Food + Drinks

The Gin Diaries: How Do You Start a Distillery?

Brad Estabrooke, founder of the Breuckelen Distilling Company, was a typical Wall Street banker. That is, until he got laid off in December 2008 and decided he'd rather make gin than find another office job. The 31-year-old began working on his Brooklyn distillery in March 2009, and he expects it to open for business this May. Over the next few months he'll chart his progress—the good and the bad—in an exclusive diary on Details.com. This week, he explains the ins and outs of starting your own distillery. You can read his introductory post here.

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It's one thing to say you want to start your own distillery, but it's a whole other thing to actually do it. No matter how much you think you know about gin, whiskey, or vodka (drinking it doesn't count), you have to know a hell of a lot more to produce the spirits.

So I started with the basics. I researched online and spent hours in the library and in bookstores. It was really difficult to find information about the distilling process, because unlike with wine or beer, there's not that much out there—there is no Distilling for Dummies—and a lot of the information is inaccurate. Believe it or not, the most helpful books were written by bootlegger—Moonshine! by Matthew Rowley and Making Pure Corn Whiskey by Ian Smiley. After I had a decent understanding of the basics, I took some classes that were offered by manufacturing companies, including Kothe Distilling Technologies and Christian Carl, and I visited a few distilleries around the country.

I felt like I was studying for a Ph.D. in distilling, but I also had to come up with enough money to get the project off the ground. The original plan was to save some money while I worked and then open the distillery when I retired—clearly, that went to shit when I got laid off. So I used all my savings, aggressively pitched the idea to friends and family, and put enough money together to get things started. Everyone owns a little bit of the company—the furthest removed person is a friend of a guy I went to high school with.

After I had secured funding, I looked for a space. I wanted to be in Brooklyn because it has a great artisan community, and I wanted to be in an industrial area so there wouldn't be any zoning issues; plus, I needed to have 16-foot ceilings for some of the equipment to fit. After two months I found a space I loved in the Sunset Park neighborhood. I wasn't able to stay excited for long, though, because I needed to get state and federal licenses, which, as I soon learned, is a total nightmare. The federal government won't accept your application until you are almost ready to open, and then it takes up to 90 days to get the permits. The state puts your application in the same queue as bars and restaurants that are waiting for their liquor licenses, and New York won't even give you an estimate for how long it will take. We have been waiting since November.

Amid the chaos, I was also looking for equipment. I needed a still, a grain mill, fermentation vessels, a filtering machine, and proofing gauges. There are a number of manufacturers around the country, so you try to figure out what you want for each piece and who will do it best. Once you make your purchases it takes months for the equipment to get made, so you wait. You wait for your licenses, you wait for the still, and you just hope it will all be worth it.

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