Jersey By The Glass
A bourbon trail rises
When you think bourbon, New Jersey may not be the first place that comes to mind. Yet interest in “granddad’s spirit” is rising, especially among younger imbibers. Stop into any bar worth its salt, and you’re bound to encounter riffs on the Manhattan or Boulevardier alongside new creations. And these days, Kentucky isn’t the only game in town. An increasing number of Jersey distilleries are offering their spin on the Bluegrass State’s most famous export, so those classic cocktails may just be crafted with a hometown spirit.
Of more than a dozen licensed distilleries in the state, five offered bourbon as we went to press. More have it on the way, which is an exciting development even beyond the glass. Though certain grains like barley are difficult to source here, most Jersey distilleries are partnering with local farmers for everything from corn to rye.
In that sense, our bourbon offers a taste of Jersey by the glass.
A sister spirit to whiskey, bourbon is a marriage of fermented corn (at least 51%) and grain, water, charred American oak and time. As it rests in the barrel, the liquor takes on the characteristics of the charred wood. Distillers can manipulate aging speed through barrel size, water content, and other factors. To be considered a “straight” bourbon, the liquid must spend at least two years aging. At the four-year mark, the bottle no longer needs to state the spirit’s age. Accelerated or otherwise, time is where the flavor happens. As fluctuations in temperature push the liquid in and out of the barrel walls, flavor and color are extracted. How that process is managed is the distiller’s fingerprint. Within legal constraints, there is quite a bit of art.
Talk to the distillers and their admiration for tradition rings clear: Each has deep respect for the history that underlies this all-American drink, including locally. “We get people who come in all of the time and tell us stories about their grandfathers being bootleggers in this area,” says James Bednar, co-owner, president and chief distiller at Silk City Distillers in Clifton.
“We’re really kind of nerdy about our process.”
—James Bednar, Silk City Distillers
Bednar (center) is co-owner, with brother John (left) and Timothy Paul
He and his peers see great promise in the (legal) bourbon reawakening. “The old guys have always been into it,” reflects James Yoakum, founder and chief distiller at Camden’s Cooper River Distillers. “There’s still that contingent of old men who love it and are into it, and that’s great. But the younger people have really grasped on to bourbon and rye.”
Score one for cocktail culture, and it’s an evolution that tends to stick: “Once you go bourbon, you don’t go back,” Bednar says. Sip your way across these tasting rooms, and you’ll find that each has a personality all its own.
That makes a weekend on the Jersey Bourbon Trail a delicious proposition.
COOPER RIVER DISTILLERS
34 N. Fourth St., Camden
One of the best places for a cocktail in Camden County is hidden in a converted garage in its namesake city. As Riverline trains rattle by, a mix of locals and out-of-towners line the bar at Cooper River Distillers for Old-Fashioneds—some choosing bourbon, some rye. In either case, there’s a direct link to Kentucky in the form of founder and master distiller James Yoakum.
His Cooper River Bourbon Whiskey, which clocks in at 86-proof, was first released in February 2017, with a second bottling in September. An homage to Yoakum’s home state, it aspires toward tradition but on a craft scale. That starts with its distillation in an 80-gallon, direct-flame heated pot still where bold, full-bodied flavor is coaxed from the grain. “It’s super old school and super hands-on,” Yoakum explains of the fire-based process.
Bourbon, however, wasn’t part of his upbringing. For one thing, he is from southwestern Kentucky, where tobacco farms and country ham prevail. He also moved to Philadelphia for college at 18. Yet when he pursued distilling, his heart turned back toward home. During a holiday visit, a barn distiller near his hometown of Hopkinsville, MB Roland, showed him what a workable craft approach might look like. The rest is history.
“The goal all along has been to be a bourbon distillery, for that to be the product we hang our hat on,” Yoakum reflects. “When I moved away, I started to want something to connect to.” That said, he finds ample inspiration here, from the beauty of the Salem County farms where he sources corn and rye to his decidedly more urban location. “If you go to Kentucky, they’re going to talk about how their climate there, hot summers and cold winters, affects the way their barrels age,” Yoakum says. “We’re in a garage in downtown Camden. Whatever the weather is like down here, whatever the climate is, that’s what we get. That’s part of the romance.”
Yoakum and his team took time to perfect their recipe before recently ramping up production. So, it will take some barrel time before larger runs hit the shelves. But that seems fitting: Bourbon, after all, is a spirit that rewards patience.
Catfish quest: Asked what he misses about home, Yoakum says it’s the catfish restaurants. “That’s a meal I always miss, the catfish and hushpuppies and coleslaw, all the fixings.” If you have a tip, send it our way.
