Brad Estabrooke of Breuckelen Distilling Talks Gin, Brooklyn, and Why Boozehounds Are More Fun Than Oenophiles
Brad Estabrooke isn't the first high-roller to leave the world of finance to launch his own liquor brand. But he is one of the few who is doing the distillation himself. He launched his long-awaited Breuckelen Gin a couple weeks ago.
So, why gin?
About two and a half years ago, I was frustrated with my job. I came up with this theory that [what was missing] was doing some type of a craft. I wasn't actually making anything. I was a bond trader, so I guess I was making money for people whose money I was trading around, but at the end of the day, there wasn't some tangible thing I could be taking home or sharing with people, and have them say, "Wow. This is fantastic. What a neat thing you made." So, I like to drink. Wine and beer are more difficult to get into. I'd never thought of getting into spirits and then I read an article in a magazine saying that some laws had changed and now it's easier to open a small distillery in the United States. That's how I got here today.
How does your gin differ from others?
Because this started out as wanting to do a craft, we actually make the alcohol ourselves, out of wheat. A lot of gin that's on the market is made with purchased neutral alcohol that doesn't really have any flavor left to it. That didn't really fit the definition of a craft to me. So, I started by buying this wheat from this farmer upstate and then mashing that wheat and distilling it one time to make alcohol, which still has some of the character of the wheat. Then, I take that alcohol and re-distill it with our own botanical recipe.
Do you reveal the botanicals in your gin?
It's no secret. A lot of gins have lots of botanicals. You can't really taste all those individual ones. So, I thought, maybe we should try to keep the gin simple and keep that flavor of the wheat in it and also make sure you can taste each of the individual flavors when you taste the gin instead of having some sort of homogenized flavor. We used lemon peel, juniper berries -- like all gins -- rosemary, grapefruit peel, and a little bit of ginger. I distill the wheat alcohol with one botanical at a time. Then, I take all those individual botanicals and blend them together in order to make it taste just like we want it to.
What do you think about the debate over different gin categories and how some people say American gins don't qualify as real gin?
People who have that attitude are thinking that every gin should be a London Dry. Clearly our gin is not London Dry. To be called a gin you have to use juniper berries, and we definitely do that. Some of the gins out there have backed off on the botanicals just to make it a little bit easier to drink if you're more used to vodka. That wasn't our approach. Ours has a lot of flavor. The good news is that there's a lot of people who drink gin. I don't need everyone to like ours, and I know not everyone will. But if you have an open mind and you like gin, ours came out really good.
There's a new gin bar opening in Manhattan. Do you think there is a gin renaissance going on?
I think people are starting to be more interested in actually having some flavor in their cocktail and not just drinking something that's neutral. People have gone back to some of the classic recipes and those call for gin rather than vodka. But I didn't pick gin because I thought, Oh, there's going to be a resurgence of gin. I just thought that gin is something I really like to drink and it would be really exciting to make, especially using New York ingredients. The more people that like to drink it, that's good for everybody.
Do you have plans to come out with any other spirits?
We're going to maybe do a white whiskey. The wheat spirit that we're making, people who've tried it said that they like it, so we might bottle that as a product. We're going to try another gin that's more oriented toward winter flavors. We're going to try some other products, too. But for now, I'm just trying to get enough gin produced to get us going here. What's your favorite way to enjoy your gin?
That's easy. I like to pour it in a glass, then I put a couple of ice cubes in, stir it, and take the ice cubes out and add a twist of lemon. That's how I like it. I think the gin has a little bit of a savory taste to it. So, even though we use lemon peel in the recipe, the lemon twist brings out the lemon flavor and contrasts the savory aspect of it. It's great with tonic, too.
What are some of your favorite cocktail bars?
I like to go out and have cocktails, but for the last year and a half I've been working on getting this distillery going. I have not been getting out and imbibing at these public watering holes as much as I'd like to. In Brooklyn, let's see, I've always liked Jakewalk. I like Clover Club. One of favorite places is Dressler in Williamsburg. It's so expensive -- I never eat there -- but the cocktails are really, really fantastic. I like Dram, as well.
Why do you think that Brooklyn is such a hot place for food and drink these days?
You go to other cities and there is not as much of an independent spirit as there is in Brooklyn. You walk around and there isn't a chain store on every block. People are really interested and passionate about trying to make something delicious for you -- whether it's beer or food or coffee or pickles. For some reason, there's a real concentration of people like that in Brooklyn and it just feeds on itself. If you're someone who likes those types of products, not just getting the same Starbucks that you can get in every other city in the country, then there's more places like that here than any other place I've been.
What do you drink at home?
When I'm not drinking my own gin? Let's see. I like to drink so much. I like basically every red Burgundy under the sun. I like to try the different Sixpoint beers. I drink Hendrick's gin, or I used to. I still do once in a while. I guess I like to try different things. I don't really have a particular go-to bottle. There are a couple of bottles of Scotch that I really like, like Springbank and Bruichladdich. I think those two are both really nice bottles when you have an extra 50 or 60 bucks to spend on something.
I hear that you're also a big wine drinker.
Yeah, I like wine a lot actually. I had this crazy idea in my head that I would make a bunch of money over the course of my life, then buy some small vineyard to retire on. I thought it would be really great to make wine. Wine is very difficult to get into. You have to have a large fortune to get started, so distilling made a lot more sense. At first, I was really amazed to find that good, well-made spirits, if you take the time to actually appreciate them, can be as or more sophisticated than a nice glass of wine.
Who is more fun: spirits drinkers or wine lovers?
Wine has a snobby edge to it, so you kind of have to be careful who you want to drink wine with. People who say they're wine drinkers, you never know which ones you can hang out with. But how can you go wrong with people who drink gin? Never mind that it's easy to get carried away with gin. So then you're definitely more fun.
Where can you buy Breuckelen Gin?
A lot of places are out of the gin, actually, but you can buy it in quite a few places. In Red Hook, you can get it at Dry Dock. Down in this neighborhood [South Slope], Slope Cellars has it. DrinkUpNY, they carry it. Then, for bars, Fort Defiance, Abilene, and Lowlands. Also, Park Avenue Liquor Shop has it. They're my only place in Manhattan so far.
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