The Rye Whiskey Renaissance Begins at Industry City
A visit to Fort Hamilton Distillery, which is embracing New York history with its excellent single barrel release
“Why wouldn’t you focus on the original spirit of America, that grows wonderfully out here and speaks to the terroir of New York?”
Alex Clark makes a pretty strong case for his rye whiskey, which arrives under the very historically New York name of Fort Hamilton Distillery. Co-founded by Clark and Amy Grindeland, Fort Hamilton is not only a newer and exciting addition to the world of whiskey but also a reminder that some of the most interesting things you can drink in NYC are all housed under shared roofs in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park at Industry City.
Fort Hamilton was launched in 2015, but it’s only now getting noticed because, well, whiskey takes time to mature, “We did everything backward,” he admits. “The common thing is you start with gin and vodka, then release your whiskey four years later — or realistically, two years. But then you get known as a vodka or gin brand.” (Ironically, FH finally released its gin this spring.)
Clark’s vision always centered on rye whiskey and was inspired by both local NYC history and the city’s cocktail boom of the early aughts.
Born and raised in England, Clark bartended his way through school, took a regrettable job in finance and, just before he quit, got transferred to New York. Once here, he left the white-collar world and dove into music, eventually landing at bartending legend Sasha Petraske’s cocktail den East Side Company (which, unlike Petraske’s Milk & Honey, had a DJ component). “They put me behind the bar almost as a dare,” says Clark. “It was there I got to learn cocktails from the best of the best, the OG guys in the downtown scene.”
And it was at East Side where he fell in love with rye whiskey, a staple of the classic cocktails that this downtown scene was trying to revive. Eventually, Clark went to work at fine-dining destinations like Balthazar and Marea before helping out with the launch and growth of Red Hook’s Widow Jane distillery. As he remembers: “There weren’t a lot of people in craft distilling at that time, so I learned everything: distillation, brand building, sales, inventory management, and all those things inform what I do now.”
Lacking capital, Clark was able to piggyback on other distilleries for spaces and equipment (even now, he’s still aging barrels in Industry City, which has buildings that offer some makeshift climate control/heating that aids in the whiskey’s maturation). Fort Hamilton’s own space was built and completed around March 2020, just in time for the world to shut down. It took another year for tours to commence; from there, the distillery slowly began a cocktail program and just this month extended their distillery’s bar hours by one day.
Here, on the second floor of an industrial Sunset Park waterfront complex/creative hub, you can try some great classic cocktails and neat pours of bourbon, gin and a lot of rye (their Single Barrel is the true standout). “Look, rye is more challenging and it doesn’t sell as much as bourbon, but it also doesn’t have as much saturation in the market,” says Clark. “Plus, young bourbons are not particularly enjoyable. Rye has an allure even at a young age, although now we’re only releasing things that are at least four years old. If you’re making whiskey from scratch, you should really start with rye.”
The distillery uses a classic winter rye in their mashbill and runs the stills “somewhat inefficiently to create something oilier with richer texture,” as Clark notes. As well, the barrels Fort Hamilton uses are 30-gallon, or something you’d have found two centuries ago if you were making rye whiskey in the area.
And history is important here. The distillery is named after Fort Hamilton, where the Battle of Brooklyn was fought (it’s still a functioning army base). And the FH distillery is embracing how rye was produced 200+ years ago while also applying some of that history to their label design and even their gin, which features a bit of watermelon … as the first skirmish at the Revolutionary War’s Brooklyn battle happened near a watermelon patch.
After a few years of scraping by and then a pandemic-induced delay, Fort Hamilton Distillery is now open to the public four days a week. The distillery shares space in Industry City with a number of like-minded beer and spirits brands. “It’s great having all these people around,” says Clark. “It gives us a lot of room for collaboration and the meeting of creative minds.”
If you’re in Industry City, Clark suggests you check out the following (and note that there are plenty of other restaurants and bars within the facility):
- Fort Hamilton Distillery: Open Thu-Sun. Get classic whiskey and gin cocktails and take a tour.
- Barrow’s Intense Ginger Liqueur: Besides producing a ginger-based liqueur, the Tasting Room here is open seven days a week and features “NYC’s largest selection of New York State whiskey, gin, vodka, brandy, and more.”
- Brooklyn Kura: Craft sake, made in Brooklyn. Open Fri-Sun.
- Big Alice Barrel Room: A farm brewery taproom where you can try 14 different beers made at their brewery in Queens. Open seven days a week.
- Standard Wormwood Distillery: All of the spirits crafted here (which includes a rye) are distilled with wormwood
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