The Great Brooklyn Vodka Experiment
Vodka, straight up. That’s not an order you hear too often. In this country, at least, vodka is more often a cocktail ingredient than its own autonomous liquid. We appreciate its high proof, but mask the taste with sugary mixers like Red Bull or cranberry juice.
My freshman year in college, in an attempt to remove the flavor of rubbing alcohol, some friends ran a $5 liter of bottom shelf vodka through a Brita filter. The vodka rendered the Brita useless and stubbornly retained its eye-watering odor. The best vodkas on the market, we came to believe, must taste like nothing at all.
The five young men behind Industry City Distillery want to change our minds about vodka. The first project of the City Foundry, a small research and design group that its founders describe as “a research and design collective dedicated to rethinking small-scale manufacturing through science and art,” the distillery is an attempt to create vodka one would gladly drink straight. At the same time, it’s a way to jump-start the City Foundry, which occupies a 6,000-square-foot, sixth-floor warehouse space in Industry City, a now-quiet stretch of Sunset Park, Brooklyn, that was once one of New York’s busiest shipping and manufacturing complexes. Vodka happens to be the first thing they wanted to make.
“We really like making vodka,” says Peter Simon, one of the founders. “But distilling alcohol also turned out to be a great project to get our feet wet. It involves biology, machining, tons of research into physics and chemistry. It gave us a reason to build out our facilities and start producing and selling stuff right away.”
Industry City Distillery is one of many micro-distilleries that have popped up in Brooklyn over the last few years. In 2007, then-governor Eliot Spitzer signed the Farm Distillery Law, which cut annual licensing fees for micro-distilleries in New York State from $50,000 to $15,000. The reduction was crucial for low-budget start-ups. Today, the so-called Brooklyn Spirits Trail features nearly a dozen small-batch distilleries, including Breuckelen Distilling, the Van Brunt Stillhouse and the Kings County Distillery. In contrast to corporate mega-brands like Jack Daniels and Absolut, these upstart spirit purveyors pay homage to the ancient art of distilling by producing their own craft versions of whiskey, rum, grappa, and even moonshine.
Like most of Brooklyn’s craft distillers, the men behind ICD have no background in alcohol. Prior to launching the City Foundry in September 2011, their careers and interests were a study in post-graduate randomness. David Kyrejko, 28, built aquatic ecosystems; Rich Watts, 27, did graphic design; and Peter Simon, 25, was a barista and yoga teacher. Zac Bruner, 27, ran a machine shop in Providence, R.I., and Max Hames, 28, worked as a commercial fisherman in Alaska.
After Kyrejko brainstormed the initial idea for the City Foundry he brought on classmate Watts, who graduated with him from Cooper Union's art school in downtown Manhattan. They recruited Bruner, a longtime friend of Kyrejko’s from summer camp, and Simon got into the mix after he served a coffee to Kyrejko one day. Hames joined the team through a friend of a friend. By the summer of 2011, they had all quittheir respective jobs.
What sets the men of ICD apart from the borough’s other hip new booze makers is that distilling alcohol is only a short-term goal. Many microdistilleries start with vodka because it’s cheaper and easier to make than whiskey, the ultimate American spirit. The low overhead of vodka production allows microdistillers to pay off the cost of their stills while becoming familiar with the distilling process. But the men of ICD say they don’t want to make whiskey, even though they drink it. Instead, they want to make a superior ethanol, the chemical component of vodka. Once they’ve done that, they say, they can move on to other things that might not involve alcohol at all.
Their goal, in essence, was to make craft vodka that is profitable enough to finance new ventures. “It sounds cheeky,” says Simon, “but we wanted booze to pay for the science and future research and development.”
They cobbled together enough money for a few months’ rent, and considered launching a Kickstarter campaign to fund the distillery. Kickstarter, however, does not allow its campaigns to offer alcohol as a reward. Instead, they hurled themselves into the project and committed to making anything they couldn’t afford on-site.
The space contains a mechanical shop, a laboratory, an office space with a print shop, a manufacturing center and a kitchen. Bottles of rum and gin blends line the kitchen’s bright red shelves and serve as inspiration for the distillery’s concoctions.
Simon, the business manager of the operation, explains that most vodka makers order alcohol in bulk and then blend it with their own additives, such as menthol or citric acid. This keeps prices low while making a vast amount of alcohol. But the ICD guys wanted to do more than splash some Brooklyn tap water into the mix and call it a craft product.
