In Sunset Park, an Experimental Approach to Distilling

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When Tea Fougner first tasted the vodka poured into a shot-size chemistry beaker by Dave Kyrejko, the head distiller at Industry City Distillery, she was none too happy.

Fougner, a spirits, blending and cocktails expert who divides her time between booze consulting and comic strip editing, was invited by Kyrejko and his Industry City Distillery colleagues to their Sunset Park facility to devise unique recipes to complement Industry City’s new sugar-beet-derived vodka. Thinking their liquor would hew to conventional ideals of vodka as we now know it—that is, largely flavorless—she’d brought along rosewater, citrus, sugar and other sweet and sour components for cocktail mixing.

After sipping the Industry City vodka at room temperature, Fougner glared at Kyrejko and cried out: “It doesn’t taste like vodka!” That is, it actually had bona fide, distinctive flavors—and they didn’t in any way work with the mixing ingredients she’d had in mind.

“I was flummoxed,” said Fougner, recalling that first visit while in the distillery’s kitchen. “It had flavor notes the way whiskey has flavor notes.” But then again, little about Industry City falls in line with expected vodka conventions.

“I personally don’t like vodka as a beverage.”

So confessed Kyrejko, speaking about the very spirit he and four other hoodie-donning, indie-music-listening, facial-hair-sporting young men devote the majority of their waking hours to formulating. Like many spirits connoisseurs, he gravitates toward the whiskey firmament. Still, Kyrejko also believes there’s much overlooked nuance to be found in this so-called liquid no-man’s-land.

“All too often with vodka, people don’t care what they’re drinking, as long as it gets you drunk,” observed Kyrejko, as he watched Industry City’s machinery slowly convert fermented sugars into ethanol. “We’d like to change that. We’d like you to taste the vodka.”

To be clear, when we talk about Industry City Distillery vodka’s flavors and aromas, we’re not talking international vodkas infused with fruits, spices, chocolate or even “PB&J” (synthesized by the venerable Van Gogh vodka concern). Instead, all vodka flavor—as it was originally known, and is coming to be known again—emerges directly from yeast and base plant, as transformed by the fermentation and distillation process itself.

This means that vodka is one of the more difficult spirits to produce well—oak, significant aging, additives and other factors that inflect the final product of other spirits generally aren’t used with vodka. So the yeast, sugar, fermenting and distilling all have to be on point.

“If you’re creating a fermenting and distilling process from scratch that’s designed to bring out subtleties,” Kyrejko said, “vodka’s the best spirit to produce.”

“I’m thrilled by what Industry City’s doing,” said Rima Ansari, a spirits buyer and sales manager at Astor Wines & Spirits over in Manhattan. “In vodka, there’s an association of quality with purity, and purity with neutrality. But the Industry City science kids have created a technically neutral vodka that has tremendous subtleties and a lot going on. They’re helping open up a new type of discussion about vodka.”

But getting Americans attuned to vodka’s notes and subtleties might be about as easy as convincing Americans to drink diluted Maker’s Mark. Remember that millions of bottles of vodka sit in freezers across America. Putting aside the neat trick (usually learned in one’s 21st year) that a kitchen freezer can’t freeze vodka, it sits in the icebox to become so cold that it numbs taste buds upon contact. This is decidedly not the best way to taste vodka. The crew at Industry City Distillery—Kyrejko, in-house machinist Zac Bruner, designer Rich Watts, Max Hames and Peter Simon—would like to encourage you to get the vodka away from the ice cream, and into the tasting salon.

Vodka, like all alcoholic drinks, needs a starting sugar to ferment, and its source has historically depended on the region producing the sauce: In Poland, potato and rye have vied for pride of place; Ukrainians and Russians have favored wheat; in Finland, barley often formed the spirit’s base. Today the sugar source runs the gamut from grapes to corn and even to wood pulp.

Industry City happened upon their source when machinist Bruner revealed to a fellow Metro-North rider that he was conspiring in a vodka start-up. That stranger tipped him off to an upstate sugar processor that specialized in granulated sugar originating in sugar beets. In short order, Industry City began ordering 2,500-pound pallets of granulated beet-based sugar.

