Built in Brooklyn

October 6th, 2015 No comments

A truly hand crafted, small batch vodka. The best you ever tasted.

In a part of Brooklyn’s Sunset Park area is a 6 million square foot manufacturing district known as Industry City. This is the home of Industry City Distillery and a very unique product called Industry Standard Vodka.

Industry Standard Vodka

Industry Standard Vodka

A Brooklyn hipster friend well versed in matters of food and drink set me on to it. “You have to try this vodka, it’s unlike any you’ve ever had,” he said. So I bought a bottle and he was right. Not only was it sensational in a cocktail but also it’s also great sipping vodka.

What makes it unique?

Well, just about everything. But, even after a number of visits to the distillery and lots of conversations with the team running it, I’m not sure I can explain the uniqueness of their process. No matter how many times I read their description I think I get it but not really. Here is how they describe themselves on a sell sheet:

At New York City’s only vodka distillery, we build everything for our beet sugar vodka from scratch – from bio-reactors (glass continuous fermentation vessels) housing rare house-grown French sugar beet yeast, to ultra high separation batch fractional reflux still. Utilizing a uniquely precise distillation method, we take 30 cuts off of the still rather than the usual 3! The cuts are then rigorously tasted and the best notes are selectively blended together, allowing for exceptional control over the final taste, aroma and texture of the final product. Because of the care and precision of this process, Industry Standard Vodka has no need for any carbon filtration and is entirely free of additives, sugars, or modifiers. The result is vodka with a delicate, subtle flavor and unprecedented smoothness.


Part of the distillery

They usually lose me at the “ultra high separation batch fractional reflux still.” All I can tell you is that they’ve created a new method of distillation and, as a result, it is terrifically smooth vodka that’s best enjoyed straight.

They are also energy efficient and have limited waste so of course they are environmentally friendly. But these aspects also have financial value.

Speaking of which, they are currently distributed in the Metro New York area and have the capacity to ramp up to four times the current production.

The team

On their website and even on their label, they described themselves as “nerds.” I think that’s a self-effacing way of indicating their love of the unique process they are using that combines biology, chemistry, physics and engineering. Every piece of equipment they use is developed by them and built in their own machine shop.

These are the guys you wanted to sit next to during your chemistry final.

The partners are David Kyrejko who is the master distiller and engineer, Zachary Bruner, a distiller and machinist and

The team

The team

Ronak Parikh who handles sales, distribution and operations. Their love of what they are creating is very palpable and their enthusiasm is contagious. They really are reinventing the art of distilling by using rigorous science. Oh, and they develop their own yeast and blend by hand.

Industry City Distillery shares space in Brooklyn’s Industry City with the research, development and support systems located there. Not many distilleries have a laboratory, a machine shop, or a letterpress studio, but their operation wouldn’t exist without them.

Technical reserve

The other product they make is called Technical Reserve. It’s described as the first ever liquor made especially for the spirits craft making market. It’s also 191.2 proof (95.6% ABV) and the highest proof spirit produced in America.


Technical Reserve

What is it used for? I’m glad you asked. Here’s how they describe it.

We take advantage of our glass ultra high separation distillation system, and create a unique spirit made specifically for the bitters, tinctures, and cocktail craft enthusiast.

This spirit is highly refined to the point of being entirely neutral without any need for charcoal filtering or chemicals. Whether you’re crafting a new bitters or trying to re-create your grandmother’s Limoncello recipe, Technical Reserve’s neutral character and strong proof make it essential to any craft spirits maker’s tool box.

The part about making tinctures with it got me curious. I learned that it’s a medicine made by dissolving a drug in alcohol. Like tincture of iodine.

But, I also learned that weed tincture can be made with it but that’s considered the least popular way of consuming marijuana. Although, one marijuana maven website thinks it’s worthwhile and underrated. My advice is to stick with using it for crafted homemade products. I tasted a gin they made with it and very much enjoyed it.

Friday night tours

You have to see this operation to really appreciate it. So, if you’re in the NYC area, their tasting room is open to the public. Cocktails, nibbles and amazing views of New York Bay every Friday and Saturday from 4 to 10PM, no reservation required. Check their website for details.

Now about that “ultra high separation batch fractional reflux still process,” I think I finally got it.

Ambassador Wine and Spirits: Retailer Focus

August 27th, 2015 2 comments

What does it take to succeed in NYC?


