A DISTILLERY, BAR, AND CHOCOLATE FACTORY ALL UNDER ONE ROOF BRING THE PARTY TO A QUIET RED HOOK BLOCK
BY ERIK SCHONING
The façade of 218 Conover Street is classic Red Hook: steel frame windows and doors, plenty of red brick, the street out front paved in cobblestones. Yet one step inside and the space reveals itself to be anything but traditional. The building is home to not one but three distinct projects: Botanica bar, Widow Jane Distillery, and Cacao Prieto the last a purveyor and maker of beans to bar single origin chocolate. The story of these businesses and the unique place they occupy in Red Hook is a classic tale of borough entrepreneurship, updated for the 21st century.
All of Cacao Prieto’s chocolate originates in the Dominican Republic, a world leader in the export of organic cocoa, and can be traced to Coralina Farms, a 100% organic cacao plantation. From there, though, everything else is handled on site in Brooklyn. Weekend visitors can observe the chocolate making process up close (even from the street, most of the machinery is visible). A vintage Barth Sirocco roaster rubs elbows with brand new vortex winnowers. On site, too, is a stone grinder that was once used in the original Hershey’s factory. Like the space itself, here are past and present side by side. Built about 10 years ago with restored brick and reclaimed wood from demolished buildings in Red Hook, it was designed in a Dutch style to mimic its extension off the bar next door, which was constructed around 1890.
This chocolatier’s appeal is not hard to understand. The simplicity of its sourcing process, as well as the semi public manufacturing space, are a tonic for chocolate lovers soured on exploitative farming conditions and large scale operations. Then there are the bars themselves, 100 percent organic, Kosher, single origin, and, of course, locally made. In the anteroom of the factory, a glass case displays rows of wrapped and decorated chocolates, including such tantalizing combinations as pistachio/apricot, hazelnut/raisin, and cashew/cranberry. For all these, the cacao percentage sits at a tasty 72%. (Percentages have been steadily rising in the chocolate world, and a higher amount means that the bar will have less filler, such as sugar. To give a classic example, a bar of Hershey’s milk chocolate contains only about 11 percent cacao.)
But the chocolate is only half of the story.
Not content to manufacture only a single product, Cacao Prieto began using leftover nibs and sugarcane to make rum. The cacao infused product was popular from the start, made use of byproducts from the manufacturing process, but was discontinued after a year. Poaching ingredients from the chocolate side of the business wasn’t a long term option, and with recent changes in New York’s distilling laws, the company had the opportunity to more officially get into the whiskey business. The Widow Jane brand was launched.
Widow Jane Distillery came at the right time, to the right place. Distilling liquor wasn’t legal in New York until 2007, when the Farm Distillery Act went into effect. In its wake, plenty of upstate makers got their start. In the city, a tangle of permits and regulations make production near impossible, compounded by the fact that the volatility of the distilling process requires plenty of space.
“We were among the first few to gain our license to distill,” said Michele Clark, vice president of operations at Widow Jane. “Red Hook was the perfect fit because of its industrial and manufacturing zoning. It has the benefits of access to Brooklyn and Manhattan while offering a bit more square footage.”
Only two years after Cacao Prieto’s founding, it had evolved. Massive copper pot stills were installed. Single barrel non GMO bourbon, sourced from a Kentucky distillery and shipped to Red Hook, was proofed with mineral water from the legendary Rosendale Mines in upstate New York (the source of limestone for both the Brooklyn Bridge and the Empire State Building). Even though the product was hybrid, it still had a distinctly New York flavor.
“We found that using the limestone rich mineral water had many benefits over standard filtered water,” said Clark. “The minerals allowed the intense flavors to linger on the palate, react with the flavors of the whiskey and oak to balance spiciness with sweetness, and create a fuller bodied spirit.” As with Cacao Prieto, the story of the whiskey is one of combination tradition blending with the Brooklyn of today. It’s no coincidence that they share their space well.
In an increasingly competitive spirits market, Widow Jane has been making its mark. While some of its whiskeys are still sourced in the process described above, they also distill heirloom bourbons on site. Their 10 Year Bourbon Whiskey has won double gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, while its in house distilled Baby Jane Heirloom Bourbon Whiskey won a gold medal and tied for best in show at the New York Distilled Spirits Competition.
And they’re not losing any of that momentum. “Right now Widow Jane is in most of the U.S. and has reached through Europe and Asia,” Clark said. “We’re producing some amazing heirloom corns, now unique to Widow Jane. In the medium term, it’s our firm goal to make all of our whiskey in Brooklyn.” On top of that, they’re beginning to pay more attention to specialty whiskeys, including special rye varietals and private barrel programs.
Widow Jane and Cacao Prieto are now separate entities, with the factory space literally split down the middle.
“The best part is the mingling aromas,” Clark said. “There’s nothing like the blissful smell of whiskey fermentation or distillation combined with the smell of roasted cacao.” And while there are no plans for a cacao infused bourbon, the company does manufacture a chocolate malt variety its process hinting at the same caramel notes chocolate takes with its roasting. It’s an homage to the sweet treat that gave Widow Jane its start.
Almost eight years in, these businesses have become part of the neighborhood. Adjacent, at 220 Conover, is Botanica bar at Widow Jane, a popular neighborhood drinking spot making the space now feel like a one stop manufacturing, retail, and service destination all tucked into one.
This confluence of operations draws all sorts, from nabe locals to ferry riders from Manhattan to cruise ship passengers on afternoon shore leave. Even groups of bike tours have been known to stop in for chocolate and whiskey on Saturday afternoons. Ten years ago, nobody would have guessed that this Red Hook warehouse, so similar to its neighbors, would have become the unique destination it is today. Yet a destination it is. Miss it at your own risk.