Creating a distillery from scratch wasn’t the end goal when Rich Watts, who ran a design studio in Red Hook, teamed up in 2011 with Kyrejko, a Cooper Union classmate, and Bruner, who had a machinist shop in Providence. They, along with Hames, who’d just reentered the New York orbit after a stint in Alaska’s commercial salmon fishery, and Simon, a former yoga instructor, envisioned a rough-cut Bell Labs atmosphere (minus the pocket protectors) where they could pool their collective talents and move from theorizing to product idea to prototype to design to marketing, production and distribution, all in one shop.

The group’s foray into the vodka business, it turns out, was a spinoff of one of Kyrejko’s art projects: a 175-gallon, coffin-size aquarium. In 2010, Kyrejko was trying to jump-start a self-sufficient, aquatic vegetation-based ecosystem within the tank. But the vegetation required lots of carbon dioxide to grow quickly and thickly, and Kyrejko realized he needed more CO2 than his fishes produced by breathing.

One solution was to purchase CO2-based welding gas. But the confirmed tinkerer saw that as throwing money at something he might produce himself. One great way to collect calibrated quantities of CO2 is via alcoholic fermentation: Yeasts convert sugars into ethanol and CO2. As Kyrejko delved deeper into investigating the chemistry and mechanics of fermentation, thoughts of producing alcohol nudged the aquatic vegetation and its aquarium off to the side.

Kyrejko and Bruner created their own fermentation and distillation system from scratch. Instead of the massive steel vats professional distillers typically use to ferment sugar in batches, the team constructed an elongated, six-foot-tall glass column that looks like an upended test tube. They fill it with sugar water and ball-bearing-size beige globules, which dance about in the warm liquid. Simon, Industry City’s marketer and manager of the distillery’s 12,000-square-foot facility, likes to call the little balls an “alginate matrix” that host an “entrapped fermentation technology.” In plain English, that means the algae-filled globules contain yeast. As the warm sugar water circulates through those permeable little balls, chemical reactions between the water’s sugar and the yeast create alcohol and CO2. That sugar water just became fermented.

To transform all that fermented liquid, or wash, into a spirit you need to distill it down. Industry City first uses a steel, steam-powered stripping still that boils the wash and then captures the alcohol-infused steam that comes off first (since alcohol vaporizes before water) and recondenses it—all using roughly the same amount of energy as a drip coffee maker.

The resulting liquid is then distilled again, “fractionally”: Nine-gallon batches are heated in a glass column filled with metal pieces called “packing”; the liquid at the base heats, turns to vapor and rises up the column. As it cools, it condenses on the glass wall and vast surface area of the metal packing. More hot vapors rise, and the condensate vaporizes again. This vaporization-condensation results in a liquid that’s up to 95 percent ethanol.

As the column slowly emits the concentrated alcohol, the crew separates it into component parts (or “fractions”), currently collected in 35 separate 16-ounce Snapple-style glass bottles, which will later be blended for the final, surprisingly complex liquid. (Bruner is currently fabricating replacement steel and glass stills that will have about 10 times the output.)

The result is a unique product indeed. Each bottle’s contents have different flavors and mouthfeel. “My job is to taste all the bottles, and find the flavor notes we want,” said Fougner, as she arranged the bottles in rows for future blending. Some of the samples she evaluates for the blend can be outright nasty. “Generally, bottles 17 through 22 taste like chalk,” warned Fougner. Another will have a strong banana taste resulting from the presence of an ester—an organic compound created during fermentation. You may not want that banana ester in your vodka, but Fougner’s job is to select for other esters that could become the basis of the vodka’s flavor-note profile.

In traditional distilling, you’d separate the beginning and the end of the distilling process to get at the good stuff. By fractionally separating the distilled alcohol into 35 bottles and picking among them, Industry City “has more control than a traditional distillery,” claimed Kyrejko. “They’re using a hatchet to decide what goes in the bottle you drink; we’re using a scalpel.” Kyrejko’s Exhibit A: The word for “vodka” in languages such as Ukrainian, Lithuanian and other Eastern European languages means “to burn.” Industry City’s have “very little alcohol burn in the chest,” said Kyrejko, making it more a spirit to be mixed or sipped than thrown back on a dare.

