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Red Hook Rum Harkens to Borough's Waterfront History

By Alan Neuhauser | August 28, 2012 11:26am

RED HOOK — A "Daily Show" editor has begun selling Brooklyn's maritime heritage by the bottle, crafting rum, rye, whiskey and grappa in a two-man distillery just blocks from the Red Hook waterfront.

"I love the history of rum," said Daric Schlesselman, 45, owner and head distiller of Van Brunt Stillhouse. "It was a huge part of the economy in the pre-Colonial northeast, in New York," not to mention the standard drink aboard the ships that sailed to and from Brooklyn.

The stillhouse's rum and its first product, Due North, went on sale in April. Described by Schlesselman as having "notes of caramel and vanilla, with hints of fruit," it's now available in nearly two dozen Brooklyn bars, restaurants and liquor stores.

The grappa, made from grape skins from the Red Hook Winery, is expected to hit shelves this fall. The rye and whiskey, "spicy and bright" spirits largely crafted from New York-grown ingredients, Schlesselman said, are scheduled to go on sale by winter.

Schlesselman, who lives on Coffey Street with his wife and two children, first learned to make alcohol by brewing beer at home. But as a self-described "whiskey enthusiast," he kept an eye toward distilling liquor.

Unlike his work at "The Daily Show," he said, creating beer, whiskey, rum and other sprits produces a tangible product, something he can hold and share with friends.

"I love television, it's fun, but it's very ethereal and ephemeral," he said. "I'm a very tactile person and was very excited to have a business with this tactile component."

It took seven years of planning and experimentation, plus training sessions at distilleries in Scotland and Connecticut, but late last year, Schlesselman, in his words, "took the leap."

He hired neighbor David Lewis, 36, a fellow home-brew and liquor aficianado with experience in Red Hook restaurants, to work the distillery floor. He also recruited his wife, architect Sarah Ludington, to design the distillery's signs and logos.

Then, after buying tons of sugar, yeast, and other ingredients, he started distilling. He and Lewis started with rum, a spirit that's easier to distill on a large scale compared to whiskey, and crafted a spirit that harkened to Brooklyn's roots.

"You're kind of tasting history when you're tasting our rum," Lewis said.

Each step of the process is performed by hand, from pouring sugar and yeast into giant tanks to make rum, to later sampling (and spitting out) the liquid as it pours from a spigot on the distillery's hand-made copper still, to filling oak casks and, after three to four months of aging, eventually hand-labeling each bottle of Due North.

Through hundreds of steps and slight adjustments, this careful process develops not a "mixing rum" like Bacardi or Captain Morgan, Lewis said, but a "sipping" rum: a deep amber liquor that represents "what rum in America used to be like. It really is America's first spirit."

Lewis recommends pouring a thin layer of Due North atop a pair of very thick ice cubes, then drinking once the glass begins to sweat — a "summer drink that's really enjoyable," he said. The stillhouse's website also includes cocktail recipes, plus a list of the stores and restaurants that stock Due North.

The distillery is not yet open to the public, but Schlesselman said he hopes to offer tours and tastings soon.