Meet the roving distillers who make whisky on the move

Meet the roving distillers who make whisky on the move

Not all distillers put down roots – and that's nothing new

People | 28 Mar 2022 | Issue 181 | By Liza Weisstuch

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Fort Hamilton Distillery is on the second floor of a taupe, cement-faced building at Industry City, a sprawling old manufacturing hub that stretches across 35 waterfront acres. The site counts restaurants, retailers, design studios and creative businesses among its tenants. With its high ceilings, neutral tones and stone floors, the distillery should be a cold, industrial space, but the interior design – featuring lots of stools, old barrels and bar spaces – lends it a warm, welcoming feel.

At the bar, visitors can order a taste of Fort Hamilton’s cask strength, four-year-old rye; double-barrel rye; double-barrel bourbon; and a smartly curated selection of boozy, stirred cocktails. In the next room, visible through a windowed wall behind the bar, are dozens of barrels and a bottling system – the stills have not arrived yet. In March 2020, just as construction of this new distillery was reaching its zenith, Covid shut the whole thing down. Now, after nearly two years of delay, a still is on its way to Brooklyn in January.
Liba Spirit’s Lafcadio botanical rum with a New Orleans mural

A co-owner of Fort Hamilton is Alex Clark, a Londoner who bartended his way through college, then moved to New York for a job in banking, but quickly discovered he was more comfortable stirring drinks than trading bonds. In 2011, after stints behind the bars of some of Manhattan’s most notable establishments, like Keith McNally’s Balthazar and Sasha Patraske’s East Side Company, he took a job as director of sales for Widow Jane, a Brooklyn distillery that was just getting started. Widow Jane sourced rye whiskey from Midwest Grain Products (MGP) of Indiana, while figuring out how to create a patently New York–style rye whiskey.

Figuring out that New York mark of distinction continued to consume Clark, who took it upon himself to explore the question further by founding his own operation in 2015, Fort Hamilton Distillery, with his wife, Amy Grindeland. He started making rye whiskey at Black Dirt Distillery, a facility in Warwick, New York, about 60 miles northwest of Manhattan. He developed the recipe through research on the history of regional rye and what he calls “good old trial and error”, before having it produced on Black Dirt’s equipment. When Black Dirt was purchased by Proximo, the US import arm of Jose Cuervo Tequila producer Becle, in 2018, he moved production to Taconic Distillery, 90 miles north of Manhattan. Taconic is where Fort Hamilton’s spirit has been made ever since. In December 2021, Clark had over 500 barrels of whiskey ageing onsite in Industry City and in a warehouse in Brooklyn.
Devon Trevathan and Colton Weinstein, co-founders of Liba Spirits

Clark is what could be called a ‘gypsy distiller’, a term familiar to anyone who followed the rise of craft brewing in the 1990s and early 2000s. Beer makers would travel from brewery to brewery collaborating, learning, apprenticing, consulting and more. Others distillers who move around and work out of other people’s distilleries describe themselves nomadic, itinerant or roving. One such person describes himself simply as a ‘restless’ distiller.

Though such roving may seem unusual today, the tradition of itinerant distilling stretches back centuries. In Europe, people would travel the countryside with stills, making alcohol along the way for farmers who wanted to make use of excess crop. This practice is still relatively common in some countries, particularly in France.
Colton at work

For Clark, the decision to distil elsewhere was a financial matter. Instead of investing in all the equipment up front, he essentially rents out someone else’s. “This is an issue of economics. Being able to gypsy distil does de-risk the situation. If you look at it bluntly, it may not be ideal – wouldn’t it be lovely if everyone could afford a US$2 million distillation system,” he said, noting that barrels are also a major expenditure, as are labour and raw materials, like grains. “Gypsy distilling has a place in the world. It’s looked down on by purists, but without it, everyone is drinking more of the same sourced whiskey.”

Indeed, Clark’s distilling practices mark the difference between buying someone else’s aged whisky and distilling one’s own recipe on someone else’s equipment. It decentralises the industry, giving people more options than the behemoth whisky sources in Indiana and Kentucky. As a bonus, the fees Clark pays to use the equipment offsets some of the distillery owner’s costs. “It creates a more honest marketplace [with] more choice, more diversity. If I couldn’t gypsy distil, I’d have to use someone else’s recipe. That’s silly,” Clark added.
Toasting the Austrian mountains with Liba Spirits

If Clark’s model could be called Nomadic Distilling 1.0, what Devon Trevathan and Colton Weinstein do is something else entirely. The pair met when they both worked at Corsair, the Tennessee distillery known for its prolific production of, and focus on, experimental whiskies. Trevathan was running the front-of-house operations and Colton was head distiller. The pair were a couple at the time, and their shared passion for distilling and travel coalesced into what became Liba Spirits, the company they founded that spoke to both of those obsessions.

