Photo illustration by Johansen Peralta
May 22, 2023
Talking wryly about rye with Fort Hamilton Distillery co-founder Alex Clark
Launched in 2016 to re-educate the public about pre-Prohibition era whiskey, Fort Hamilton Distillery taps into Brooklyn's rebellious past
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Nestled in the courtyard between buildings five and six in Industry City in Sunset Park is a modest looking little distillery cranking out some of the best ryes, bourbons, gin and — soon — vodka in the region. Fort Hamilton Distillery was born out of a desire to revive the classic pre-Prohibition New York rye whiskey and has since become destination for connoisseurs of cocktails, cocktail history and Americana. Named for the historic Brooklyn site Fort Hamilton, which itself is named for Alexander Hamilton, Fort Hamilton Distillery has a tasting room, a robust cocktail program and offers tours and an interesting story.
Today Alex Clark, co-founder of Fort Hamilton Distillery with his wife Amy Grindeland, joins us on “Brooklyn Magazine: The Podcast” to discuss the brand — and provide a brief rundown of the history of whiskey in the United States: The couple launched Fort Hamilton Distillery in 2016, were ready to open its tasting room in 2020 right as the pandemic struck, pivoted to tours and tastings that go deep on history and process, and they started making really good maple syrup.
“Making your own whiskey from scratch is financially destructive and emotionally crippling,” he says. And yet they continue to do it.
Clark, a Brit who moved to New York at the turn of the millennium, did his time as a bartender in world class establishments like Milk and Honey that helped launch the classic cocktail boom of the early 2000s. He co founded Widow Jane distillery before deciding to go out on his own with Fort Hamilton. He joins me to talk about whiskey history, authentic, pre-Prohibition rye, distillers row in Industry City and … Alexander Hamilton. Mix yourself a rye Manhattan and come along.
This interview has been edited for concision and clarity. You can listen to it in its entirety in the player above or wherever you get your podcasts.
You guys founded Fort Hamilton Distillery in 2016 with an initial focus on the original pre-Prohibition New York rye. Is that accurate? What makes that whiskey so special?
That is accurate. What makes rye whiskey special is a few things. Historically, it was the original whiskey of America. And when Americans — who had previously been drinking rum supplied by Caribbean colonies by the British — when they decided that the British weren’t so cool anymore and the Revolutionary War was brewing, they didn’t want to fund British products and wanted to produce their own spirits. Because everyone loved a good drink back then, as some do today
Tell as old as time.
Indeed. And so the earliest productions of domestic spirit from grain grown in the country was rye whiskey, and it was popular and tasty.
Well, and it’s interesting because when people think of America and American whiskey, they tend to think of bourbon from Kentucky, but rye actually grows in New York.
Yes, it is a great crop, particularly if the weather is harsh and cold. So it grows over the winter, which is an unusual situation. And so when it is bitterly cold in the northeast of America, rye still grows. And that’s why rye is grown all the way up into Canada and the planes, which it dominates because it doesn’t get beaten up when it gets freezing cold. It survives and provides cover for the soil and prevents erosion and allows the soil to maintain its fertility when otherwise it would be getting destroyed by frozen rain and snow and the harshness of a heavy winter.
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You grow it in the cold and you drink it in the cold.
Well, yes. Exactly. So because of its hardiness, it was a popular grain to grow. And during our lifetimes, of course, bourbon has been the king of the American whiskeys, but that’s only because of government legislation which forced bourbon to become more popular. So before Prohibition, rye was the biggest whiskey of America, and then Prohibition shut down all the distilleries in the northeast that were producing rye. And that was followed quickly by corn subsidies, more government legislation, which is questionable at best. And corn subsidies meant that using corn as a base for your whiskey or spirit became very cheap.
Capitalism being what it is, there is a fiduciary duty to shareholders to increase profits, and the best way to increase profits as a whiskey producer is to decrease your costs. Consequently, if you are going to decrease your costs and corn is free, well you can put two and two together, can’t you? Ultimately, corn whiskey, aka bourbon, became the most popular whiskey and was marketed as the go-to whiskey and people were convinced to buy it by companies that were trying to increase their profits.
What’s interesting about rye is that it’s actually technically a superior whiskey to bourbon, and yet it fell out of favor during the 20th century. The real driving force behind launching the Fort Hamilton distillery was to reeducate, if you will, the American consumer on the beauty of rye whiskey. And this all stems from me bartending on the Lower East Side with the Milk & Honey crew and falling in love with the American classic cocktails.
The distillery is named for the historic Brooklyn site of Fort Hamilton, which itself was named for Alexander Hamilton. What drew you to that story?
