In the Spirit

Photo Credit: Asbury Park Distilling Co.

Craft Distilleries are Booming in New Jersey 

By Laurie Pellichero

From Jersey City to Cape May, craft distilleries have been quickly popping up and producing local spirits throughout the state. While craft beers and breweries have grown quite ubiquitous in New Jersey, it’s been in just the past few years that these small batch distilleries, which now number 16 and counting, have been able to produce and promote their wares.

New Jersey has a long history of distilling going back to Colonial times, but strict alcoholic beverage control laws in place during and after Prohibition prevented the industry from growing. It wasn’t until 2013 that the New Jersey Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control instituted its first distillery license since Prohibition—to Jersey Artisan Distilling in Fairfield. This was due to the efforts of its owner and distiller Brant Braue. Braue, an electrical engineer, wanted to follow his dream of making spirits in the classic style. “Nobody wanted to change the law until it applied to them,” he said. New Jersey craft distilleries can now produce 20,000 gallons a year, which translates to about 100,000 bottles.

A Great Change

Jersey Artisan Distilling, which opened in November of 2013, specializes in rums, including its Busted Barrel Silver and Busted Barrel Dark 80 proof rums, which have already won silver medals at the New York Wine and Spirits Competition. They also produce Morena Rum and 86 proof James F.C. Hyde Sorgho Whiskey, which has been on the market for just a year. They also make Hard Ice alcohol-infused sorbet, made with small batch rum and real fruit puree.

“This has been a great change for me,” said Braue. “You have to have passion and love for what you do every day.”

Braue said he puts in very long hours perfecting his spirits, but it’s worth it. “If I don’t like it, I won’t sell it,” he said. Braue sells his spirits on site and throughout the state, and is working with distributors to sell in other states as well.

He said that rum can be un-aged, but the barrel-aged minimum is two years. Some go to five years. What he is selling now was over two years in the barrel. He offers tastings and tours on Saturdays and Sundays, along with movie nights on Thursdays where they serve treats like kettle corn made with whiskey.

Capital of Distilling

Fairfield has turned out to be the current capital of distilling in New Jersey, with two other distilleries joining Jersey Artisan. Taking advantage of the area’s zoning laws, Claremont Distilled Spirits opened in May 2014, and specializes in vodka made from New Jersey potatoes, along with whiskey and NJD Moonshine. Jersey Spirits Distilling Co. opened in August of 2015, and features spirits named after New Jersey places and experiences that are close to the hearts of its co-owners.

Owned by Fairfield locals John Granata, Susan Lord, and Elizabeth MacDonald, Jersey Spirits creates its small batches with local and regional raw materials. Their 2,400-square-foot facility includes a 1,600-square-foot distillery and 800-square-foot tasting room. Their extensive product line has already won multiple awards and includes Main Street Vodka, Barnegat White Whiskey, Boardwalk Rum, Jersey Apple Hooch, Patriot’s Trail Bourbon, Jersey Pumpkin Hooch, and Hopmanics. Their Crossroads Bourbon was the first aged bourbon whiskey produced in New Jersey since prohibition. Their distinctive bottles all feature labels by New Jersey artist Brett Strothers. “We have a craft distilling license, and aren’t afraid to use it,” joked Granata about their varied offerings.

Jersey Spirits uses natural products, like real fruit, instead of chemical flavorings.

Granata is excited about five different single-malt whiskeys that will be released soon, including Cherry Wood Smoked, Apple Smoked, Chocolate, Caramel, and a Straight Up Barley Malt.

Both Granata and Lord agree that it is a good thing to have three distilleries all in one area. “Everyone has a different dynamic,” said Lord. “We encourage our customers to check everyone out. We all do our own thing with our own recipes. It’s all good and builds the business for everyone.”

Jersey Spirits offers a special barrel share program where participants can come to the facility on the day that a new spirit is being distilled, and then come back for tastes as it is aging to see how it evolves over time. “They get a lot out of it,” said Granata. “They can appreciate it at a different level, and see it nurtured along the way. It gets people in touch with all aspects of the process, to be able to understand what is happening and when it is happening.” Granata added that the participants also have a say in when they think it is has come of age, and can take some home when it’s ready.

Jersey Spirits also offers tours, tastings, craft cocktails, and bottle sales in its tasting room. There are also lots of classes, including an apprentice distiller workshop that gives participants a comprehensive experience of what it takes to make a spirit.

Photo Credit: Sourland Mountain Spirits

Local, Fresh, Handcrafted

Sourland Mountain Spirits in Hopewell was established in 2015 by Ray Disch, one of the founders of New Jersey’s original brewpub, Triumph Brewing in Princeton. After that success, Disch decided he was ready for a new challenge. So when craft distilling became legal again in New Jersey, he created a local distillery right in his hometown. New Jersey’s first farm distillery since Prohibition, Sourland Mountain Spirits now makes local, fresh, handcrafted, small batch spirits using the area’s many sustainable options from herbs to fruit to grain, supplied by local farmers. Already the producers of award-winning gin and vodka, Disch said that he is now aging four distillations of rum in 53-gallon American white oak barrels. “It should be ready in late November, right around Thanksgiving,” said Disch.