They released batch No. 1 after a few months in operation. They gave it to family and friends who supported the endeavor, and set about tweaking the process so that they could produce an alcohol that was good enough to sell. Today they’ve gone through three other versions (No.'s 2, 3 and 4) and sold a total of a “few thousand bottles,” Simon said.
This summer, they stopped numbering the batches and released their final product, Industry Standard, on which they expect to turn a profit. The 750-ml bottles sell for $35 and can be found at around 20 stores, though they hope to increase the number of accounts soon.
The Distillery’s vodka starts not with potatoes but with beets. They chose beets, Kyrejko explains, because they care about the fact that they use land more efficiently, requiring less space and water to grow. To ferment the beets, the group adds water and homegrown yeast, produced in the distillery’s closet-sized bio lab to reduce costs. Fermentation occurs when yeast eats the sugar contained in the beets, creating a waste product of alcohol.
At large-scale vodka distilleries, fermentation takes place in large stainless steel tanks in which the products are combined and stirred. But for small manufacturers, the men of Industry City claim, this method is inefficient. To maximize the amount of alcohol produced, they designed a set of bioreactors—tall glass tubes with bubble-headed tops—with the help of professional glassblowers. Making the tubes is one of the few projects they have outsourced. “It didn’t make sense for us to do,” says Bruner, the quiet tinkerer of the group. “It would have been kind of arrogant.”
The bioreactors allow the group to watch the fermentation as it happens. First, they mix their home-grown yeast with food-grade alginate gum, making tiny spheres called "yeast beads" that float and remain evenly distributed inside the tube. Then, as the sugar rises through the tube, the floating yeast converts it to alcohol, expelling the gas byproduct at the top. The resulting alcohol is captured in a holding vat, where its temperature and pH is closely monitored. At full capacity, a single bioreactor produces 25 gallons of 14-percent alcohol a day. The bioreactors, Simon claims, work eight times faster than a standard fermentation tank, while also reducing the risk of contamination.
The method Industry City employs for distilling its vodka is also unique. Distillation involves heating alcohol containing mixtures so that the alcohol evaporates and leaves the water behind. At traditional distilleries, vodka is heated in large copper stills. The components of the vodka heat up at different temperatures, and traditionally distillers separate into three sections, known as the heads, the hearts and the tails. The heads and tails, which contain bitterness and impurities, are discarded. The hearts remain.
Industry City practices what’s called batch fractional distillation. Using another glass tube, or stripping still, they separate their vodka into 40 sections, rather than just three. After discarding the heads and tails, they’re still left with dozens of bottles. Each contains its own distinct flavor, which represents the chemical components that boil gradually as the heat is raised. They blend their favorites together to make the final product and discard any bottles that taste off.
“In the end, our goal is to make a vodka without the negative aspects we don’t like,” says Simon, whose vodka consumption in college included the almost-undrinkable Orloff brand. “But we’re not criticizing large-scale manufacturers for using different production methods. We just wanted to have complete control over the process.”
It’s easy to lump the founders of Industry City Distillery in with the scores of young, bearded artisans hoping to profit off the Brooklyn brand. But while they grudgingly admit the term “artisanal” applies to their vodka, they see themselves more as scientists than craftsman.
“This isn’t cutesy Brooklyn,” Kyrejko says. “This is a project in efficiency.” They didn’t make their own machinery for the sake of marketability, he adds. They did it because the equipment they needed to make vodka this way didn’t exist.
When I visited earlier this year, Industry Standard was not quite ready for me to try. But I did get a glass of No. 4. Simon proudly plopped it front of me in a mini-beaker, the way a proud Spaniard might present his family-brewed grappa. I took a sip, not quite sure what to expect. Having heard about the 40 different fractionally distilled bottles and their flavors, I was still unsure if my uneducated palate could discern the difference between this and a shot of Smirnoff.
But I could. Rather than provoke a gag reflex, it offered a fruity crispness I’d never encountered outside a glass of wine. I clumsily stumbled over words to describe the taste as Simon sipped his own glass, nodding sagely at my exclamations. I drained my beaker almost before realizing it. Red Bull was not required. You could actually drink this stuff straight.
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Susan E. Matthews is a staff writer at Everyday Health and science writer based in Brooklyn. She, perhaps unfortunately, prefers gin.
Jenny Lederer is a photographer and designer who lives in Brooklyn with her dog, Cheese.