The Absolute Best Distillery Tasting Rooms

Photo: Mark Abramson

Photo: Mark Abramson

Regulatory changes and a DIY spirit have led to a renaissance in local distilling, as bootstrap brands have set up shop throughout the boroughs, installing gleaming copper stills and stacks of oak casks, the resting place for raw moonshine to slowly evolve into whiskey worthy of a nightcap. Vodka, gin, rum, and even cacao liqueur are now native to New York, giving the city’s saloons a chance to concoct locavore cocktails. But why bend elbows at any old bar when you can sip spirits and mixed drinks straight from the source? Many of today’s distilleries offer tours and house tasting rooms or even their own cocktail bars worthy of a visit at happy hour — or any hour, honestly. The best destination distilleries blend a warm welcome and fun vibe with distinctive spirits that break flavorful new terrain. Here are the absolute best distilleries to visit in New York City.

The Reinvented Beer and a Shot

Photo: Arcane Distilling

Photo: Arcane Distilling

For Men's Journal, I tackle one of the more unique trends in brewing today: beer whiskey.

See, modern brewers regularly dabble in distilleries’ toolsheds, aging rich stouts and barley wines in onetime whiskey and bourbon barrels. Now distillers are turning the tables and producing beer-inspired whiskeys: seasoning them with citrusy hops for a subtle, fruity kick; using ale yeast to give them extra richness; and even distilling IPAs into a hoppy, fragrant liquor. 

Whiskey, It's Time You Met Beer

It starts life as beer! Sort of. Credit: A Decadent Existence

Whiskey and beer have long embraced a special kinship. At bars, a bolt of the brown stuff is often served with a cool can of beer, a one-two punch that leads to long nights and achy mornings after.

Yet there’s more to this coupling than the promise of pleasure and, occasionally, pain. Whiskey begins life as a distiller’s beer, or wash, that’s made with malted barley, water and yeast. The difference is that beer is given a dose of hops, which contributes bitterness. Wash traditionally lacks hops, meaning it’s a raw ingredient. Translation: You do not want to drink un-hopped wash.

Another crucial distinction is that distilleries are concerned about starch conversion — unlocking the sugar in grains to create the most alcohol possible. Contrasting that, craft brewers use the available grain palette, not caring that darker-roasted grains offer fewer fermentable sugars. It’s all a tradeoff for flavor. This means that whiskey and bourbon require a slumber in charred oak barrels to transform the rough-edged white dog into a smooth sipping spirit.

But in recent years, brewers have begun pulling double duty as distillers, and distillers have begun relying on brewers’ tricks of the trade. For example, New Holland Brewing (Holland, MI) offers a line of beer-inspired brewers whiskeys, and Kentucky’s Corsair brews imperial stouts that are distilled and run through a hop-stuffed distillation column. On the other hand, California’s Charbay Winery & Distillery distills Bear Republic’s bottle-ready Racer 5 IPA, while Japan’s Kiuchi Brewery turns its aromatic Hitachino Nest White Ale into Kiuchi No Shizuku. Here are five of my favorite spirits blurring the line between beer and booze.

St. George Spirits Single Malt Whiskey Sierra Nevada supplies the Bay Area’s St. George with a smoky, caramel-licked ale, which is distilled down and aged in a mixture of bourbon, port, French oak and sherry casks. The blended result is beautifully smooth and fruity, featuring notes of nuts, vanilla and chocolate.

Ranger Creek Brewing & Distilling .36 Texas Bourbon Whiskey Situated in San Antonio, the self-proclaimed “brewstillery” has devised a nontraditional Texas-style bourbon made with a measure of rye. While the big-barrel release is still aging, Ranger Creek has released this bold, small-barrel version with a spicy bite and sweet flavors of caramel and maple syrup.

New Holland Artisan Spirits Brewers’ Whiskey Double Down Barley The Michigan spirits makers use 100 percent two-row barley (the preferred brewing grain) to concoct this small-batch delight that’s double distilled, then sent into heavily charred American oak. There’s a nose of fresh, woody oak and rich flavors that dart from toffee to dark fruits.

Charbay Winery & Distillery Doubled & Twisted Light Whiskey One of our favorite bitter beers is Bear Republic’s Racer 5 IPA, a citrusy, pine-laced pleasure usually at home in our fridge. So imagine our excitement when Charbay used its as the base for this unaged whiskey chockfull of green, herbal notes and a sweetly floral complexity.

Kiuchi Brewery Kiuchi No Shizuku Kiuchi’s Hitachino Nest White Ale is a killer witbier spiced with coriander, orange peel, nutmeg and even orange juice. Distilled and aged in oak, Kiuchi No Shizuku (its name means first drip from the distillation kettle) calls to mind coriander and citrus, with a sweet, slightly woody finish.