I had previously helped to launch another distillery in Brooklyn in 2011, Widow Jane, and we made that very successful. The story behind Widow Jane, the power of the simplicity of the name, the water from the Widow Jane Mine, et cetera, was good. It was legitimate and we wanted to be able to hang a good story on the Fort Hamilton brand as well. Because we were making this historic style of American whiskey and trying to bring it back to life, it felt like the history was a key component of the story.
Now, I’d like to say I was some sort of a genius in coming up with this name, but that wouldn’t be true. The truth is that I went back to work as a bartender after leaving Widow Jane and trying to put the first bricks of our distillery together. And I would come home late at night on the subway after a shift, scribbling down whiskey names furiously into a book, and they were all terrible. And I would then get off the subway at my stop, which is Fort Hamilton Parkway, and it would be slapping me in the face every time I got off the train. And I was like, “Fort Hamilton, that’s a pretty good name.” And then I started Googling it and looking into it, and it turns out that Fort Hamilton is a still functioning army base at the foot of the Verrazzano Bridge. And in fact, they were going to shut it down prior to 9/11, and when 9/11 happened, they realized very quickly that having somewhere for the army to be in New York City was actually quite a good thing and so they kept the army base at Fort Hamilton.
What were some of those rejected names of whiskey brands? What was the worst one?
Oh gosh. No comment. There is a piece of paper somewhere that’s got some horrendous names on it, but we won’t talk about those.
The point being is it’s the shortest distance between Staten Island and Brooklyn, and that is why they put the bridge there, because obviously the short of the distance the less money you have to spend. So it’s significant because that is also, because it’s the shortest distance, where the British landed on their boats when they parked in Staten Island and then rode over to where Fort Hamilton stands today.
Came up through Dyker Heights, I believe?
Yes, I believe that the Martense Lane, which still exists today, and the Kings Highway, which still exists. And actually interestingly, they got all the way up to the Red Lion Inn, which stands one block from where our distillery is. And surrounded by a watermelon patch, started helping themselves the watermelons, were discovered by the American pickets who started unloading their muskets onto them. Consequently, we distill our gin with watermelons as an homage to this first skirmish.
It’s interesting. You are British and here you are siding with the Americans and making American rye and embracing the history of our side of the skirmish against your native land. Are you something of a traitor? Maybe you are a self-hating Brit?
A turncoat, you could say. I don’t know that it’s traitorous, and I dare say that 200 years ago there were plenty of Englishmen running around being American. I believe that’s where a lot of the current crop comes from. It is slightly ironic, I will give you that. But as I like to tell everyone, I’ve just come back to claim what’s rightfully mine.
What is your story? You moved to New York in ’98, I read. You started in finance and then swiftly pivoted to bartending?
I was an exotic currency options broker, which sounds more fabulous than it really was.It was effectively derivatives, broking into bank. I was pretty good at it, but I didn’t much like the work. It was a little soul destroying, lot of untruths that need to be told. Never trust a broker. That’s the one takeaway from this. It was not satisfying for me.
And so consequently, I left that job and quickly thereafter met my future wife and got back into music business, DJing and promoting parties and stuff like that, and I’ve been semi-professional in the UK. And then went full-time in New York and I was a young man, 25-ish, a good lifestyle, that was. For a while. And then when my wife became pregnant with our son, Andreas, I had to buck up and get a real job. So I determined that bartending was definitely a real job.
Good. A responsible line of work.
Exactly. So I started bartending. I think at the time I was DJing in the back of the East Side Company Bar, which was one of Sasha Petraske’s bars.
The legendary Sasha, founder of Milk & Honey? Jump-started the cocktail boom. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sasha_Petraske
Correct. Little Branch and Dutch Kills.
Died shockingly young. I was just reading up about him actually. It was tragic. Was he either 42 or something like that?
Yeah, he left us too soon. But to be fair, he did leave a hell of a legacy. The godfather of the modern speakeasy and Milk & Honey, of course, was ground zero for the cocktail renaissance. And so being in touch with that part of American culture really helped form what has become the Fort Hamilton distillery. And the reason being, of course, is that these guys were looking at the oldest recorded cocktails in books and documents from way back when, from before Prohibition, when rye was still the king whiskey. And at the time, of course, you are looking at a Manhattan recipe that says, “Rye whiskey, two ounces, please.” And yet you could barely buy rye whiskey in New York. They had stopped recording rye whiskey sales in fact years previously because-
Stopped recording it entirely?
Stopped recording it. Yeah. There are no records of rye whiskey sales prior to 2009 for many years, because so little was sold. Distilleries in America would commit one day a year to producing rye whiskey.
What were some of the legacy brands? Michter’s?
No, Michter’s was reinvented. It was Old Overholt and Rittenhouse, those were the two that were available. And they’re both Pennsylvania brands that, post-Prohibition after the distilleries were shut down, were picked up by Kentucky distilleries. And the brands were then produced in Kentucky using recipes that may not have been accurate to the originals because they were throwing more corn in there to get their costs down. And so those were the two brands that were available.
