“As cooks, we understand that consistency is most important,” says Miller, previously the chef/owner of Brooklyn restaurant Rucola. It’s a notable difference from distillers who flaunt the individuality of single-barrel or single-batch spirits.
He seasons his spirits like a chef, too.
“There’s a small amount of salt in every batch to bring out flavors,” he says. “That’s something I learned from cooking. It makes it more interesting and complex.”
Miller is one of several New York City distillers of whiskey, amaro, vermouth and other spirits who came from the bar and restaurant industry. Nearly 20 years after legislation revolutionized how people can distill and sell spirits in New York State, the city is flush with bottles from practitioners from all corners of the hospitality business.
At one time, New York State was home to hundreds of distilleries. After Prohibition, however, there were none until 2003, when Ralph Erenzo founded Tuthilltown Distillery in the Hudson Valley (the distillery was bought by William Grant in 2017).
Erenzo’s work led to legislative changes that eventually became the 2007 Farm Distillery Act, the law that set New York state’s craft distilling renaissance in motion.
In 2014, the Craft New York Act relaxed regulations further. New York farm distilleries, defined as those that contain a minimum of 75% New York-grown raw agricultural materials, could conduct tastings and serve drinks by the glass. That paved the way for distilleries to open cocktail bars that employed bartenders and served as community hubs.
These operations boomed. By the end of 2016, the number of farm distilleries nearly doubled to 107, according to figures from the New York State governor’s office. By 2020, the number of craft distilleries, including but not limited to farm distilleries, across the state swelled to 178, according to the American Craft Spirits Association.
‘How we drink and what we drink’
What the numbers don’t show is who is making these ascendant New York spirits.
Cory Fitzsimmons and Jess McGlinchey, cofounders of Method Vermouth, started making vermouth while working behind the bar at NYC’s Union Square Café.
“We started by making tinctures in the basement, own bitters program, amaros,” says Fitzsimmons. “We started by sous viding everything in the basement of a restaurant.”
“Our goal was to make it closer to what the kitchen was known for, using local ingredients, sourcing from local breweries and distilleries,” says Fitzsimmons.
While a handful of NY-made vermouths existed, they often were too experimental or esoteric to yield familiar results in the classic cocktails Union Square Café tended to serve.
“Our challenge was to make something familiar,” he says.
In late 2018, Fitzsimmons and McGlinchey left the restaurant, and in 2020 launched a Torino-style sweet vermouth. A dry vermouth is currently in the works.
The distilling team at Manhattan whiskey-maker Great Jones Distilling Co., which opened on August 18, also includes a hospitality pro. In addition to Head Distiller Celina Perez, who transitioned over from Owney’s, Assistant Distiller Jelani Johnson’s bona fides include bartending stints at Gage & Tollner and Clover Club.
As more distillery pros hail from New York bars and restaurants instead of corporate suites, it diversifies New York City’s beverage landscape.
“Any time there’s more diversity, you’re getting more perspectives and a broader perspective on approach,” says Fitzsimmons. “You’re getting more complexity in the samples. You’ll get a better result. That’s diversity of all kinds—background, living experience, everything.”