Tireless Quest For Spreading Gin Across America
By Stephen Palahach
Steven DeAngelo, founder and head distiller of Greenhook Gin in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood, barely blinks when he says his goal is to be recognized as America’s best gin distillery.
The Bay Ridge, Brooklyn native and lifelong gin aficionado started producing his signature American Dry Gin during the tail end of the 2008 economic crisis, in spite of the financial risks involved in starting up such a complex operation. Distilling was a relatively new frontier in modern-day New York City, which began reissuing distilling licenses for the first time since Prohibition in 2002.
While many distilleries set out to produce a wide range of spirits, DeAngelo’s approach to the business was more focused; as a long time gin drinker, he was already set on the category as the spirit he wanted to make his own. Forever popular in the United Kingdom, gin can be a harder sell to a generation of Americans raised on whiskey and vodka. Fortunately, by the time he got started on Greenhook Gin, public drinking habits and cocktail culture were already starting to shift. For DeAngelo, that timing was crucial. “You’ve gotta give the bartenders a good deal of credit for getting people to drink gin again,” he says. “It had become, for the most part, a forgotten spirit.”
In 2008, DeAngelo set up shop on the northern edge of Greenpoint, on a small street full of industrial warehouses near the East River. Now featuring colorful graffiti displays, streets crowded with semi-trucks, and factory smoke billowing forth, Greenpoint was once a lush area where greenery and vegetation flourished. A group of early Dutch settlers, who had been acquiring land in the area since the mid-1600s, allegedly bestowed the moniker Grownnhook on the verdant land. DeAngelo named his gin Greenhook to honor this pastoral history of the neighborhood. Incidentally, a portion of his home of Bay Ridge was once called Yellowhook, for its yellow sand beaches.
The Greenhook Gin warehouse, wedged between auto shops and industrial lots, might not scream prime real estate, but its ample indoor space allows DeAngelo to produce his gin to exacting specifications. The flagship American dry gin is vapor distilled, a technique historically used in perfume production. The copper pot still is attached to a vacuum-sealed chamber, allowing for distillation to occur at a lower temperature, which results in a more delicate infusion of botanicals in the final distillate. Vapor distillation preserves the pure essences of the herbs and botanicals in the final product. DeAngelo prefers this method, as other high-heat processes may ruin the subtleties brought forth by each component. “It’s like when you’re making Italian tomato sauce over the stovetop. You have this great-smelling fresh basil, but as soon as you toss it into the sauce, the heat destroys that aroma,” DeAngelo explains. “Gin distillation presents the same problem. By vapor distilling, you get a gin that’s very bright and very vibrant.””
After resting in massive stainless steel barrels, the gin is cut with reverse osmosis-treated New York City water, a process that gives a crisp, clear appearance to a spirit mixed with mineral-rich water. It then goes through a basic but powerful filtration pump that resembles a steampunk accordion. Why filter gin that’s already been cut with neutral water? Even with the amount of control DeAngelo exerts into every aspect of the process, the distillery is ultimately in an old warehouse, and no one wants a speck of dust in their Martini.
A high quality spirit deserves equally high-quality packaging. According to DeAngelo, the bottling process is often treated as an afterthought. “Bottling is probably the least appreciated and least considered part of beverage making,” he says. At Greenhook, everything is washed, filled, and sealed by hand. “We do everything by hand, not just because I’m a type-A control freak, but we actually found automation to be less accurate.”
When it came to bottle design, DeAngelo tracked down the UK-based agency threebrand, who had created assets he admired for Compass Box Scotch. He felt even more akin to the company when he discovered the designers happened to operate out of a large river boat docked in Edinburgh, Scotland. The finishing touch on the bottle, a shimmering gold medallion around the neck, is a reminder that the gin was hand-produced out of a copper still.