You’ve spent time in Kentucky, right? You’ve been down there for research?
I have. Actually when we launched Widow Jane, which is a brand that’s just sourced whiskey.
There is no actual Widow Jane whiskey. You put your label on other people’s whiskey. Is that accurate?
Yeah, that’s pretty much it: non-distiller producer, they call it, NDP. And certainly at the time there is a little bit of distillation happening at Widow Jane, but that’s not what the brand is. We flew down to Kentucky and Indiana and tried to source whiskey for the brand. We did in the end buy a lot of barrels from Indiana and that’s what became Widow Jane five-year whiskey with the origination. But that became the cornerstone of the brand, was the seven-year, which became the 10-year, and the rest is history.
While I was down there, we sat with Drew Kulsveen at Willett Distillery, which was just starting to fire up again. And Dave Pickerell, who’s the godfather of the American cross distilling scene, was with us and he had just put the new still in at the Willett Distillery. So we sat and Drew pulled out a bottle of Monongahela rye from 1909 and we drank it and I was like, “Bingo, this is what we need to be making because this stuff is absolutely tasty.”
Obviously it hadn’t been in a barrel since 1909. It was probably four or five year old whiskey, but it was devastatingly good. Monongahela rye is known for having no corn in them. So this was very clearly a rye that was made with just rye grain and malted barley that was mind-blowingly delicious
From 1909, you said?
And there was nothing like it on the market at the time, and it just occurred to me that this is ridiculous, that why wouldn’t the tastiest whiskey that I’ve ever had in America be available? And then you look into it and you start looking at this government legislation that legislated away this tasty juice. And I’m like, “Well, this doesn’t make any sense.”
So did you do primary source research? Were you going into old documents for recipes? How do you learn how it was done pre-prohibition days? Is that literature readily available or did you have to find it?
There was some digging for sure, but there’s some information out there. David Wondrich wrote a lovely article about the death and the rebirth of rye whiskey in Pennsylvania and tells great stories about the Overholt Distillery catching fire. And then they put it out by busting up the steam pipes that were running through the rickhouse. And then I was like, “Oh wait, why are there steam pipes running through the rickhouse?” And then you realize, oh, they’re temperature cycling their whiskey barrels during the winter.
And that’s one of the reasons that we ended up in Industry City, is that there’s steam heat available nine to five Monday to Friday during the winter. So our barrels are getting heat cycled when they’re in there. So little bits of information like this helped inform the decisions that we made as a brand about how we were creating the whiskey, the mash bills that we were using, the way we’re storing the whiskey.
So you start this distillery, Fort Hamilton, from scratch. Takes a few years for whiskey to mature. Like you were saying, Widow Jane’s model was buy whiskeys from someone else, slap a label on it. Do you feel like since it takes time for whiskey to mature and you started in 2016, are you just now hitting your stride? Is your whiskey just now finally getting as good as it can be? It’s been a chaotic couple of years for small business owners.
Yeah, that’s true. And it’s a very different business model. Making your own whiskey from scratch is financially destructive and emotionally crippling. A lot of people that get into this business, they’re like, “Oh, I was bored of Wall Street and I had $10 million in my pocket, so I decided to open a distillery.”
Which is great. Good for you. That’s not how I approached this. Unfortunately or fortunately, I don’t know. We didn’t really have much money. I was a bartender by trade and it was all about trying to lay foundations and build an inventory of whiskey with money that we didn’t have and not sell it. What people don’t understand is that you make whiskey and you don’t sell it.
What do you mean?
I mean, if I make whiskey in one day, I put it in a barrel and then I sell it on day two, it’s not going to be very good whiskey. I have to leave it in the barrel for a few years. And the whiskey that I made in 2016, I have to double the amount of whiskey that I make in 2017 and double that amount in 2018 and still not sell it, and double that amount in 2019. Numbers get quite staggering quite quickly. Because the assumption is that we are going to be growing our brand when we do really start trying to sell it.
And did you? Then the pandemic hit. Did the pandemic hit when you were ready to start uncorking bottles or were you not quite there yet?
Yeah, it did. We signed a lease. So we kept our overheads as low as possible for as long as possible as a consequence of this, the financial lift that’s required to build whiskey barrel inventory. We were working out of another distillery, Industry City Distillery at the time, who became clear that they were hitting the skids a bit. There was some litigious stuff going on between the founders and we were like, “Well, okay, this is not great for the business. We probably should find our own feet at some point.”
So we signed a lease for our own space. Somehow we convinced Industry City to agree to this, even though our finances were probably not quite as solid as most landlords would prefer it.
Industry City was just getting started too. You got in there early days.
