Allen Katz is an educator, distiller & co-founder of the New York Distilling Company. He talks to us about provenance, launching America’s first Navy Strength & ‘American’ Gins, a new Rock ‘n’ Rye, & the pleasure of craftsmanship.
New York Distilling Company
My dream since, I was a teenager, has been to make something. I’m not going to be a painter, I’m not going to write a book (at least not a good one). I’m not into it in a vanity or ego way, but there’s a personal satisfaction in producing something from start to finish.
It’s interesting: you talk to some people associated with distilling and they say it’s like watching paint dry. There are aspects of it where, yes, we’re just sitting here talking while something magical is happening inside the still. But I’m always excited by what comes out and what we get to do with it; how we can blend it; how we proof it. Am I a ‘master distiller’? Hell no. Nevertheless, I have a confidence in what we’re doing and what our objectives are. And these are my recipes; my gins.
We’ve got two different strength gins here. Perry’s Tot is a Navy Strength. The first of its kind available in the US.
Perry was the first commandant of the Brooklyn Navy Yard and he started the Naval Lyceum, an educational centre for seamen. And to us, being located in Brooklyn, we thought, you know what? In the attitude of those bartenders who really can’t absorb enough knowledge, that’s sort of nice too. So we named it for him, and a ‘tot’ is the British reference, as a nod in deference to Navy Strength’s heritage.
For the most part it’s a very traditional blend of botanicals. High on juniper; a little bit of spice with cinnamon, star anise and cardamom; a citrus build of lemon, orange and grapefruit peel… But the one twist is that we’re using a wild flower honey from upstate New York, which does two things:
1. It gives it the slightest earthy/floral note on the nose; and
2. It gives just a little bit of cover to this idea of the over-proof alcohol.
We were also looking for something that we could source locally which would be wholly unique to us. Not to be too esoteric. Just to say that we have a connection with someone here. And the bottles have also been designed by a gentleman by the name of Milton Glaser – a well-known and wonderfully respected designer – as there was an established relationship with my partner, Tom Potter, the co-founder of Brooklyn Brewery.
While this is no official motto of any sort, our intention – with the business as a whole – is to be ‘intentionally different’. That’s not just to say, ‘Well, let’s just be as wild and crazy as we can’. But to be purposeful, thoughtful, and humble.
There are many wonderful, traditional gins out there. I’m a devotee of Plymouth. Beefeater and Tanqueray are wonderful gins. If I was to make a gin in any way in the vicinity of those, I’d be bored with myself. They already exist! There’s nothing I can do to add to that realm. So, ‘purposefully different’. What can we add to the realm of distilled spirits that exist in the world today? As of this moment, Navy Strength Gin does not exist in the United States. So this is a recipe we’ve designed that with our intention is meant to do two things:
1. Contribute something new in the global sense of gin and Navy Strength gin; and
2. Tackle the hopefully fun task of introducing a very high proof gin – American 114 proof, so UK 100, or 57% alcohol – to the gin aficionados at large.
It’s got some kick. But – and it’s not just because we’ve been making it for a while and have grown accustomed to it – no one’s going to fall over drinking Perry’s Tot. In fact, we let people taste it on it’s own so we can say: ‘See? You’re okay. So now we’ll use it and make a couple of cocktails…’ (If you have a good lime cordial, it makes a magnificent Gimlet.)
So then there’s our other gin, Dorothy Parker, which we’re calling an ‘American gin’. I gave a presentation on this in Berlin recently. Someone raised their hand, and asked ‘Are you trying to create a new classification with this ‘American gin’?’
And I thought ‘Holy Shit! This is not what we’re trying to do.’
Our intention is simply to say that this is not an English gin, this is not a London Dry gin. In the rousing conversations of ‘What is a gin?’, I want to say hey, this is our mark on something unique. It doesn’t mimic anything that’s in the marketplace. We like juniper, so again it’s heavy on that. But it’s also 12:1 juniper to elderberry, and 26:1 juniper to dried hibiscus petals, which give it an earthy, floral quality.
