Good Libations: NYC Brewery, Winery and Distillery Tours
Tours & Attractions
by Alyssa Grossman, 04/09/2014
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It's time to raise a glass to the City's homegrown drinking scene. It's no secret New Yorkers have a lot of local pride, and the pros behind these breweries, wineries and distilleries are no exception. For those looking to swig some made-in-NYC libations, read on. These producers will take you on a tour, hand out samples and leave you in high spirits.
Location: Williamsburg, Brooklyn
The story: Brooklyn's relationship with beer runs deep. German immigrants who called the borough home in the 1800s made it a brewing hot spot, with around 45 factories in operation. Over time, all of them closed down. Flash forward to 1988, when Steve Hindy, an Associated Press correspondent, and his neighbor, a lending officer named Tom Potter, opened Brooklyn Brewery. Their signature Brooklyn Lager wasn't brewed in Brooklyn at first, but in 1996, the duo finally set up a local plant for their brewing operations.
On the tour: From Monday to Thursday, reserve a spot for one of the brewery's small-batch tours ($10), which are packed with history and come with four tastings and a complimentary glass. Free tours are hosted every half hour from 1–5pm on Saturdays and 1–4pm on Sundays.
Brewery trivia: Brooklyn Brewery's signature logo is the work of Milton Glaser, an artist familiar to anyone who's seen his famous "I Love NY" logo.
Chelsea Brewing Company
Location: Chelsea, Manhattan
The story: It doesn't get more scenic than Manhattan's sole microbrewery, where parched guests can down a pint while taking in views of the Hudson River. And the libations have pedigree: Mark Szmaida, the man behind the beer, has been at the company's brewing helm for nearly two decades.
On the tour: It's all about ales here, including the aptly named Checker Cab Blonde Ale and Sunset Red Ale, which are always on tap. Throughout the year, the brewery makes close to 25 varieties of beer in its behemoth (by NYC standards) 12,000-square-foot premises. Tour goers get a complimentary beer sample, and tickets to continue drinking go for $4 a pint. To arrange a tour, call the brewery at 212-336-6440.
Brewery trivia: Impressed by all that machinery? You should be. Chelsea Brewing Company has the tools to cap 2,000 bottles an hour and pump out 100,000 cases every year. Cheers to that.
Location: Glendale, Queens
The story: Cofounders Basil Lee and Kevin Stafford got a humble start within New York City's home-brewing community. Years of trying new ingredients and entering competitions led the two to pursue their own operation. Thus, Finback was born. "We're very much about trying to keep our home-brew ethic," says Lee. "It's about a passion for making beer and experimenting and brewing variety."
On the tour: While Finback started brewing back in early 2013 (the pair had used a different name and location for its operations previous to that), it is still in the process of setting up a tasting room and tours—summer 2014 is the projected launch date. Once things get underway, visitors' taste buds are in for a treat: Lee and Stafford often test the boundaries with beer flavors that integrate Szechuan peppercorn, ginger, chocolate, even grapefruit. Tours will cover every facet of the production, including barrel aging.
Brewery trivia: What's in a name? The two founders, both fans of the ocean and coast, named their brewery after a whale that beached itself on the shore at Breezy Point, Queens. They hadn't yet settled on the company's title at the time, and a reference to the marine mammal seemed like the perfect solution.
Gun Hill Brewing Co.
Location: Allerton, Bronx
The story: Gun Hill is one of NYC's newest breweries. Cofounders Dave Lopez and Kieran Farrell played semiprofessional baseball together in the Bronx and always felt a connection to the borough. The two celebrated their grand opening this March, marking the return of brewing to the Bronx.
On the tour: It's quality over quantity here. Gun Hill currently makes four beers: three ales and a stout. The brewery also takes pride in using local ingredients from New York farmers whenever possible. Lopez recommends scheduling weekday tours ahead of time. On weekends, anyone is welcome to swing by during open hours (Sat noon–9pm and Sun noon–7pm) to see the brewing in action.
Brewery trivia: Visitors who know a thing or two about breweries might witness some new sights here. That's because Gun Hill's brewer, Chris Sheehan, customized his dream system for the company.
Location: Astoria, Queens
The story: Extra-hoppy ales and lagers reign supreme, with priority placed on using hops that are more difficult to find. It's all done in the name of creating beers that have a one-of-a-kind taste.
On the tour: It's easy to see how much pride SingleCut's proprietors have in perfecting their process. The brewery will be mixing up several seasonal varieties in addition to six beers available year-round, including the 19-33 Queens Lagrrr (the brewery's preferred spelling of that type of suds). Free tours take place on Saturdays at 3 and 7pm and Sundays at 4pm.
Brewery trivia: Spot the "Beersmiths-mobile" driving around town and flag it down to score a voucher for a complimentary pint in the taproom.
Location: Williamsburg, Brooklyn
The story: Winemaker Conor McCormack has Craigslist to thank for his career path. After studying music in college, the Californian answered an ad looking for a harvest intern, which later led to a job at Sonoma's (now-defunct) Crushpad Winery. In 2010 the Internet advanced his career once again when he connected with Brooklyn Winery's founders, Brian Leventhal and John Stires, via a posting on winejobs.com. Less than a year later, the winemaking operation was up and running on the East Coast.
On the tour: The winery recently relaunched its popular tour and tasting program on Tuesday nights ($35, book online), when curious guests can tour the production space and barrel room, tasting wines along the way. All tours conclude with a curated tasting.
Winery trivia: The building that houses Brooklyn Winery has an eclectic past. It was once a creamery, pickle factory, car dealership, funeral home, art gallery and nightclub.