Such carefully dissected quality control as Industry City’s wasn’t an option for vodka’s pioneer distillers in the Middle Ages, and the result was often a spirit with a nasty stench. According to Patricia Herlihy, author of Vodka: A Global History, as early as the 18th century Russians were attempting to filter vodka with charcoal—which eliminated impurities but also all remnants of taste. Like an unfortunate obsessive-compulsive, vodka producers became fixated on Total Purity, and, with it, Total Flavorlessness.

Today charcoal filtration is common in large-scale vodka production. But Fougner said this tosses out the baby with the bathwater: “Charcoal filtration takes out the bad flavors and the good flavors.”

Nonetheless there are Polish and Russian consumers who disdain the filtration and triple distillation (or more) designed to eliminate flavor, and request vodkas that keep hints of the potatoes or grain that gave birth to them. And American craft vodka producers using rye, honey and other bases are aiming to create a neutral alcohol that nonetheless preserves the aromatics and flavor notes emerging from the yeast and base food. Fougner’s great-grandfather was the beverage columnist for the old New York Sun, and his library has bequeathed to her a mother lode of liquor know-how that doesn’t always follow the current dictum that vodka should have no flavor—like an alcoholic water. As she explained, “it’s in the modern era that you aspire to the flavorless vodka.”

Energy efficiency is central to how the Industry City crew has designed its production process. Commercial vodka is traditionally produced in stills made of copper, which is a key metal for stripping out potentially stinky sulfuric compounds, but is notorious for poor heat retention and profligate energy use—not to mention a high price tag. Industry City constructed stainless steel and glass stills, which lose heat much more slowly than copper. In an homage of sorts to the classic Thermos design, the new stills Industry City is installing this summer will be double-walled, creating greater insulation.

As for the unpalatable bottles of alcohol produced during fractional distilling, Industry City uses the contents of those in their kitchen’s alcohol-powered boat stove and as a cleaner throughout their shop. Eventually, Simon wants to create a mechanism for capturing the CO2 produced by fermentation and use it to accelerate vegetable growth in a rooftop greenhouse, thereby returning to the impetus behind Kyrejko’s idea of getting into the alcohol business in the first place.

Rich Watts heads up design at Industry City’s workshop overlooking Gowanus Bay: All labels are printed, using a 1924 Chandler & Price jobbing press, and glued at the Sunset Park warehouse. Bruner has created virtually all of the distilling equipment at Industry City while Hames gets his hands dirty in all elements of the process.

Thankfully, Industry City’s discovery of vodka’s subtleties came after New York State law made it practical for small start-ups to distill. The 2007 Farm Distillery Law reduced distillery license fees from $50,000 a year to $15,000, and as of last October, small distilleries can sell their spirits at farmers markets and fairs. Brooklyn now has 12 distilleries (legally, that is), up from zero six years ago.

Industry City has created four different 375ml bottles, each with slightly different tastes and aromas—named, appropriately, No. 1, 2, 3 and 4. This summer they are releasing their flagship model, the Industry Standard, in a 750ml bottle. Ansari of Astor Wines & Spirits described it as having “subtle vanilla and cream notes with a slight sweetness, and less sharp than the earlier versions. It’s mouth-coating, but they don’t achieve it by adding glycerin as some producers do.”

Kyrejko and Fougner are reluctant to be as descriptive about the flavor profile they’re going for—but not because of trade secrets.

“I don’t want to tell you what it tastes like,” said Kyrejko. “I want to hear what other people think it tastes like.”

Recipe: The Sunset City

You know the Manhattan. Recently many boro-proud bartenders have played with its classic cousin, the “Brooklyn” cocktail (whiskey, maraschino, vermouth, Amer Picon), developing variations for specific neighborhoods. One of Industry City Distillery’s favorite bartenders, Vincent Favella of Ward III, gave them his recipe for the “Sunset Park” which they tweaked to feature their vodka.

2 oz Industry City Distillery Vodka

.5 oz sweet white vermouth or dry riesling

.5 oz peach liqueur

dash of Cocktail Kingdom Wormwood bitters

Stir together first three ingredients and strain into a cocktail glass. Finish with bitters and garnish with a lemon peel or a slice of peach.

Photo credit: Alan Gastelum

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