almost nautical, like it came out of a submarine from a 50s pulp sci-fi comic.
"The underlying principles are the same as what you'd find in a still 400 years ago," Bill says. "There are a few bells and whistles—temperature sensors, stainless steel, things like that. But an Irish monk distilling aqua vitae could come in here today and immediately recognize this for what it is."
This time-traveling distiller would know the purpose Carl's three basic parts: the pot, the helmet, and the column. The pot heats everything into steam. The helmet provides for surface contact for condensation and reflux, the condensed, purified vapors that fall back into the mix. The column has five plates that create little barriers, forcing the water vapor to condense, yet allowing alcohol vapor to continue rising through.
The machine isn't all the distillation process requires, though. Sure, it handles heating, agitating, pumping, filtering, and stripping. But the machine doesn't have the ears and nose that a distiller like Bill Potter develops over hundreds of runs. He can troubleshoot the sound of a clank inside the tank. He can smell the difference between good ethanol distillate, and the pungent nail-polish-remover smell of poisonous aldehydes.
You can take a $25,000 course to learn this stuff, but a lot of these skills don't come from studying a book about distillation. Mostly, you learn through experience. Bill picked up his distilling skills first by studying in upstate New York, at Warwick Valley Distillery under distillation expert Jason Grizzanti. Then, he learned through trial and error on his own equipment. In all the tinkering, he says, "I've only had to throw out one batch of botched whiskey." The other thing he's learned, besides developing the nose and ears of a whiskey whisperer, is a keen sense of patience. Because making booze is a long process.
Mashing is the first step. Bill fills a tank with 1600 liters of hot water, then hauls 1675 pounds of grain up a flight of stairs to pour in from a catwalk above. Sometimes he has help—the day Gizmodo visited, he was aided by five guys from the neighborhood who just came around out of curiosity to learn the process. As they pour in the heavy sacks of rye and corn, dust fills the air and settles in your hair and clothes. The tank heats up to just below boiling point (around 92 to 94 degrees Celsius), then cools back down to around 70 degrees. Then, Potter and the crew add the malted barley. That's phase one.
The mash sits in the tank for several days fermenting, and then it's time for phase two: distilling. Mashing is a social, labor-intensive event. But distilling a solo project—a lot of waiting, tasting, listening, and waiting. The liquid goes through the still twice. The first run is the stripping run, which purifies the alcohol and concentrates it into drinkable ethanol. Nothing is separated out, and the result is called a wine (though it's not a wine you'd really like to drink).
The next run comes in three different cuts—the heads, the hearts, and the tails. The heads are basically the ingredients in moonshine that make you go blind—strong solvent-smelling poisonous alcohols like isobutanol and methanol. You don't want those. You want the hearts—the best, tastiest parts—for your whiskey. The tails are also noxious, but those can be used. The distiller might run a bit of them back through the still with hearts to create a unique flavor profile. This is where the artistry of the process comes in.
As for the science of it, it's all about the difference in boiling points between alcohol and water. Distilling depends on the pot being heated up hotter than alcohol's boiling point, but cooler than water's. You get alcohol vapors traveling up the helmet and into a condenser where they're turned back into liquid. Then, the condensate exits from a spout, into a tank. There, a density meter called a hydrometer measures the alcohol by volume. Each final cut is pumped out into a tank, rolled away, then set aside to become whiskey or gin.
Gin doesn't require aging—it goes back into the still with a batch of botanicals to create a flavor profile. Because it's ready immediately, a bottle of gin is all you can currently buy from the NYDC still. The two (delicious, delicious) types of gin are both named for historic New York figures. One, Dorothy Parker, celebrates a legendary writer, and the other, Perry's Tot, honors a mid-19th-century Commandant of the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
But the whiskey is still a work in progress. Today, the alcohol rests in charred oak barrels, where it will sit for around two or three years. It's clear right now, but it'll pick up a brown color after a few hundred days passing in and out of the barrel's charred staves. Those spirits will also have monikers inspired by famous New Yorkers. But it won't be until next winter that we'll have a chance to find out what to call them.
Name: NY Distilling Company.
Location: 79 Richardson Street, Brooklyn, NY.
Money Invested: At least $250,000—that's just for the distilling system.
Prized Possession: Foam squeegee. Bill spends a lot of time and arm strength mopping out residue from the 1600 liters in the mashing tank.
Geekiest Gear: Anton Paar DMA 35 Portable Density Meter, which measures alcohol by volume.
Theft Deterrent: Gates, alarms, and camera. As a convenient additional precaution, the FDNY Ladder 229 Fire House is right next door.
On the Wish List: A centrifuge. "This would remove water and alcohol from the stillage"—basically, the trash left in the kettle after the distillation is complete—"so we can feed it to the hogs upstate," Bill says.
Want to suggest a place where the magic happens? Tell us about it.
Video by Michael Hession.