Allen Katz: The Man of Mystery Behind the New York Distilling Company

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Allen Katz sits in a broad-backed wooden chair in the Shanty, the bar attached to the New York Distilling Company, the Williamsburg distillery that he co-founded in 2011 with Tom and Bill Potter. He has dark hair and horn-rimmed glasses and the sort of solid, straight-shooting, earnest face that would look at home in the 1950s.

He is clean-shaven, but just weeks before, he wore a moustache. Several months before that, he sported muttonchops. (Allen Katz is one of the few people in the world who can get away with muttonchops.) And a few years ago, he went one better, winning a fund-raiser beard-growing contest. His whiskers were 13½ inches long.

These variations in facial hair are an apt illustration of Allen Katz’s nature, for there is not just one Allen Katz. He has led a cat’s worth of lives in his 41 years. He worked in the late ’90s in Toscana Saporita, a cooking school in Tuscany, and for years he was an influential figure in Slow Food USA. He worked for the mammoth wine and liquor distributor Southern Wine & Spirits under the highfalutin title of “Director of Mixology and Spirits Education,” and lectures regularly on cocktail and spirit history at conventions like Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans. He once hosted a show called The Cocktail Hour on Martha Stewart’s Sirius Satellite Radio, and is the founder of a curious annual event in which mixologists compete in a drinks contest, judged in part by opera singers, at the Metropolitan Opera. He’s the sort of shape-shifting figure that attracts speculation: Someone once told me he was Stephen Sondheim’s intern. (Not true.)

All this and more has made Katz a unique figure in the liquor world, an amalgam of mixologist, spokesman, scholar, personality and mentor; a “leading influencer,” as Simon Ford, co-founder of the newly minted 86 Company liquor concern, put it. In the acknowledgments of his book Punch, cocktail historian David Wondrich described him as “the mysterious Allen Katz.”

“Until I opened this distillery with my partners, there was probably some general curiosity as to what it was I actually did,” said Katz, in the careful, measured way he answers any question.

Wondrich, when asked why he characterized Katz as mysterious, responded, “Have you ever met Allen? There’s a little of the international man of mystery there.”

These days it’s a lot easier to pin Katz down. He’s a distiller. He’s the guy who runs the day-to-day inside the unsightly metal building at the corner of Richardson and Leonard Streets that houses New York Distilling Company’s 1,000-liter, German-made, hybrid pot-column still. Usually, he is wearing jeans and a work shirt with a patch on it that says “Allen,” looking very much like a pump jockey. It’s a change of style from days gone by, when he was known to don a natty sports coat, straw hat and two-toned shoes.

In just a year Katz and the Potters have emerged as a leading player in Brooklyn’s fast-growing distillery community. NYDC’s initial offerings—Dorothy Parker American Gin and Perry’s Tot Navy Strength Gin—can be found in the city’s best liquor stores, and in cocktails in the most commanding of drinking dens.

For both the gins and the rye, Katz and the Potters got a big assist from the Warwick Valley Winery & Distillery upstate. While the NYDC partners were making a distillery out of the junk-filled former rag factory in Williamsburg they had settled on as a home, they tested dozens of potential gin recipes at Warwick. (Warwick was also one of the early investors in the distillery.) “It was, between the two gins, 30 tests,” said Katz. “Some of them were total failures. The key was, just about every batch, whether we liked it or not, we would mix cocktails with it.”

The long wait for the Williamsburg distillery to be finished proved a boon of sorts, in terms of getting Perry’s Tot right. Navy-strength gin is a high-octane version of the juniper-heavy spirit, so named because it was favored and commissioned by the British Navy. Perry’s Tot checks in at an impressive 57 percent alcohol by volume. “The extra time gave us some time to tinker,” recalled Katz. Katz settled on a botanical mix of juniper berries, lemon peel, orange peel, grapefruit peel, coriander, angelica root, cardamom pods, sweet cinnamon and star anise as being suited to the high alcohol level. But something was missing.

“We thought, what could give it not just a wrinkle, but maybe a little bit of cover? For 1,000 liters, we add all of five pounds of honey from Greene County, New York’s Twin Spruce honey. It’s used like the rest of the botanicals. It makes it accessible to just about anyone.”