At the corner of 54th St and Second Avenue you’ll find my favorite spirits and wine shop. It’s close but not exactly in my neighborhood but I go out of my way to shop there. It’s arguably the best in Midtown.

If you live in Manhattan, chances are there’s a store up the street, around the corner or, a block over. There are “destination” shops like Astor, Beacon and others so I suppose Ambassador fits this genre – well worth going out of your way. Besides, they deliver. But before I talk about them, let’s spend a few minutes on the New York retail scene.

Only in New York

It’s a complicated market at all levels of the Booze Business.

As recently as the 1980s, there were over ten significant distributors. Today there are only two main players. While the gap has been partly filled with wine and beer distributors moving into spirits, the market is in a state of limited competition aka as an oligopoly. In short, the wholesalers call the shots.

A consumer living in the boroughs other than Manhattan can purchase most alcohol products for less than in “the city.” Lower overhead is the main reason.

Thanks to state tax differences, for many consumers it makes more sense to go across the river to New Jersey if you’re looking to stock up, particularly spirits. The difference in state excise taxes is almost a dollar per gallon –$6.44 in NY vs. $5.50 in NJ.

(I used to joke that a car coming to NY from NJ whose trunk was much lower than its hood probably was either a small New York State bar owner stocking up or someone having a party.)

So imagine you’re a retailer in Manhattan. Your rent is high; you have to compete with many businesses for qualified employees; your customer base (in the midtown area) has changed, with LLCs buying apartments that are frequently unlived in; and the guy down the street is selling the same brand as you for less.

It’s not a level playing field

There’s a rule in NY State that only a single individual can hold a license to sell wine or spirits at retail. Its origin has to do with preventing chain liquor stores from doing business in the state. But guess what? It doesn’t stop retailers from opening other stores in the names of their family members.

So, when a distributor has a multi-case discount, the sole proprietor store can’t take advantage of it but the stores “owned” by cousins, sisters, in-laws can. In short, that’s how many NY State stores beat the system.

This is the environment in which Ambassador Wines & Spirits operates.

The Ambassador Story

Leonard Phillips. owner

Leonard Phillips.

Meet Leonard Phillips, the owner of the store and whose family has been in the business since 1973. It started as a small shop run by his grandmother that has grown to the current 1400 square feet store on two levels.

Leonard’s original calling in life was to be a biochemist and ultimately become a physician in the military. However, as we all know, life has a way of getting in the way of plans and dreams. But if you spend five minutes with Leonard you quickly realize that his passion and tenacity is what has makes Ambassador unique.


Here’s why I think the store is special

This is not the place to go to buy the popular vodka and expect a discounted price. It is the place to go where you will find new or extraordinary products that appeal to the spirits enthusiast and aficionado. Their selection of whiskies (particularly scotch and single malts) is unbelievable.IMG_5313

In fact, if you’re a follower of this blog, you know that I love the whiskies and gin from Koval Distillery. All their products are available at Ambassador, which is how I came to the store in the first place.

Their wine selection is also second to none. But, interestingly, thanks to the whiskey and craft spirits explosion, wine as a percent of volume has gone from 80% to 65% in the last 3 to 4 years.

In addition to wine and liquor, their selection of Sake, Soju and Sochu is, in my opinion, the best in NYC. If you’re looking forIMG_5319 hard cider this is the place to go. And, while you’re in the store check out their champagne and sparkling wine selections.

There is even a room downstairs for tastings and education either conducted by companies or groups of friends wanting to discover new and interesting products.

Hey, don’t take my word for it. Go to Yelp and check them out. Not only did they get 4.5 out of 5 but also the comments left by reviewers are amazing.

It’s about the people

Most of the reviews on Yelp talk about the knowledge, helpfulness and friendliness of the staff. In most wine and spirits shops I’ve gone to around the country over the years, most should have the slogan, “shut up and buy.” This is a store whose service orientation matches their style of business – personal recommendations based on knowing the customer and the products they sell.

* * *

When I asked Leonard about how he copes with the peculiarities of doing business in New York City his response was mixed. On the one hand, as a true sole proprietor store facing competition from multi-owned stores and their ability to deeply discount, he describes the situation as akin to being a “one legged man in an ass kicking contest.”

At the same time, or perhaps as a result, he views Ambassador Wine and Spirits as a Dylan’s Candy store for adults.

An article in Serious Eats sums it up nicely:

Ambassador is the liquor store I wish I had in my neighborhood; you find yourself wanting to hang out there, even if you don’t really need to buy anything.

