In Queens, a Homegrown Spirit
Chris Murillo, founder of the Astoria Distilling Company, experienced a rather dramatic transition when he opted to go full-time with his creation, an Old Tom gin dubbed Queens Courage. A former lawyer, Murillo went from hustling through Midtown in a suit one day to wearing jeans and a t-shirt and hauling 50-pound sacks of malt in an upstate distillery the next. The jump from the corporate sector to the world of spirits has paid off: Murillo says he's having a challenging time keeping up with demand from bars and liquor stores across the state for his product. We spoke to Murillo about what makes Queens Courage--and Queens itself--so unique.
Where did the idea for Queens Courage come from? The genesis for the business came up on New Year's Eve, 2011. We were celebrating for the first time without a couple of good friends who had moved to Puerto Rico to start a brewery, which I thought was genius because there are no craft breweries there. As much as we hated seeing them go, I thought it was a great idea, to do something that hasn't been done. So I was thinking, what hasn't been done in Queens?
I knew there were some distilleries in Brooklyn, but there were none in Queens that I knew of. So kind of on a lark I said, "Wouldn't it be wonderful to open a distillery in Queens?" So like any drunken idea, everyone cheered it, but I kept thinking about. This is the one New Year's resolution I did keep. By April of that year, 2012, I decided, "I need to get serious about this." I started visiting distilleries all over the country, and looking at the idea from a legal and business perspective.
Did you know anything about the distilling process before then? Only insofar as I liked watching how it was made and generally, I understood how spirits were made. But as for practical experience, I had none. I was starting very much from zero.
I learned very quickly that distillers are an incredibly hospitable bunch. There's a "rising tide raises all ships" mentality. People will tell me specifically what they are doing, what has worked for them, and what hasn't. It's just a great community of craftsmen that are passionate about what they're doing and want to see other people doing great things. It's exciting to see new and interesting things being done with the same five kinds of liquors that people have behind the bar.
How is your gin formulated? When we were formulating Queens Courage, we decided that we wanted to look back at the history of gin. A very early precursor to gin is Dutch genever, which essentially was a malt wine. They'd re-distill it with juniper and other botanicals. So that was the original style of gin. In 1830, Aeneas Coffey invented a still that made vodka and neutral spirits possible on an industrial scale. After that, there was a transition to a London dry style of gin.
We wanted to go back and look before that period and see what the style of gin was. So we actually made our own malt wine and started blending that into our gin. It opened up the flavor of the gin. Instead of having this boring base, you had this slightly sweet maltiness that gives it a really beautiful, round mouthfeel. It also makes it much more mixable than a dry gin, which, to me, is good with citrus and acid. With the maltiness, you don't have to add so much acid to play off the dryness. You can use it in place of a bourbon or a rum. So that got us really excited, and it took us about a year and a half to formulate.
Our master distiller, Jordan, is absolutely a genius in terms of distilling. When he fiddles with flavors, he calls it painting -- he really treats it like an art. We had this vision for doing this malty Old Tom gin that hasn't existed for decades.
And what exactly is Old Tom gin? That just means it's been sweetened. It can be aged or unaged -- Queens Courage is unaged. We're planning to do an aged variant down the road, when we can catch our breath. We want to be thoughtful about it.
Queens Courage is sweetened only with New York organic honey. We buy the honey from an apiary up in the Rochester area, but a portion of it actually comes from rooftops here in Queens. Eventually when we have our own facility, we'll put some beehives on our roof and harvest that honey.
The other thing that makes Queens Courage unique is that malt component, which gives it that little bit of sweetness and round flavor profile. As far as I know, there's nobody doing it right now.
Where can people find Queens Courage? Our first encounters were in Astoria, because that's where I live. In Astoria, you can get it at the Sparrow Tavern, Bowery Bay, Sweet Afton, and Mar's. Soon our website will have a store locator and tell you the nearest liquor store where you can find it. What was really exciting is that we got picked up almost immediately by a distributor, and we can actually be distributed anywhere in New York and New Jersey. It's great because the first couple of months, it was just me on a bicycle with a bottle of gin in my backpack.
Were you doing all this while also still practicing law? There was definitely an overlap with the planning. I quit right before we made the first batch, so there was no selling while I was still a lawyer. Last year I billed 2,000 hours, so when I was working, it was easily 10 and 11 hour days regularly. I pulled a lot of all-nighters. Typically what I would do is go to work, come home around 8 or 9, spend a little time with my wife, and then I'd work for a couple hours on the distillery. I'd be pricing out glasses, sending emails to my designer, working on the financial model, writing the business plan, doing all these things. I'd read technical manuals on the process. It's really important to me as the founder and entrepreneur to have a full understanding of what's going on.
Can you recommend any food pairings for your gin? If you were in Astoria, having Greek food -- say, whole fish with fennel and lemon -- something like a gimlet would be really good, because it has lime and a lot of acidity. If you're having a hamburger at somewhere like Corner Bistro down in Long Island City, I think a Martinez would be great. I think if you're having a pasta, like a pesto pasta, I'd pair a Negroni with it. Campari's an Italian liquor, and its bitterness and earthiness would play off the pasta well. Before I started doing distilling, I loved going out to eat and getting cocktails.
What's been the most exciting aspect of starting the Astoria Distilling Company? The thing I'm most excited about is people trying my gin and trying something new. I can't tell you how many times I tell people, "Hey, I made this gin," and they say, "Oh, I don't like gin." And I don't blame them, but if you're trying a gin that's higher quality, it's going to be a different experience. It's going to be something you really enjoy. People re-discovering gin as a fine spirit, through trying my spirit, is really gratifying.
What do you like about living in Queens? We moved to Astoria in 2008 and thought it was just a great neighborhood. It has great restaurants, great bars, and it's incredibly diverse, and that's what appealed to me. I was born in Costa Rica, so I like to be able to go get some Latin food but also try stuff from all over the world. Growing up, we had a very international approach to things, so that was appealing to me. So that's how I fell in love with Queens. It's like a good relationship -- every day I find something new to love about Queens. The diversity and vibrancy is a big part of it.
Recipe: Martinez Cocktail
2 ounces Queens Courage NY Old Tom Gin 1ounce Sweet Vermouth Dash of Orange Bitters
Stir with ice until chilled, and serve up in a chilled coupe. Garnish with an orange peel.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to New York dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.