“I give Allen tons of credit for having ideas from the start for coming up with gins that were unique but still fit within that classic profile,” said Tom Potter. “They’re no gimmicks. There are a lot of gins out there that are gimmicks. They don’t work in classic cocktails.”

Booze is not the business line you would have expected the college-age Katz to have ended up in. He was a music major at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, and dreamed of being a theater conductor. He moved to New York to pursue a musical career but, after his stay in Italy, grew interested in the Slow Food movement, where he became such an enthusiastic “über-volunteer” that today most people who know him still assume he was a paid employee. Katz took road trips to visit food festivals in Tennessee and Kansas to experience their food culture. “What is American Slow Food?” he says he asked himself. “Is there any?”

“Finally, the ideas of Slow Food and American culture became two distinct things in my mind: barbecue of the American South, and cocktails. It sent me off the deep end in interest in cocktail culture and history.”

He picked up for $35 a copy of 19th-century bartender Jerry Thomas’s influential book The Bon Vivant’s Companion and began to study it. Soon, a couple friends introduced him to Wondrich.

“We met at a restaurant in Greenwich Village and began drinking Manhattans,” remembers Katz. “I thought I knew a thing or two about Jerry Thomas. And then I started listening to Dave, and I thought, ‘I probably should just be quiet and listen to this guy talk.’”

Soon after, in March 2003, he helped organize a tribute to Thomas at the Plaza Hotel. Barworld luminaries Dale DeGroff and Audrey Saunders were among the guests. His immersion in the cocktail world had begun in earnest.

Katz decided he wanted to distill about a decade ago, though his pursuit of that goal was slow until he met Potter, one of the founders of the Brooklyn Brewery. As it turned out, Potter, too, had been thinking of opening a distillery.

“I started to talk to friends about my ideas,” recalled Potter, “and several of them asked if I knew Allen Katz.” Potter knew of him, but as a food guy; Katz had done Slow Food fund-raisers at Brooklyn Brewery. They met in the fall of 2008. “I felt immediately that his ideas were very much in tune with what I’d been thinking,” said Potter. “I got the feeling that he knew the things about the spirits background that I did not. I started to convince him that we should go in together.”

Despite the reception with which their spirits were met, NYDC’s profile would be considerably less prominent if it weren’t for one unique distinction: It is the only distillery in New York (and one of the few in the country) to contain a saloon. The Shanty opened the same day NYDC flung wide its doors, on December 5, 2011. It is not a tasting room; dozens of distilleries can boast of having those. It is a full-on, working cocktail bar, one where you can order any drink you like, not just ones made with the liquors created next door.

“We could have had a tasting room or retail outlet,” said Katz. “But, one, we thought a bar would be a lot of fun. Two, we could demonstrate that we’re making these products to be used in drinks. If you’re interested, we’ll make you one. If not, we’ll give you a beer with just as much pleasure.”

The Shanty owes its life to a recent change in New York liquor law. The distillery applied for, and received, a farm distiller’s license. Under that document, they were allowed to open an in-house tavern if the distillery used a predominance of New York State agricultural products. This they do. Most of the rye is from Pederson Farms, and the other grains from Lakeview Organic.

Having a bar unarguably makes NYDC the coolest distillery in town—something that matters not a little when you’re located in Williamsburg. But it is also a genius way to help pay for a young business. Distilleries typically bleed money in their first years. “The bar’s been more of a success, financially and aesthetically, than I anticipated,” said Tom Potter. “I’d go so far as to say the bar pays our rent.”

The bar crew is headed by Nathan Dumas. His résumé includes stints at Pegu Club, Clover Club and Prime Meats, but that’s not the reason he was the right man to run the Shanty. More than just a barkeep, he attended the Heriot-Watt distillery school in Edinburgh. “I remember when he told me it was going to have a bar, it was pretty exciting,” said Dumas.

Dumas gathered together an enviable staff, including Bran Farran (Clover Club) and Katie Stipe (Prime Meats, Vandaag), bartenders who, like Dumas, are skilled but don’t put on airs. “We agreed that New York didn’t need another buttoned-up cocktail bar,” said Dumas. “We said to each other, ‘Let’s do really good cocktails but not be precious about it.’”

