Posted by: lisaparavisini | November 24, 2012

In the Bronx, Distilling the Spirit of Puerto Rico

Even those who are not connoisseurs know that New York State produces good wine and good beer. But perhaps less well known is the proliferation of local distilleries making top-shelf spirits, as Kara Newman reports in this article for The New York Times.

Distillery rows have sprouted upstate and in Brooklyn turning out premium whiskey, gin and other spirits that find their way into bars that know something about making cocktails.

But another distillery that has attracted an enthusiastic following set up shop in a more unexpected location: the South Bronx.

Tirado Distillery opened its doors in August 2011, becoming the first legal distiller in the Bronx since before Prohibition. Unlike dueling hipster gins from Brooklyn and earnest “grain-to-glass” spirits from upstate, Tirado is focusing its efforts on homelier products with Puerto Rican heritage: “fruit-aged” rums and corn whiskey.

Inspired by a family trip to Puerto Rico in 2009, which included a trip to the famed Bacardi rum distillery in San Juan, Dr. Renee Hernandez (he has a solo internal medicine practice just blocks from his distillery) returned home determined to start a distillery of his own.

“I was intrigued by the size of it, what they do, what made them famous,” Dr. Hernandez said of the Bacardi operation. “My question was, how can we start doing something like that – but different?” He named the distillery after his mother’s maiden name, Tirado, and plowed through the regulatory red tape in record time, obtaining a distilling license in “three to four months,” a process that commonly takes a year or longer to complete.

Interestingly, the first product made at the distillery will be the last one to be rolled out: a sweet fruit-infused aged rum called “Supreme.” Due to launch in 2013, Dr. Hernandez likens the product to “Puerto Rican moonshine.”

“In Puerto Rico, moonshine is rum, not whiskey, distilled at a higher proof,” he explains. The edge of this homebrewed spirit, also known as pitorro, is softened by adding fruit, like apples, raisins, apricots or coconut, often meant to share with guests around Christmas. By comparison, the Tirado version is distilled to a more standard 80 proof.

The sweetened Supreme, different from other rums on liquor-store shelves, rounds out a line of clear and aged “black” rum. Similarly, the whiskey line includes an unaged corn whiskey; an aged “gold” whiskey; and a sweetened, viscous whiskey called El Caribe. Hernandez also distills New York maple syrup into an amber Maple Delight liqueur.

The products all are made in a third-floor walk-up, a wide-open, loft-like space on East 134th Street, the walls and floor painted a vibrant sky blue, and four small stainless-steel pot stills gleam in the sunlight.

Despite being steeped in the liquor business, Dr. Hernandez has never enjoyed the fruits of his distilling labor – he doesn’t drink. “Not even a drop,” he said. Although he has a professional distiller on staff who tastes the products, Dr. Hernandez takes a scientific approach, and insists that if the liquors are properly “standardized, everything should taste the same” from batch to batch.

Unlike some new-generation distillers, who dream of quitting their day jobs to focus on the craft of making hooch, Dr. Hernandez has no such delusions; he firmly sees medicine as his calling. Eventually, he envisions selling the business, or passing it on to one of his three children.

For now, the Tirado line is available only within New York State, primarily in restaurants and liquor retailers near the distillery. As with many entrepreneurial ventures, sales still are hit-and-miss: At Café Havana in the Bronx, a distinctive squared-off bottle of Tirado Gold sat unopened on the back bar, while the bartender hustled together a dozen Bacardi mojitos for a thirsty happy hour crowd.

However, at Siete Ocho Siete in New Rochelle, the owner, Lucas Lucido, estimates that he goes through 10 bottles of Tirado whiskey and rum each week, primarily in cocktails like a cranberry-spiked “Vintage Mojito” and a Mango Colada, both made with Tirado gold whiskey (never mind that both drinks typically are made with rum), and a chocolate-spiked riff on the Coquito, a rum drink from Puerto Rico, similar to egg nog and particularly popular around holiday time.

Guests of Puerto Rican descent say that the aged rum “brings memories back to their native potion,” Mr. Lucido says. “They say, ‘Oh my God, it’s only a taste you get in Puerto Rico.”

Not any more. In addition to local restaurants, Dr. Hernandez also sells Tirado from the tasting room that adjoins the distillery space. Some products, like the El Caribe sweetened whiskey, are available only there – at least for now.

Although Dr. Hernandez boasts that “everything I made in rum last year sold out” – a total of about 60 cases – he hopes a national distributor will materialize to bring the liquors to a broader audience. But if not, he says, he still feels like he fulfilled a personal dream.

“I can look back and say I built something,” he says proudly. “The first distillery in the Bronx since Prohibition.”

For the original report go to http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/11/22/in-the-bronx-distilling-the-spirit-of-puerto-rico/


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