Here’s how it works: the pair visit a distillery, stay a month – give or take a few days – and spend time not just watching and learning the distillation practices of the site, but borrowing them to make their own product. They pay for raw materials and use of the equipment, and then they sell the final product under the Liba label. Their first release, 1643 Alpine Gin, is the product of their stay at a distillery in the Austrian Alps, while Lafcadio botanical rum was made during a stint at a New Orleans distillery.
Team Liba Spirits at Porchjam Distillery in New Orleans

“There are a lot of individual choices people make that are responsible for a final product. We want to be able to explore and see different methods and cultural contexts and historical influences [impacting] why people make spirits the way they do,” said Trevathan. “It’s kind of like ‘ghost distilling’. We’re doing it on our own, we’re the final arbiters of what the product tastes like, but we want to hear what the people we respect think. It’s very collaborative when we’re there.”

If Weinstein and Trevathan’s modus operandi is Nomadic Distilling 2.0, then 3.0 is what Lisa Wicker does. Wicker is the head distiller and blender at Widow Jane, in Brooklyn, but her livelihood has and continues to involve quite a bit of roving. She regularly tags her Instagram posts with #itinerantdistiller. (It’s sheer coincidence that both Clark, a former Widow Jane employee, and Wicker have links to the same Brooklyn distiller.)
Team Liba in the Porchjam warehouse

With a career that expanded sunburst-like from a start in winemaking, Wicker’s trajectory brings to mind that nugget of wisdom from French scientist Louis Pasteur: “Fortune favours the prepared mind.” To hear Wicker tell the sequence of events, the impossibly vast body of knowledge she accumulated led to her connecting with industry kingpins, but also vice-versa. Causality aside, as her sprawling network took shape, one distillery job led to another, and, ultimately, she landed at Widow Jane – sort of. She also distils Widow Jane whiskeys at Castle & Key Distillery in Kentucky, because, she says, the team cannot produce enough in New York to keep up with projected sales. Unlike many contract-distilling arrangements, Wicker is typically onsite during distillation at Castle & Key, using her own protocols for mashing, fermentation and distillation.

Wicker is also the senior consulting distiller at George Washington’s Distillery at Mount Vernon, a historically accurate recreation of the distillery that the Founding Father ran as a commercial operation after his presidency. The site is located on the former President’s estate outside of Washington, DC. Wicker helps with distilling and maintains the integrity of the antique – and antique-style – instruments, equipment and overall process. As a result, Wicker is constantly zig-zagging between Kentucky; New York City; Washington, DC; and conferences everywhere else – and she wouldn’t have it any other way.
Lisa Wicker blending at Widow Jane

“It might have been better if I’d been settled somewhere, but probably not. I wouldn’t have the base of knowledge I have,” she said. “I love walking into a distillery and seeing how everything is laid out differently. There are so many problems to solve all the time – from the infrastructure of the building to the layout to how the grain is grown and handled. It’s exciting every time I walk into a new distillery.”

No discussion about nomadic distillers would be complete without giving attention to the late Dave Pickerell, who travelled far and wide to seed the vast industry we know today. Sometimes, he’d help build a distillery from scratch. Other times, he’d arrive to smooth out the kinks or to help source barrels for blending and bottling. Some of his most high-profile projects were Whistle Pig whiskey and metal band Metallica’s Blackened American whiskey. His work was straightforward consulting, but he certainly qualifies as a roving whiskey maker.
The late, great Dave Pickerell

“There were a lot of distillers who wanted his opinion and perspective. People wanted him to weigh in on the character of their spirit. To me, that’s the premise of an itinerant distiller. You are bringing your own perspective to that place and he certainly did that,” said Nicole Austin, general manager and distiller at Cascade Hollow Distilling Company, home of George Dickel. In 2012, she was Pickerell’s first hire to his fledgling consultancy, Oak View Spirits, which eventually helped launch over 100 distilleries around the world.

“He enjoyed that because it allowed him stretch into different concepts. Any distiller would enjoy the chance to explore the limits of creativity in different places,” she said. “I would love to be able to do that – to make whiskey in different climates and work with different local suppliers and explore maturation in different conditions.”

But for all the times Pickerell extended his reach and touched on a new idea, he’d always come back to the foundation of history, a passion he got to express as he consulted at George Washington’s Mount Vernon Distillery. It’s as though the further he strayed in all his travels, the more important it was to value home.
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