Behind-the-scenes, our mindset was that we always knew we wanted to do the Navy Strength. But we knew, in the crazy, hopefully not stupid demeanour of we’re going to launch two gins at the same date in time that they had to be drastically different. So the Dorothy Parker is 88 proof American, and is from a mixing standpoint very diverse. I’m making Martinis with Dolan Blanc that I think are sublime. And yes, we might do a third gin at some point. An Old Tom.
The 700 Songs Gimlet1.5 oz Perry's Tot
0.75 oz Fresh Lime Juice
0.5 oz Simple Syrup
0.25 oz Cinnamon Syrup
5 drops Bitterman's Hellfire Bitters
Shake over ice, and strain into a chilled cocktail glass
Aside from my parents, Slow Food has been the greatest adult influence on my life. It’s what led me, ultimately, to a devotion to craft spirits and cocktail history. This idea of: ‘What are American contributions to gastronomy on a global basis?’
And I’m not gonna get into an argument of whether the cocktail was only created in the United States, because no, it wasn’t. But there’s enough significant heritage that for me the barbeque of the American South and the cocktail are what we can proudly represent from a cultural standpoint to an international gastronomic community.
We’re making gin because I’m a gin drinker and I’m passionate about making products from scratch that can contribute something new. Not wild and extravagant, necessarily, but new. Are we saturated with gins? I don’t know that you can be saturated today. If products are good, people buy them. You could say the same with beer: are we saturated? Maybe. But if you come out with a good beer, people will buy it.
We’re also gonna make whiskey here this year. But not a Bourbon. Now I adore Bourbon. And it’s not a matter of intimidation, there’s just nothing I feel we can really add to the conversation. There are extraordinary Bourbons made in Kentucky of diverse range, proof, ageing, ingredients, heritage. There’s nothing we can really do in my opinion that adds in any great way to that conversation. What we can do, though, is add to the conversation of American Rye.
There is lack in the diversity among Ryes and there’s a lack of production. Rye Whiskey was actually made in New York State going back pre-prohibition. And a little bit of Rye, wonderfully, is made in New York today. We’re doing two directions with ours – and this is the fun, bite-your-nails part of it because there’s a great expense in what we put in the barrels to just let ‘em sit there – we’re doing one that’s sort of upper-medium quantity of rye, and then one very high rye content.
Everyone keeps asking, “When’s the Rye coming?” Well, when it’s ready… Frankly, we first want to experiment with both of them on the younger side for a Rock ‘n’ Rye blend. We will be a whiskey company one day. But for now, this is a little offering.
I’m very passionate about drinks history but I would never call myself a drinks historian. I have a great appreciation for it. But I leave those things to Wondrich and Regan, and I am a devoted fan of their work.
I am a distiller and an educator. My professional work is distilling and teaching the greater food service industry with Southern Wine and Spirits. There’s a great synergy between the two. And we are all always learning.
New York is a huge city. It’s a city, not to be clichéd, where some things are open 24 hours a day. I’ve not been everywhere in the world by any means, but New York is a wonderful, international city that, certainly up until recent times, had access for people from all over the world to come and ply their wares… Bring tequila, bring Irish whiskey, bring Rum from Africa. We’re interested in all of it.
The other side is that we just don’t drive here. So, from a historical and cultural standpoint, 35 years ago we were a dead food zone. The only lettuce you could find was brown and wrapped in plastic. Now that’s changed 180 degrees because there is an interest in the quality of ingredients. And spirits and cocktails have taken the same parallel route: Where do our ingredients come from? How is a product made? Who are the people making it? Where are the ingredients coming from?
So, for example, on the whisky side our grains come very specifically from upstate New York, from very specific farmers near Seneca Lake in the Finger Lake Region. We’re not going to take bus tours up there necessarily, but we have an understanding of the provenance of our ingredients, the person who owns the farm, the people who are farming it, what the seasonality is, if there’s more rain this year how that will have an effect on the rye, corn and barley. That is, to me, part and parcel of it. And it plays into not only into consumer interest, but consumer demand for provenance and authenticity of ingredients.
The Tot & Tonic1.25 oz Perry's Tot
5 oz of chilled Tonic Water
Serve in a 10oz Collins glass and garnish with a lime wedge