This story was originally published on Food Republic.

New York Press' Gut Instinct: Meet Your Maker's

Look at all those bottles. All...those...bottles.

It's not every day that the president of a billion-dollar spirits company picks you up in a silver Dodge Caravan minivan.

Yet there’s Maker’s Mark’s Bill Samuels, Jr., pulling into the driveway of my Kentucky bed and breakfast. I feel 8 years old again, headed to soccer practice. Samuels saunters in wearing a red-checkered shirt, gray slacks and a gray vest, his silver hair full and lush. I hope I still have my hair when I’m 70, is all I can think while shaking his hand. “Do we have time for coffee?” he asks. “Are we in a rush?” “We’re on your time, Mr. Samuels,” I say, answering for both myself and Matt, my mustachioed accomplice.

“Then we’re having coffee,” he says, settling into a comfy vintage chair. Cups are poured. I request milk. Matt and I take a couch. “So,” Samuels says, sipping his coffee, “you’re here to learn about our new bourbon.”

Bourbon! When I wore my drinking training wheels, I ordered bourbon (“Whatever’s cheapest, bartender”) doctored with Diet Coke. Oh, youth. Now, I savor bourbon straight up, or perhaps with an ice cube to unleash the woodsy, vanilla flavors. It’s my pre-dinner wind-me-down after a long day toiling at the keyboard. So when Maker’s Mark invited me to visit its historic distillery, I took .2 seconds to accept. Matt tagged along. After all, drinking alone is no fun.

After finishing coffee, we climb into Samuels’ minivan and cruise through the Kentucky countryside. It’s filled with postcard-pretty farms, galloping horses and… army barracks on steroids? “Those are the rack houses,” Samuels says. They’re where bourbon barrels age, each building far apart. “If one building catches fire”—lightning, errant cigarette—“the barrels won’t explode out and set the other building on fire.” Underscoring the point, we pass the rusty ruins of the original Heaven’s Hill distillery. When it burned, it destroyed an estimated 4 percent of the world’s bourbon. Precautions are very, very good.

After navigating the backcountry roads, we reach Maker’s Mark HQ in Loretto, Kentucky. It resembles a pastoral college campus, with manicured lawns, a gurgling creek and low-slung structures painted black, the bright-red shutters featuring cutouts of a Maker’s bottle. Samuels parks. We stroll to the boardroom to discuss the news that sent bourbon fans into an old-fashioned tizzy. For the first time, Maker’s Mark is expanding its wax-capped portfolio.

Except for a few brief stretches, the Samuels clan has distilled since 1783. But when Bill Samuels, Sr., launched what would become Maker’s Mark in 1953, “there was no respect for bourbon,” Samuels says, surrounded by black-and-white photos of family friends with names such as Van Winkle and Beam—you know, the fathers of bourbon. Back in the ’50s, bourbon was harsh and burning, so Senior concocted a smooth easy-sipper. Wife Marge designed the wax-dipped bottle and hand-torn label featuring her calligraphy. It looked different. It drank different. It worked. “We grew by concentrating on the quality of one product,” Samuels says.

While Maker’s Mark has never changed, the industry has. America has entered a golden age for the brown spirit. Hit Char No. 4 or PDT to taste bartenders’ reverence for whiskey and bourbon. While content with the old, dark-spirits-drinkers crave new flavors. It was time for Maker’s to expand the brand—with one stipulation: The new bourbon needed to be as smooth and drinkable as the original. “Bill set out to do the impossible,” says Victoria MacRae- Samuels, the director of operations.

We’re in the tasting room. The president has departed. On the table sits a sample bottle of Maker’s 46. Here’s how it got there: Master distiller Kevin Smith pow-wowed with Brad Boswell, the president of barrel makers Independent Stave. The self-proclaimed “wood chef” struck upon a plan: He’d sear oak staves with radiant heat, so the wood’s innards remained uncooked. The seared staves were then lowered into a barrel of finished Maker’s Mark bourbon. Every few weeks, a tasting panel would taste the progress.

“We’d smell it and go, ‘Oh, man, this is really it.’ Then we’d take a sip and say, ‘This is so not it,’” MacRae-Samuels recalls. Boswell had faith. “You just have to wait,” he said. They did. After two-plus months of seasoning, the seared wood— profile No. 46—worked its oaky magic. Maker’s 46 was born. “It’s not better than Maker’s Mark, it’s different. They’re cousins,” MacRae-Samuels says, pouring us a measure of Maker’s original.