Location: SoHo, Manhattan
The story: City Winery excels at two things: hosting concerts and making wine. The venue is a cozy space for music performances accompanied by good food and a stellar wine selection. As if growing up in Southern France's Rhône Valley—an area known for its wineries—wasn't enough, chief winemaker David Lecomte has a degree in viticulture and wine making and an advanced one in enology and wine making.
On the tour: Sign up to see where grapes are delivered, mixed and aged and even sample a selection before it's ready for public consumption. After, celebrate your newfound wine knowledge with a three-wine sampling, plus cheese pairings. Tours are $35 and take place throughout the week between 2 and 5pm. Reservations are required.
Winery trivia: For a (hefty) price, budding winemakers can keep a whole or half barrel of their own custom vintage on the premises. Lecomte mentors members through the process, helping them choose grapes and create their dream wines. On ground level, City Winery is equipped with 11 tap lines, prepped to serve wine at the perfect temperature for drinking.
The Red Hook Winery
Location: Red Hook, Brooklyn
The story: Native Brooklynite Mark Snyder started out in the music industry before becoming a wine distributor. Frustrated by the lack of quality wines from the New York growing region, he set up shop in the borough's waterfront neighborhood back in 2008. To produce the label's vintages, Snyder enlisted the help of winemakers Robert Foley and Abe Schoener, two respected Napa experts. The team gets their grapes from 15 vineyards across the state and has put out at least 70 wines to date.
On the tour: Red Hook winery has a long list of proud creations, all small production and all made with custom touches throughout the process. Visitors can choose from a tasting ($5 for three wines) or, on weekends at 1pm, a tour of how Brooklyn does winemaking ($15, includes five wine tastings). There are also private barrel tastings and cheese pairings. Tastings take place during open hours, 11am–5pm daily.
Winery trivia: If you scroll through Red Hook Winery's list of bottles, you'll notice either Foley's or Schoener's name underneath. When grapes arrive they're often divided in half, and the two winemakers get to experiment with the fruit however they see fit. This ensures there's as much emphasis on the wine-making process as there is on the grapes themselves.
Kings County Distillery
Location: Navy Yard, Brooklyn
The story: Cofounder and master distiller Colin Spoelman grew up in Kentucky in "the moonshine part of the country." He moved to NYC and started home distilling in his apartment before applying for a license in 2010 and opening the City's first craft whiskey distillery in some 80 years.
On the tour: "Tours last about an hour, and we go very deep into New York City history," explains Spoelman. Visitors get an education in Kings County Distillery's storied neighborhood (it’s in the Brooklyn Navy Yard) and the production process. Typically, moonshine is offered on tours, but the distillery also has a reputation for its specialty chocolate whiskey.
Distillery trivia: According to Spoelman, the distillery is on the site of the so-called Whiskey Wars of the late 1860s, a time when many more distilleries existed in NYC. Troops would come to adjacent Vinegar Hill to carry out raids on local distilleries that were underreporting production; things came to a head with a major skirmish in the area in December 1869. Today, the drinking experience is far more civil.
New York Distilling Company
Location: Williamsburg, Brooklyn
The story: Allen Katz, Tom Potter (one of the founders of Brooklyn Brewery) and Tom's son, Bill, opened New York Distilling Company in December 2011 with the goal of being "purposefully different." The team focuses on crafting spirits meant for cocktails, and all of the distillery's primary grains are New York grown.
On the tour: Right now, gin takes center stage—three varieties of the spirit are available for tasting—and American rye whiskey should be coming soon. Tours are offered on Saturdays and Sundays from 3–5pm and include a full background on the crew's distilling process, plus a complimentary tasting. After your gin curriculum, feel free to pull up a seat at the attached cocktail bar, The Shanty. Katz recommends the 700 Songs Gimlet, made with Perry's Tot (a "navy-strength" gin), lime juice, simple syrup, cinnamon syrup and Bittermens Hellfire Habanero Shrub cocktail bitters.
Distillery trivia: Perry's Tot gin holds the title of being the highest-proof gin currently distilled in New York State.
The Noble Experiment
Location: East Williamsburg, Brooklyn
The story: Owner and Brooklyn native Bridget Firtle left her job in the finance world to start a rum distillery inspired by Prohibition-era NYC. So far, her one-woman operation has been getting attention from the likes of Forbes, Zagat and The New York Times. It could be the emphasis on local grains and molasses, the level of perfection that only comes from distilling in small batches or Firtle's aversion toward injecting unnecessary colors or flavors.
On the tour: Firtle carries out all the distilling techniques herself, and right now the spotlight is on Owney's NYC Rum. Don't be fooled by the three-ingredient list (yeast, molasses and water from right here in New York); the recipe is only the beginning. Tours and tastings cost $10 and take place on Saturdays at 4pm. To secure a spot, sign up on at tnenyc.com.
Distillery trivia: Owney's NYC Rum is named after a Owen "Owney" Madden, a well-known Hell’s Kitchen gangster, rumrunner and nightclub operator (he ran the famed Cotton Club, in Harlem) in the first part of the 20th century.
Van Brunt Stillhouse
Location: Red Hook, Brooklyn
The story: Distiller Daric Schlesselman's passion for libations started with home brewing. He first tried making beer and later experimented with brandies, gins and rums. Eventually, hobby turned to business and Van Brunt Stillhouse was born.
On the tour: Stop by on Saturdays or Sundays at 2pm or 4pm for a look at the spirits being made. Tours include a tasting of three products: a four-grain American whiskey, a bourbon and a rye that’s only available on-site.
Distillery trivia: Schlesselman explained that, when making their respective alcohols, breweries and distilleries all start with the same process. Distillers keep the grains that a brewer would discard and then add them to the mix, where they're evaporated until the right amount of alcohol is captured. So if you know how to make beer, you're part of the way there.