Daniel Preston is not one to screw around, but the self-educated inventor-turned-aerospace-engineer-turned-chocolatier-and-distiller also has a flair for life’s finer pleasures. At Cacao Prieto and Widow Jane Distillery, Preston is quietly turning out seriously smooth, well-crafted chocolate, rum, and whiskey, produced and packaged in small batches under one Brooklyn roof.
Next door, Preston’s warm-season cocktail bar, Botanica, serves up craft beers and cocktails using house-made spirits, infusions, and other lovingly crafted local ingredients. The whole operation sits on a corner lot on a cobblestone block near the water in Red Hook and opens daily for tours and tastings.
This summer, Preston teams up with Nat Sherman Tobacco company to annex a pop-up tabaqueria next door. Botanica guests are welcome to stop in, buy a cigar, and enjoy it with Widow Jane whiskey pairings through October, because few things feel better on a breezy summer night than enjoying a drink or two al fresco, (assuming it’s not 600 degrees outside), and few things go better with a great whiskey than a great cigar.
Last Friday, we toured the pop-up and wandered through the distillery and chocolate operations. On the pages that follow, you’ll find photos of the earthly delights on offer at Preston’s four-pronged artisanal pleasure palace this summer.
Cacao Prieto’s chocolate is single-sourced from land Preston’s family has worked in the Dominican Republic for over a century. The chocolate tour begins at a massive 1915 Sirocco roaster that Preston re-engineered to optimal efficiency. From there, we enter an expansive room full of machines that remove and separate the hulls from the beans and crush and heat the beans into a grainy liquid called “chocolate liquor,” which is mixed with house-made cocoa butter and sugar and churned to sublime smoothness.
Downstairs, the liquid chocolate is portioned into a line (they were making chips on Friday), where it’s molded to shape and cooled at the correct temperature to keep texture consistent. From there, it’s packaged in house-printed wrappers. Other bars are hand-molded, which enables house chocolatier Chi Bui to add nuts, fruits, and other tasty embellishments to each bar. The results are dreamy: Gone is the waxy sweetness of Hershey bar chocolate; each Cacao Prieto bar is 72 percent pure chocolate, so it’s rich, sweet, and slightly floral.
Next up: whiskey, what?!
Widow Jane Distillery’s whiskey operation began with rum. While fermenting an early batch of cacao for chocolate, Preston realized that with a bit of care, he could distill the liquid byproduct into liquor. Early on, Cacao Prieto began producing cacao-based liquor, then rum, and in 2011, Widow Jane debuted Widow Jane Whiskey, made using different, often heirloom, grain varieties.
Linger at the tasting counter–there is plenty to savor. The seven-year whiskey opens with a warm nose of creamy butter and toffee; a sip reveals deep caramel notes, pungent spice, and cherry wood with a bright, orange-y finish. The “Bloody Butcher,” made of red heirloom barley, is sweeter, nuttier, and milder, while the rye tastes younger and more bitter. The rums and liqueurs were sweet, chocolatey, and dark, perfect over rocks after dinner.
Next: Why not enjoy a cigar with your whiskey?