America’s Best Urban Distilleries
You've likely noticed micro-distilleries popping up in cities across the country. A far cry from the bathtub moonshine of Prohibition, these small batch producers thrive on urban craft culture and trial-and-error innovation. Here, Jay Schneider and Charlotte Steinway explore the burgeoning trend of bespoke booze, from Portland to Nashville and beyond.
Clear Creek Distillery pioneered the urban hooch trend, no surprise considering its location in edgy food mecca Portland, OR. Inspired by the fruits of the Pacific Northwest, the company focuses primarily on sweeter brandy and eau-de-vie. “We’ve had orchards in our family for almost a hundred years,” Clear Creek founder Steve McCarthy says. And he’s showing the love to other local farmers, creating a downtown community for sampling visitors and a market for regional produce. “We love Portland…there’s a great community of people who want to get to know their distiller.” He’s right. Clear Creek sits near Distillery Row, a group of six small producers that throw open their doors to thirsty locals and tourists for tours and tastings.
Nashville is home to the grittier Corsair Artisan Distillery and its 100-year-old, pre-Prohibition still (one of the only ones still in existence). With Distiller Darek Bell at its helm, Corsair Artisan aims to bring alt whiskey to the greater spirit world—they even make a batch using quinoa. “I knew we had to take spirits in a different direction to stay ‘fresh,’” he tells us.
The distillery works with other food industry types to extend its reach—top table Catbird Seat turns Corsair alcohol into flavored vinegars. The distillery’s downtown address fuels this spirit of collaboration. “People like things that are made by hand, that are small-batch,” he tells us. And their location in southern whiskey territory doesn’t hurt either.
As the craft liquor movement continues to skew local, the little guys are gaining on the big-name booze brands. Here, we’ve got a rundown of our favorite US distilleries. Much like a good wine, these sips reflect the environment in which they’re produced. Plan a visit and see how these spots are extending farm-to-table from still-to-glass.
Kings County Distillery: Brooklyn, NY
Housed in the 120-year-old Paymaster Building in Brooklyn Navy Yard, Kings County holds the record as New York City's oldest operating whiskey distillery—meaning this place's hooch must be pretty damn good. Its hand-made liquor includes favorites like chocolate whiskey, smooth bourbon, and a strong swash of moonshine. Head there Wednesdays–Saturdays for a 75-minute tour and tasting. Tours are $16 and also cover admission to the Boozeum, an exhibit on distilling history in NYC.
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Old New Orleans Rum Distillery: New Orleans, LA
A faction of Celebration Distillation, Old New Orleans Rum was founded by James Michalopoulos, a celebrated local artist who originally knew more about consumption than production. But after two years of trial and error, he figured out how to channel the region’s sugarcane bounty into some seriously delicious draughts, graduating from a teeny 9th Ward kitchen to the Frenchmen Street warehouse where the company lives today. $15 will get you a tour of the grounds; be sure to sample their spiced rum and sweet tea, a NOLA favorite.
Greenbar Distillery: Los Angeles, CA
For anyone who’s spent time in SoCal, it comes as no shock that Los Angeles’ first distillery since Prohibition is entirely organic, operating under the creed “Organics hold the key to better-tasting spirits.” With seven different types of alcohol and their own collection of bitters, the Greenbar Collective’s line is made exclusively from certified organic products in a 14,000-square-foot facility Downtown. And in true eco-friendly fashion, the company uses 100 percent recycled labels and plants a tree for every bottle sold. Greenbar offers distillery tours Fridays–Sundays; the $15 price tag includes up to six sample tastes of organic spirits.
Detroit City Distillery: Detroit, MI
The youngest location on our list, Detroit City Distillery opened its doors in Eastern Market—a six-block public market dating back to 1891—in 2014. The distillery and adjacent tasting room are housed in a 2,700-square-foot former slaughterhouse on Riopelle Street, focusing on small batch gin, whiskey, and vodka. Local is the name of the game: many of their spirits are crafted with organic corn and rye grown in adjacent counties, part of the brand’s homegrown ethos. Tours are offered on Saturdays for $20 at the distillery's second location, The Whiskey Factory, between Downtown Detroit and Eastern Market.
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Tito’s Handmade Vodka: Austin, TX
Tito’s is surely the most mainstream brand on our list, often the vodka of choice at cocktail bars and hipster house parties. But it remains of note for maintaining its craft principles in spite of its clout. The company is still owned by founder Bert "Tito" Beveridge II (yep, his real last name) and located in Austin’s Mockingbird Distillery—the state’s first since Prohibition. While the corn-based vodka may not be made in the same small-batch, single-pot method it was once known for, Tito’s is the first urban micro-distillery to give the big companies a run for their bar money. Sample Tito’s cocktails at Péché and Opal Divine’s in Austin.
This story was originally published in October 2013 and has been updated.
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