My kind of store.


Leonard and Schlomo. He may look intimidating but he's the friendliest pup.

Leonard and Schlomo. He may look intimidating but he’s the friendliest pup. Schlomo, that is.

Alcohol and Marijuana: Latest Gallup Polls

July 30th, 2015 No comments

Income and education are key factors

The Gallup people have just released their latest annual survey of drinking in America as well as a poll on marijuana trial and usage. Gallup has conducted the alcohol survey every year since 1939 and the marijuana poll has been running since 1969.

Some key findings:

  • Overall, 64% of Americans say they drink alcohol – unchanged over the years.
  • Upper income and highly educated Americans are most likely to say they drink alcohol.
  • Beer is the most widely preferred drink.
  • More than 4 in 10 say they have tried marijuana with 10% claiming to be current smokers as compared with 7% two years ago.

Alcohol and drinking over the years remains consistent

Gallup has been asking the same question over the years – Do you have occasion to use alcoholic beverages such as liquor, wine, or beer? The proportion saying yes has remained consistent – 58% in 1939, in the 60% area since then and 64% in 2015.

Alcohol drinking trends

Alcohol drinking trends

The form of alcohol Americans most often drink remains fairly consistent with the past. 42% report beer most often, 34% say wine and 21% favor liquor.

Type of alcohol drank most often

Type of alcohol drank most often

Socio-economic status and drinking correlate

This year’s analysis focused on education and income as it relates to who drinks. In a nutshell, upper income and higher educated Americans are more likely than others to drink. They postulate that upscale Americans have more opportunities for drinking occasions such as dining out and going on vacation. Sounds right to me. But I don’t think that’s it entirely.

What I found most interesting is that nearly half (47%) of those with incomes over $75,000 are more likely to have had a drink in the past 24 hours. Among college graduates it’s 45%. So there’s a fair amount of at home drinking.

They also asked about overindulging and there were no difference by income level. But, there were significant differences by education with college graduates less likely to report being “over served.” They offer two explanations. One is that “those with more formal education may be less willing to report a socially undesirable behavior in a public opinion survey.”

The other is “Data from various government and academic studies confirm the relationship between income and alcohol consumption. The studies also indicate upper-income drinkers mostly drink in moderation, but lower-income Americans tend to abstain completely, or to drink heavily.”

Type of alcohol

As mentioned, beer is the dominant type of alcohol consumed, but before you beer folks start high-fiving, consider the growth in craft beer and the decline in mainstream beer brands. In fact, those with higher incomes are equally as likely to drink beer and wine most often.

Marijuana trial and usage

Earlier in the month Gallup reported on a poll that delved into cannabis experimentation and current use.

As the chart below reveals, the percentage of Americans who say they have tried marijuana has steadily increased since the first measurement in 1969 – from 4% to 44% in the span of less than 50 years.

Have tried marijuana

Have tried marijuana

Legalization in some states plus the growing support for legalization is an obvious factor. In a study conducted in 2014, Gallup found that overall 51% of Americans favor legalization, Conservatives and Republicans are more likely to be opposed and those in states in the East and West are the biggest supporters.

Support legalization

Support legalization

Finally, the recent Gallup study on marijuana shows that 1 in 10 Americans said yes and this is up from 7% two years ago.

Currently smoke marijuana

Currently smoke marijuana

Is there any doubt that marijuana legalization will continue and that usage will as well?

The Northwest News Network (a collaboration of public radio stations in Washington, Oregon and Idaho) reported this week that Washington’s Liquor Control Board is getting a new name. It will become the Liquor and Cannabis Board.

Portends of things to come.

Casa Dragones: Tequila with a Pedigree

July 17th, 2015 No comments

When passion and expertise meet, extraordinary tequila emerges

Bob Pittman, a tequila aficionado and Bertha González Nieves, a certified tequila expert and first woman to be named Maestra Tequilera by the Academia Mexicana de Catadores de Tequila, founded Casa Dragones in 2008. At $275 per bottle, it is both exceptional and aspirational.

As the story goes, Bob Pittman (founder of MTV, CEO of Clear Channel) has spent many summers in San Miguel de Allende, where he has a home, and over the years became a true tequila lover. In 2007, he and Bertha met at a party and talked about their mutual passion for tequila. Bob shared his dream of creating one. Bertha told him that she always wanted to become an entrepreneur. Together they set on a quest to deliver a true sipping tequila, smooth enough to sip, with no “wince factor.” A short time later, the two founded Casa Dragones.