As such, the Shanty fits in with a new, no-frills-just-good-drinks trend shared by such New York cocktail bars as NoLiTa’s Mother’s Ruin and Williamsburg’s Basik. The bar also mirrors Katz’s own dichotomic mix of epicurean tastes and down-to-earth manner.

“He’s even-keeled, easygoing and very good to his employees,” said Farran of Katz, echoing a sentiment held by more than a few bartenders across the city. “Plus, he’s just plain nice. I’ve never heard him speak a negative word about anybody. I’ve even tried to elicit a negative opinion from him once or twice, and always am met with a respectful silence or artful dodge.”

Other bartenders can also be seen at the distillery during daylight hours. When it’s time to distill a run of liquor, be it bottle gin or barrel rye, Katz invites mixologists and other liquor pros to join him in the labor, and they happily show up. On a recent October Wednesday, 60 or so of the city’s best bartenders gathered to hear Wild Turkey master distillers and bourbon legends Jimmy and Eddie Russell—in town from Kentucky—discuss the business of making whiskey. Those who wished to then lent a hand in starting a mash of genuine NYDC–Wild Turkey New York Bourbon.

At present, New York Distilling Company is known for gin, but the company has rye aspirations and began barreling the stuff nearly a year ago. The whiskey, however, will not first reach the drinking public as straight rye anytime soon. Unlike other young distillers, Katz and Potter are not content to slap a “Whiskey” label on a bottle the moment the distillate shows the slightest brown tint from a short stint aging in cask. Neither do they use small barrels, which speed along the aging process but frequently result in raw, immature whiskies.

“When you’re a new business you need revenue streams,” said Katz. “We’re doing our best to be obstinate and patient and wait for the rye to mature.”

In the meantime, some of the younger whiskey will be bottled as Rock and Rye, a mix of whiskey and rock candy sugar that was once a popular staple in American bars. It fell out of favor after Prohibition and is now largely extinct in bottle form.

“My grandfather would have been a Rock and Rye drinker, more so than my dad,” said Katz. Though Katz was raised in Baltimore, his father’s family hailed from Martinsburg, West Virginia, where they grew up in eyesight of a distillery that did contract work for a lot of bourbon and rye labels. Fittingly, the new product, due in early 2013, will be called Mr. Katz’s Rock and Rye. Katz has been testing different sugars with the In the Raw people. The liquor will be flavored with orange peel and upstate sour cherries. The base will be NYDC’s one-year-old rye, which suits the enterprise, since Rock and Ryes were typically made with younger, rougher whiskey.

The product fits in perfectly with NYDC’s so-old-it’s-new philosophy. “Our intention is to be humbly and purposefully different,” explained Katz. “Navy-strength gin hasn’t been made in this country for a century. Rock and Rye is in that same vein. It also allows us in a whimsical way to wave our hands to the professional and enthusiast communities to say, ‘We’re going to be a whiskey company someday, but in the meantime, here’s a taste of what we’re doing.’”

Today, Allen Katz looks like a man who has something pressing on his mind. That’s because, generally, he does. NYDC spirits reached Katz’s native Maryland and DC by end of 2012. The first quarter of 2013 will see them in California, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Illinois. Other countries may pour some Parker and Perry’s by the end of the year. Meanwhile, NYDC and Warwick are partnering on a stripping facility and aging rickhouse upstate, and, said Potter, the distillery is getting a second still, from Vendome in Louisville, Kentucky. Finally, Katz is working on future “guest distiller” days involving visits by well-known distillers from the United States, Europe and Asia.

Katz looks a little sheepish ticking off all these ambitions. “A failing of mine going back to when I was four years old was too many interests.” As failings, go, it’s not a bad one.

All of the above information on new buildings and new projects, by the way, Katz offered freely. Nothing mysterious about it. Could it be that there’s no mask and cape in the closet, after all? No multiple passports in the glove compartment, no secret identity? Just a hard-working guy with a lot of ideas and good intentions?

Perhaps. But give him time. He has a clarinet sitting at home. “I dream of practicing it here in the distillery,” he said.

Photo credit: Vicky Wasik

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