PINE TAVERN DISTILLERY
149A Pine Tavern Rd., Monroeville
A visit here could make you think you’d been tele-transported to Kentucky. Pine Tavern Distillery’s four-season tasting room, which features removable walls come winter, is nestled at the back of Hidden Pond Farm in Monroeville. To find it, follow the path that winds past production fields that shimmer green come summertime.
This family operation opened in 2016 and launched its Fenwick’s New Salem Single Barrel Bourbon in September. As it happens, the liquor took a road trip of its own. The farm distillery is small in terms of square footage and still space, so head distiller William Cox contracted with an Owensboro, Kentucky firm to make the base spirit using his mash bill—a.k.a., recipe. After a short spell there, it is delivered to Salem County where it is cut, blended and barreled for a minimum of six months.
After catching craft-spirits fever during a visit to Rick Wasmund’s Virginia-based Copper Fox Distillery, Cox attended a seminar run by Yoakum, who he credits as an early mentor. Then he was off and running. “Bourbon and whiskey are the reason we started this,” Cox says.
Currently, the distillery has 750 barrels of rye and bourbon biding time in the loft above the tasting bar. Both pay homage to Salem County founder John Fenwick, with a portion of every sale donated to the county historical society. The 96-proof bourbon is a hint sweet, with a touch of burn. “We like to drink ours a little bit hotter than most,” Cox explains. “Most people like it around 80-proof, but to me, it takes away a lot of the characteristics of the bourbon.” The higher the proof, the greater the burn.
JERSEY SPIRITS DISTILLING CO.
1275 Bloomfield Ave., Building 7, Unit 40B, Fairfield
Master distiller John Granata sees distilling as both science and art. That’s a logical perspective coming from a former restaurateur (Evergreen, Upper Montclair) whose dad is a chemist. “We’re guided by taste,” he says of Jersey Spirits, which he co-owns with partners Sue Lord and Betty MacDonald. “Bourbon has such a rich history, uniquely American. We’re just trying to make things as purely as possible.”
That begins with sourcing locally, though there are some necessity- based exceptions. “Obviously, we don’t have sugarcane,” Granata jokes. His resulting line-up of spirits evokes Jersey history and folklore, including two distinct bourbons: Crossroads and Patriot’s Trail. The former, a four-grain comprised of corn, rye, wheat and barley malt aged for six months in American oak, was the first to be manufactured and released here since before Prohibition, Granata says. (See: Edible Jersey, Spring 2016, “Five Craft Beer & Spirits in Fairfield.”) His holy grail is balance: sweetness from the corn, smooth mouthfeel from the wheat.
Patriot’s Trail, a “high rye” bourbon, was made for Manhattans, which reside close to the distiller’s heart. Rye brings a spicy character to the glass that has made it a favorite of mixologists in recent years. “My parents got me into Manhattans a long time ago,” Granata says, tracing his culinary perspective to an Italian-American childhood where traditions surrounding food and drink intertwined. “It’s almost like cooking. When I design a recipe, I look to what the grain has to offer and try to design something that has a nice balance. With bourbon, it’s 51% or more corn, but the other grains are undefined so you can really delve into it—though less, sometimes, is more.”
Granata sees the bourbon horizon fast expanding. “Before craft, there were 350 bourbon brands in the US made by just seven distilleries,” he says. As a small producer, he’s free to hone in on specific flavor characteristics, and to tease nuance at the fermentation stage, where “off” flavors like horse blanket or vinegar can be tapped for transformation into toffee and sweet pineapple. A new batch of Patriot’s Trail is aging, so expect a re-release in early 2018.
Jersey Spirits hosts mixology classes for drinkers who want to upgrade their home bartending game
25 Commerce Rd., Unit K, Fairfield
These days, a pipeline from brewer to distiller is emerging in tandem with the rise of craft spirits. Such was the journey for Chris DeGasperis, head distiller at Claremont Distillery and the guiding force behind its 88-proof bourbon, Tracks & Rails. It was released in its second batch in September. “I saw Moonshiners on TV, and I was like, man, they really know their stuff,” the long-time bourbon and Scotch fan recalls. Then he had an aha moment: A bulk of the process was fermentation, old hat for a brewer.
He moved from Shawnee Craft Brewing in Pennsylvania to Brooklyn’s Van Brunt Stillhouse before ultimately landing here in 2014, where he tends a collection of large hybrid and pot stills, the latter of which gives rise to Claremont’s bourbon. “In one month, this has already outsold all of our other products,” DeGasperis says, noting that bourbon drinkers tend to be adventurous. That impulse is served here in the form of the second commercially available five-grain bourbon in the US, which brings together corn, rye, wheat, malted barley and 5% oat.