Bob Pittman and Bertha Gonzalez Nieves

Bob Pittman and Bertha Gonzalez Nieves

I don’t know Bob Pittman but I know Bertha González very well. She and I worked together when she was the Commercial Director North America for Jose Cuervo International and I was a consultant/advisor to the company. Actually, Bertha had a number of positions at JCI, under the leadership of Carlos Arana, including business development, new products and brand management. In short, she knows tequila and how to run a tequila enterprise.

While at JCI, I marveled at her ability to balance the whims of the Beckmann family (owners of Cuervo) and the arrogance of Diageo (distributors at the time). Clearly Bertha’s wit, intellect and charm came in handy.

Here’s an example – when asked in an interview a few years ago whether anyone ever mixed anything with Casa Dragones, Bertha’s reply was, “not in front of me.”

The Product

Casa Dragones Joven tequila

Casa Dragones Joven tequila

I guess the first thing everyone says about the original Casa Dragones tequila is the price tag. If you’re a particular type of spirits consumer, it’s worth it. It’s a 100% Blue Agave Joven Tequila, crafted in small batches. Joven tequila is a rare blend of silver tequila and extra aged tequila. It’s a style rarely used and it took both Bertha and a master distiller, coaxed out of retirement, over a year to perfect the blend.

So, it’s tequila to be sipped and savored and never, ever mixed. Trust me, it’s not like any other tequila you’ve ever tasted. But don’t take my word for it – Wine Enthusiast gave it a 96 and here is what Tequila.net had to say about it.

From the soil to the Agave plant to the craftsmanship to the bottle – this is not tequila to use in a margarita or even as a shot. Like the lady said, sip it.

But, if you must drink your tequila in a cocktail, they have recently introduced Casa Dragones Blanco, 100%Blue Agave silver

Casa Dragones Blanco

Casa Dragones Blanco

tequila designed to be served on the rocks or in signature craft cocktails developed by leading chefs and mixologists. Cocktails like San Miguel, Pink Panther and my favorite, Michelada Primaverde, described on the website as follows:

James Beard Award Winning Mixologist and Owner of New York City’s P.D.T (Please Don’t Tell), Jim Meehan has created the Michelada Primaverde exclusively with Tequila Casa Dragones Blanco. A mixture of dry vermouth and tomatillo juice is complemented perfectly by a splash of Victoria beer and a spicy, salted rim for a refreshing, summer cocktail.

The Blanco sells for $75 for a 750 ML. Feel better now?

It’s All About Mexico

As to the heritage, the elite cavalry that helped spark the Mexican independence movement inspires the name. La Casa Dragones, the original 17th century stables still standing on a street in San Miguel de Allende, is the spiritual home to the tequila.

What makes Casa Dragones especially unique is that it is thoroughly Mexican. A product that comes from the lowlands and the rich soil of the Trans-Mexican volcanic belt; a formula based on the merging of the traditional art of tequila making combined with an innovative process; a product designed for a consumer who is looking for quality and authenticity. It’s the real deal.



It’s also about Bertha Nieves González and her passion for tequila and innovation. So add her to the list of Booze Business’ Shaker’s and Stirrers – the new breed of alcohol industry entrepreneurs.

Just don’t let her catch you drinking the Joven product with a mixer.

Booze Business Launches Web Series “Shakers and Stirrers:” Debut Episode with Brenne Whisky’s Allison Patel

June 23rd, 2015 No comments

Shakers and Stirrers is a web series produced by the Booze Business blog in association with Warwick Street Productions and Illium Pictures.

Last year I blogged about Allison Patel, founder and owner of Brenne Single Malt Whisky from France in a posting called, From Ballet to Booze.

I found Allison’s story and brand so amazing that it inspired a video series that we are calling Shakers and Stirrers. This first episode can be found on our YouTube channel. (The episode is below or you can access it here.)

The intent of the series is to take a close look at the new breed of innovators and entrepreneurs who are changing the booze business. It delves into understanding their motivations, their vision and the obstacles they encounter.

We hope you enjoy this inaugural episode and please let me know what suggestions you might have for other profile candidates. Leave a message in the comments section or email me at arthur@boozebusiness.com

(If you are receiving this by email and can’t access the video below, click here.)

Don’t forget to subscribe to Booze Business on YouTube today.