Whiskey bar

Great Jones Distilling Co. Brings Whiskey Making to Manhattan

In late August, when the Great Jones Distilling Company opens, Manhattan will have its first legal whiskey distillery since the advent of Prohibition in 1920.

Along with its stunning 500-gallon still, NoHo’s four-story, 28,000-square-foot space will include a cocktail bar; an event space; a restaurant run by chef Adam Raksin, formerly of Per Se, which will open in September; and a speakeasy-style tasting room. A gift shop will sell three types of whiskey, aged four to five years: a bourbon ($39), a rye ($39) and a four-grain bourbon ($49) made with corn, malted barley, rye and wheat. The latter two will only be available at the distillery.

Great Jones is the dream of Juan Domingo Beckmann, an 11th generation spirits maker and managing director who is the founder of Proximo Spirits, a liquor company based in Jersey City, NJ, owner of the new distillery, and whose family owns and operates the tequila giant Jose Cuervo.

“So far, most major American cities have had a major distillery to call home, with one notable exception – Manhattan,” Beckmann said (although a vodka distillery, Our/New York, opened at Chelsea in 2018). Over the past 20 years, interest and sales of American whiskey have skyrocketed, and new craft distilleries have opened from coast to coast. “New York is my second home and I’ve always been in love with the food scene,” he said. “I wanted to create a whiskey that celebrates the best of New York State agriculture.”

The head distiller is Celina Perez, working alongside assistant distiller Jelani Johnson; both worked with Owney Rum in Brooklyn and set in time to Black Dirt Distillery in Orange County, NY, which Proximo purchased in 2018.

Opening a distillery presents a host of challenges. But hearing what it took to make Great Jones a reality in Manhattan is partly understanding why such a business hasn’t opened in a century.

“It was a technical feat to say the least,” said Andrew Merinoff, the project manager. “We really helped write the playbook for what it will take in New York.”

The Vendome still, made by the famous Kentucky metallurgy of the same name, is kept inside a two-story explosion-proof glass chamber, an unusual configuration that resembles a room inside Willy’s chocolate factory. Wonka. Due to a quirk in the local zoning, which prohibits distillation above the second floor, the floor on which the still sits has been lowered five feet. And since Great Jones Alley, which runs behind the building, is not open to trucks, a forklift must transport the finished liquor down the cobblestone driveway at times agreed upon with neighbors to a truck waiting in the adjacent street.

The search for a suitable building took over a year, and the team nearly gave up and began searching outside of Manhattan, before finally finding the building on Broadway. According to Merinoff, there are only about 120 buildings in Manhattan that comply with the M1-5 zoning that would allow the distillation of alcohol. As everything was finally falling into place in the spring of 2020, Covid hit and opening plans were pushed back.

The first step in the six-year journey for Mr Beckmann was to have whiskey available for the opening. Distillation began at Black Dirt five years ago, and whiskey distilled at Great Jones — which is made from New York State grain only — will continue to be sent to Black Dirt to age.

All of this begs a big question: why insist on Manhattan when setting up a distillery elsewhere would be so much easier?

“Manhattan seems to be the only market that hasn’t embraced or capitalized on this whiskey renaissance,” said Mike Keyes, chief executive and president of Proximo Spirits. “It just seemed so lacking for America’s most dynamic and energetic city.”

Great Jones Distilling Company, 686 Broadway, 332-910-9880, www.greatjonesdistillingco.com