They are also working on a barrel-aged gin, and put up their first bourbon in August, which is made from ingredients from a local organic farmer. It will be aged for two years, with the first tasting after one year. In late October or early November they will be putting up a barrel-aged apple brandy to be ready in early 2018, just in time for the chilly months.

Sourland Mountain Spirits uses state-of-the art distillery equipment in a newly renovated barn behind the Brick Farm Tavern restaurant.  Unique in New Jersey, it is the only place that has a distillery, a restaurant, and brewery (Troon Brewing Company) on one site, all on the Double Brook Farm.

Disch said that Sourland Mountain Spirits are now available in 75 stores and restaurants across the state, from Morristown to Atlantic City. Tours are offered on Saturdays and Sundays, and Disch looks forward to participating in this fall’s Central Jersey Beer Fest in Mercer County Park.

Photo Credit: Skunktown Distillery

“A Clean, Smooth Drink”

Skunktown Distillery in Hunterdon County prides itself on offering well-priced, chemical-free spirits made with local ingredients. It was founded by Caine Fowler and Paul Hyatt, who wanted to introduce unique craft liquors to the area “in the beauty and secrecy of Hunterdon County,” said Fowler. “We wanted to capture the essence of Hunterdon County in a distillery.”

Fowler, who has lived in the Sergeantsville area his whole life, said that their main focus is a “clean, smooth drink,” with products that include rum, vodka, and whiskey. “No. 1 is using basic and natural ingredients, and naturally-occurring enzymes and yeasts — all done old-school style. Everything we do is eco-conscious. Our liquor tastes really good straight.”

Fowler explained that they distill by process of cutting gallon by gallon to extract impurities for a totally different result than mass producers. The process takes about a month from start to finish, with everything done by hand. Skunktown now has three stills, one for rum and whiskey, one for vodka, and one for “research and development — the process is trial and error, it’s a step up from moonshining,” joked Fowler.

Fowler said his background in the pharmaceutical industry helps him in his new endeavor, and “I laugh a lot more these days,” he said. “I love my job.”

He also said that craft distilling could revitalize the farm industry in New Jersey, with the demand for local ingredients for their unique products. “You get from the craft world what you can’t get from anyone else.”

He noted that the New Jersey craft distillers all work together to promote the industry, and have even formed a guild to share ideas and address legislative concerns.

Skunktown spirits are available locally at bars, restaurants, and liquor stores, and the distillery is open on Fridays and Saturdays for tours and tastings. A portion of all proceeds goes to the Wounded Warriors Project.

An Exciting Time

One of the newest distilleries in the state is Asbury Park Distilling Co., which opened on Memorial Day weekend. Asbury Park’s first distillery since Prohibition, it is also the first in the state to be located in a commercial downtown area. It was founded by a group of six owners, including Zack Ohebshalom of Fort Lee, Rob Wile of Rumson, and Andrew Karas of Ridgewood.

Asbury Park Distilling Co. features a sleek, modern tasting room with views right into the distillery with a custom-made copper still from Germany. Patrons can purchase spirits by the bottle or enjoy them in an artisanal cocktail.

“It took three years to get going, but we have been given a warm reception,” said Ohebshalom. “This community is all about arts, music, and culture, and we are happy to be part of it.”

“It’s beautiful to see people come here and share it with their friends,” continued Ohebshalom. “We offer full tours, and our master distiller Bill Tambussi is very passionate about distilling. He traveled to Scotland to earn his master’s degree from Henriot Watt University, which offers one of the most well-respected distilling programs in the world.”

Ohebshalom said they currently feature gin and vodka, and will be releasing a bourbon in the fall, as well as a barrel-aged gin. He is not concerned about the seasonality of being located in a shore town, “It will be a destination spot in the winter, along with all the other great businesses that Asbury Park has to offer.”

“It’s an exciting time in the state,” he said. “We hope to grow in the same trajectory as the other distilleries.”

New Jersey distilleries to discover include:

Asbury Park Distilling Co.
527 Lake Avenue, Asbury Park

Cape May Distillery
371 NJ-47, Cape May Courthouse

Claremont Distillery
25 Commerce Road, Unit K, Fairfield

Cooper River Distillers
34 Fourth Street, Camden

Corgi Spirits
1 Distillery Drive, Jersey City

Jersey Artisan Distilling
32C Pier Lane West, Fairfield

Jersey Cider Works
360 County Road 579, Asbury
(Tasting Room under construction)

Jersey Shine Moonshine
20 Peterson Avenue, Millville

Jersey Spirits Distilling Co.
1275 Bloomfield Avenue, Building 7, 40B, Fairfield

Lazy Eye Distillery
1328 Harding Highway, Richand
135 East Spicer Avenue, Wildwood

Skunktown Distillery
12 Minneakoning Road, Suite 110B, Flemington

Sourland Mountain Spirits
130 Hopewell-Rocky Hill Road, Hopewell