I was sitting at the bar at a Hell's Kitchen restaurant, looking for a new bourbon to try.
Bourbon is one book I absolutely judge by its cover, and there was one label in particular that caught my eye.
"What can you tell me about 'Widow Jane'?" I asked Brian, the bartender.
"Not much," he said. "It's from Red Hook."
My interest piqued by yet another Brooklyn distillery, I declared, "I'll take it!"
And, with a final lick of my lips, both my palate and curiosity sated, I found myself saying, "I wonder if they do distillery tours..." and pulling up their website on my phone.
With such a limited time in and so few visits to New York City, I don't usually have much opportunity for impromptu excursions. But since I was going to Brooklyn anyway—and since Widow Jane provided not just a distillery tour but also a chocolate factory tour—I grabbed two of my best gals and made an exception.
Having just taking a "bean to bar" chocolate factory tour in Downtown Los Angeles, I was struck by the difference between our Brooklyn—the Arts District—and the actual Brooklyn...
...which, namely, is a difference in equipment.
At Mast Brothers, for instance, all the equipment was purchased by its hipster founders brand-new; but at Cacao Prieto (the chocolate factory adjacent to Widow Jane), the machinery is more like Brooklyn: vintage and oh-so-cool-looking. (They're also more difficult to fix if they break down.)
Cacao Prieto gets its cocoa beans from a single source: the Dominican Republic, where the Prieto family has owned a cacao farm for more than a century.
This factory produces only vegan (and kosher-certified!) chocolate, which means only dark chocolate—no milk.
Everything that goes into it—from the cocoa nibs to the botanicals—is not just organic, but ethically organic, and fair trade sourced.
The company is still experimenting with some of their more daring ingredients (like orchid extract and passionfruit flowers), but already they've hit the mark with their coffee and sea salt dark chocolate bar, which was pretty special.
We may have started our visit with dessert, but that was just the beginning—because we then moved through the courtyard of the sister buildings (made of bricks reclaimed from old neighborhood houses, in the style of the historic neighborhood) to get our drink on.
But before we got to the whisky barrels, we got distracted by something else—something both magical and unexpected.
Fancy chickens that serve no purpose other than being fancy and dwelling in the courtyard!
Beyond their coop, we found ourselves in the company of the usual suspects of a micro-distillery: column stills...
...and bottling machines.
But it turns out that the bourbons and ryes from Widow Jane aren't your garden-variety small batch whiskys.
For one, instead of using the readily available and great-tasting New York City tap water, the distillery sources mineral water from the limestone quarry at the Widow Jane Mine in the Hudson Valley of Upstate New York. (The minerality of that water is even more than what you'd find in Kentucky.)
Its master distiller also favors heirloom varieties of corn over GMO yellow corn—using 19th century varieties like blue corn of the Hopi Native American Nation, Indian hybrids like "Bloody Butcher" and Wapsie Valley corn from Iowa, as well as others you don't normally find in your everyday bottle of brown liquor.
You can really taste the difference.
In addition to also using heirloom barley, Widow Jane strays from the traditional use of charred virgin white oak barrels—incorporating both American oak and applewood into its barrel-aging process.
The result is incredibly smooth.
And before you wonder what chocolate has to do with liquor, the two seemingly separate worlds do collide—in the form of cacao rum and cacao rum liqueur.
Apparently, this is what happens when an aeronautical engineer leaves his contract work with the Defense Department, becomes a chocolatier, and starts making urban bourbon.
Why limit yourself to one thing?
Photo Essay: From Bean to Bar at a Chocolate Factory
Photo Essay: Kings County Distillery
Photo Essay: Breuckelen Distilling Co.
What I Remember from the Kentucky Bourbon Festival