“When I was in Brooklyn, we messed around with all sorts of different grains. Oats give a little bit of mouthfeel and body, and brewers use it nowadays in some IPAs.”
Passing an hour with bartender and former sommelier Michael Haluska is reason enough to visit. Steeped in the lore of North Jersey’s bar scene dating to the early seventies, he’s a natural storyteller with a mind for boozy history and solid Manhattan skills. “There’s something unique and different about a craft distillery,” he says. That includes a touch of Prohibition spirit and rising appreciation for distilled spirits, though to be clear, this operation is fully on the up and up. “During Prohibition, they had to be discreet, and beer was harder. It was hard to conceal, rolling the kegs around, so the speakeasies were cocktail bars.”
Looking toward the future, Claremont is eyeing production of a four-year straight whiskey, mellowed and sweetened over time. Stay tuned.
SILK CITY DISTILLERS
321 River Rd., Unit 5, Clifton
There is something inherently poetic about a roomful of aging bourbon, air perfumed by the so-called “angel’s share,” which evaporates from the barrel over time. At Silk City Distillery, however, there is more to the equation. To peer across the pale oak barrels arranged in tidy lines is to observe a living archive of ideas. Head distiller, president and co-owner James Bednar is a self-described bourbon geek who sweats the micro-details. He is as enchanted by yeast strains as by distillation chemistry, going so far as to co-design his still. This obsession comes to life beautifully in the tasting room, which is approachable despite the “geeky” backdrop.
“We’re set up like a traditional bourbon distillery,” Bednar explains, from steam-injected equipment to the use of a converted dairy tank mash tun for fermentation. Wide but low, it offers the distiller easier access to his mash than the vertical equivalent. Yet the alchemy that unfolds through such time-tested steps—mashing, distillation, fermentation—takes unexpected turns in his hands.
The bourbon-focused distillery, which Bednar co-owns with brother John and Timothy Paul, operates as an artisanal workshop and laboratory. Wild or left-of-center ideas are investigated down to the most minute detail and translated into unique spirits that intrigue the palate. “We’re really kind of nerdy about our process,” he explains. This makes sense when John mentions that the brothers come from a family of engineers. The bourbon that results showcases the ethos of a new guard that takes cues from the craft-beer movement while pushing the boundaries of their craft. “We like to touch on non-standard products, things you wouldn’t find from a major producer,” Bednar says.
Ask about his current projects to see him light up. “Big-oat” bourbon, which coats the palate and offers a long finish, is part of an alternative-grain series that will expand to include quinoa and millet. Dark bourbon with roasted malt barley carries chocolate, cocoa and coffee notes. Then there’s the Newark bourbon crafted in collaboration with East Coast Yeast, which sourced a native ale pitching yeast from the long-shuttered remains of the Ballantine Brewery.
“Ballantine’s yeast strain is a famous, famous, famous strain of yeast,” Bednar says. “It was never something that was publicly available, so if you wanted it, you would have had to have stolen it.” When the brewery was purchased by the Falstaff Brewing Corporation in 1971, the Newark brewery was shuttered. Microbiologist and self-described “yeast wrangler” Al Buck, owner of East Coast Yeast, was able to sample strains of the original Old Newark Ale yeast from the site, the roots of which date to the 1840s. While it has cropped up on the beer circuit since, this will be its first spin in a bourbon, where it adds fruit and floral notes. Other mixed-culture projects are in the works, placing Silk City among a handful of distilleries nationally that are picking up a lost art steeped in early 20th-century rum research, where byproducts of the distillation process resulted in unique bacterial combinations.
At its heart, bourbon expresses the alchemy of corn, grain, water, oak, temperature and time. Here, it is also cerebral and delicious. If you’re not at aficionado level, fear not. The team runs a friendly operation and are happy to geek at your level, whether you want to go into bourbon’s organoleptic (sensory) qualities or simply sip and chat. Though they love to go deep, the goal is to produce distinct bourbons that ask you to slow down and ponder.
Silk City released a 100% Jersey rye last year
IN THE BARREL
Also watch these distilleries, which have plans to introduce bourbons of their own.
- Nauti Spirits, Cape May
- Sourland Mountain Spirits, Hopewell
- Asbury Park Distilling Co., Asbury Park
To be a legal bourbon, a spirit must be:
- Crafted in the US and made from at least 51% corn
- Distilled to no more than 160 proof
- Barreled at no more than 125 proof
- Aged in a new, charred oak barrel
- Bottled at a minimum of 80 proof
- Free of artificial flavor or coloring