I sip. It’s smooth, sweet and mellow, sliding to my stomach as gently as a falling feather. Next, I test-drive 94-proof 46. The scent of bread baked in a wood-fired oven is sublime, as is the taste. It blooms warm and bright on my tongue, building to a woodsy spiciness that recalls cinnamon. But there’s no burn, only a tempered sweetness that lingers after each sip.

“What do you think?” MacRae-Samuels asks.

“I think,” I reply, rolling the amber elixir around the glass, “I want another drink.”

Read—and vote for—the original article at the New York Press home page.

Gut Instinct: Brief Encounters

Who wants pizza?!

The halogen-bright morning sun beat down on my crusted eyelids.

Opening them felt like I was prying the top of an ancient jar of mustard.

To my right, my girlfriend’s carcass was comatose, immune to meddlesome light. I stood and stretched. My back snapped and crackled like bubble wrap, my muscles sore and flu-achy. Perhaps it was the tub of Buffalo Trace bourbon I consumed the previous eve, but it took several beats to make an important realization: Well, I thought, it looks like I’ve lost my pants and underwear.

Had our hissing radiator turned our apartment as hot as Hades, forcing me to shed clothes like a dog does fur? I typed a Google search into my bourbon-shrouded brain, yielding no results. Now, I should’ve pulled on pajamas or shorts. But my girlfriend and I recently ditched our roommate and, for the first time, we control the entire apartment. It’s unfettered freedom: The fridge features a dedicated beer shelf. I can play ear-splitting, early ’90s indie rock. Most happily, however, I can make a sandwich or a pot of coffee without wearing pants.

“Even cavemen have better manners,” my girl complained. “I can do what I want: I pay the rent here,” I replied.

“Half the rent,” she sighed, shutting her office door and turning up the volume on The Biggest Loser.

I blame my bear-naked dining on my dear old dad. During my youth, he’d often strut around home wearing his white briefs. “Will you at least wear a shirt?” I’d squeak, shirking at the spectacle of the grey chest rug that awaited my future. It was like gazing into a furry crystal ball. “Who pays the rent around here?” he’d ask rhetorically. Then he’d head into the kitchen to grab a glass of icy Diet Coke or cut a slice of Entenmann’s coffee cake.

Instead of advocating semi-nudity, I think this is my father’s takeaway lesson: At home, you can do as you damn well please. Want to pee with the bathroom door open? Drop your drawers and don’t lock the door! Go on, stick your finger in the peanut butter jar. Your house is your kingdom, where pleasure and comfort are paramount— snacking in your skivvies included.

Now, exceptions exist to my hastily penned, half-cooked hypothesis. While it’s OK to nosh while unclothed, it’s a no-no to eat food off of another human. Case in point: that troubling trend concerning a nude woman doubling as sushi serving platter. Call me a prude—sure, I know about the magical combo of nipples and Reddi- Wip—but there’s nothing appealing about plucking a California roll from a lady’s stubbly crevice.

Also, summer aside, one should always be fully clothed while consuming alcohol. Here’s a handy parable: My freshman year of college, my next-door neighbor was lanky Cowboy Craig, thus named because he wore Stetsons and talked like a Southerner. One night, I knocked on his door to borrow a pen. “Come in,” Cowboy Craig drawled, his words thick and honeyed. I entered his lair, dark as Darth Vader, and saw Cowboy Craig sitting by a window. Moonlight glinted off his jug of Jack Daniel’s, a few inches from empty. He wore nothing but briefs and a smile.

“Are you OK, Craig?” I asked, unsure if I wanted an answer. “Never better.” He passed me a pen.Then he took a long, slow swallow of tan whiskey and smiled. It was a beguiling grin that said, “Hey, buddy, glad to see you” and “While you sleep, I’m going to sneak into your bedroom and use your intestines as sausage casings.” I returned to my room as quick as a mouse, locking the door double tight.

And so, after all this soapbox stumping, we find ourselves back at the beginning: watching me in my birthday suit, hangover throbbing, the only sound my rumbling stomach.While my sweetheart slept, I crept into the kitchen and cracked the fridge as quietly as a jewel thief. I pondered a bowl of creamy homemade cabbage soup, but that might make me gassy—a rather unappealing notion when nude. I also vetoed the acidic Macintosh apples, but hidden beneath a head of wilted romaine lettuce I found my appetite’s answer: a Tupperware container filled with a friend’s frosted pumpkin cupcakes.

I selected a well-frosted specimen and peeled away the foil. I took a chipmunk nibble. It tasted sweet and illicit—dessert as breakfast, breakfast in the buff. I gobbled the first cupcake and, with no one looking, reached for another, the crumbs dropping into warm nooks and crannies that best remain unwritten. C