Out of the bottle, Greenhook American Dry Gin is crisp, floral, and herbaceous, with chamomile and elderflower shining above other familiar components like coriander, citrus, and cinnamon. The noticeably robust juniper content is the spirit’s defining characteristic--a bold flavor more common to the London Dry style, incorporated intentionally to set this gin apart from its American contemporaries.
If Greenhook American Dry Gin is primed for drinkers looking for an exotic alternative to venerable London Dry gins, DeAngelo’s Old Tom gin is all about historical accuracy. The Old Tom style of gin emerged in the eighteenth century as a bridge between Dutch Genever and London Dry. Long before the popularity of the dry Martini, Old Tom was the go-to cocktail gin of its time. Modern bartenders often seek out contemporary Old Tom gins in order to most accurately reproduce classic recipes like the Martinez.
With the knowledge that bartenders were likely to use Old Tom for this express purpose, Steven sought to design his Old Tom to be cocktail friendly. Starting with a pot-distilled grain spirit as a base, DeAngelo adds a further infusion of botanicals and spices. The mix includes almost twice as much juniper as the American Dry Gin, which may sound overwhelming, but the flavor is actually tempered down after two years of aging in former bourbon casks and three months in massive Oloroso sherry casks. Changing the recipe to include such a large amount of juniper turns out to be necessary in balancing out the heavy tannic qualities imparted by barrel aging. “The oak almost acts like an additional botanical,” DeAngelo says.
Greenhook Old Tom Gin has been in production since 2014. Despite the limited space in the distillery, Greenhook manages to pack 70 or so barrels into the warehouse. The Old Tom gin is bottled at 47% in order to stand up to dilution when mixed into cocktails.
Not one to shy away from experimentation, DeAngelo’s most recent distillation endeavor has been beach plum liqueur. “It’s kind of our take on British sloe gin. It turns out we made not only the first American beach plum liqueur, but the first commercial beach plum product.”
Beach plums are unique to the shores of the Northeast, growing wild between the coast of Maine and Maryland. Since cultivating the berries has proven unsuccessful, foraging is the primary method of obtaining the fruit. DeAngelo, who first came to know the beach plums at Plumb Beach near the Rockaways in Brooklyn, sources his plums from two local farms that just so happen to have the shrubs growing along their properties.
The base of the Greenhook Beach Plum Gin is a120-proof version of the American Dry Gin that goes through a seven-month maceration with whole plums. The remaining plums are run through a press, yielding precious residual booze which is also hyper-concentrated from being in such close contact with the fruit. The gin is then sweetened with a simple sugar syrup and filtered with an agent that separates the juicy, tannic leftovers from the press, which takes much longer than the regular filtration process. The spirit rests in glass casks to mellow and lightly oxidize, which lends a nutty finish to the product.
“This turned out to be a less commercially successful product, but it put us on the map because it showed we were committed to doing new and interesting things.”
As for the current state of American gin trends, DeAngelo thinks we can learn a little something from Spanish gin-and-tonic culture. He reminds us to resist pouring so much gin into our gin and tonics and to always seek out a quality tonic, or risk ruining the gin entirely.
That tendency towards restraint is fitting for DeAngelo; whether he’s drinking gin or making it from scratch, he doesn’t settle for cheap shot cuts. He’s constantly pondering all of the factors that might elevate a spirit from passable to outstanding. His gin products naturally reflect that ethic, which he’ll happily admit is a result of his being “a bit of a control freak” and settling for nothing less than working with ingredients and equipment of the highest quality.
Greenhook Gin started as a small distillery that sought excellence in the burgeoning New York spirits market. Now, with three distinct expressions in full-time production, Greenhook Gin has its sights set on expanding not only from the New York area and into greater New England, but also into the Midwest and the Pacific Coast as well, which are all huge gin markets. “We’re among the top five producers in the city right now,” explains DeAngelo, with a glimmer in his eye that hints at how his ambition to produce the nation’s most outstanding gin is just as strong as when he broke ground on his Brooklyn distillery.