Relatively early. Yeah. The Jamestown Group who sold Chelsea Market are leading the charge there and redeveloping it, and it’s going great. But they have a long-term vision and thankfully they were wide-eyed enough to allow us to start our vision down there too. So we signed a lease in 2019, and because we were already basically on-site, we were very quick to get permits and start building and designing the space and making that come to fruition. And of course, we were pretty much ready to roll in March 2020 when the proverbial shit the fan. Yeah. And I lost my job bartending because the restaurant closed and we couldn’t open the tasting room and distillery that we sunk all that money into. And it was challenging for everyone. We’re not special, but the circumstances were not great.
What made you through?
Well, if you spent that amount of time and energy building a brand. Because we already had two products at market. We had the single barrel rye and the double barrel rye, which came out the end of 2019. So it only had three or four months before the pandemic hit. And I think what happened is I came home from work on that Sunday night, middle of March and was told that we weren’t going to open the restaurant again on the Monday morning.
Sort of sat down and thought to myself, “Right, well how are we going to get through this and what do we want to happen here?” And I think that the upshot of that thought process was, we need to come out of this thing, whatever this thing is, we need to come out stronger and fitter and more powerful than we went in. And so I sat down and I think I was the only person that quit drinking that first month of the pandemic.
Everyone else accelerating.
Everyone accelerating. Someone with access to that much alcohol, I just stopped and spent a month writing a business plan and building a deck, started shopping it around for investment and thought that if we’re really going to take this to the next level, we need to get serious. And so I built this deck and started shopping it around. And of course, everyone’s like, “It’s the end of the world.” No one’s parting with cash easily.
But after a few months, we took on some investment. Nothing crazy. We’ve definitely taken on a lot less than most people in this business, but it was enough to get us through and it was enough to get the tasting room. So once we were allowed to continue construction, we did a week’s worth of construction, finished the job, got the license over the line in September, 2020, and started bringing our barrel inventory into the new space. Because we’ve been building our inventory on other people’s stills to, again, keep our overheads as low as possible for as long as possible. And so once we did that, we set the bottling line up. Of course, we couldn’t open the tasting room because Covid.
And then we launched, which is kind of an interesting decision. We launched this mini clandestine tour program.
Which got people through the back door, because the front door didn’t exist because the landlord didn’t want to complete the work because everyone else that was supposed to be moving in pulled their leases.
So you were a literal speakeasy for a minute?
Yeah, in a way we were. We were legal and we were paying our taxes, but to all intents and purposes we were, unless you knew, you didn’t know.
Well, it’s interesting how much collaboration there is in the industry behind the scenes. Like you were saying, you’re using other people’s stills. You put other people’s whiskey on bottles with your label. I’m not part of the industry, so I might be mischaracterizing it. But it does sound like there’s a lot of blurred lines behind the scenes.
I think that that’s true. There are economies of scale in this business that are not appreciated by the general consumer. The size of your still determines the cost of your whiskey to an extent and your production capacity. As a craft distiller, the way that the business operates, if you put a still in place and you’ve spent a lot of money building that still, if you can sell time on that still to another distiller who’s willing to pay more money than it costs to produce the whiskey, then you can pay off your capital expenditure through selling excess capacity.
That makes sense.
And that’s how I certainly built this business. Trying to avoid spending $3 million, whatever it might be, putting a still in place immediately and then not selling whiskey for five years afterwards.
The big problem in this business is that because people are forced to sell whiskey that isn’t ready to go to market because of the crippling financial burden of building whiskey inventory. And so I think a lot of people have undermined their own brands by selling underwhelming whiskey.
It’s just by being shortsighted or not having the fortitude or the—
It’s not even shortsighted. It’s not having the resources. It’s a constant balancing act between inventory build and financial security. Constantly the needle is in the red for us. I’m balancing inventory growth with day-to-day costs. The lower your day-to-day costs are, the better. That being said, you get to a certain point where actually decreasing your cost of goods becomes the driving force. Now. I’m not saying that you should make your less tasty by using cheaper ingredients, aka the Kentucky bourbon paradox, but-
There’s so much sameness in Kentucky bourbon.
Exactly. And I think what’s interesting is if you look at the history of it, which is documented quite thoroughly in oral histories that have been recorded from distillers in Kentucky over the 20th century, they all say the same thing. If you read them thoroughly, you’ll see that they all say that their overlords have told them them to get their costs down. And the way that they’ve done it is by using more corn and less malted barley and less rye grain.
And they’re making less good whiskeys as a consequence, and they’ll freely admit it. But that’s just the nature of the business, I suppose, from the way they see it. But I think the beauty of being a craft distiller is that we’re not beholden to a group of shareholders. We’re more interested, or I’m more interested in creating the tastiest product we can.
What was the learning curve for you on distilling for the first time?
Well, I’ve definitely thrown a lot of stuff down the drain. You kind of have to, unfortunately. There is no school. Well, there is a school for it, Heriot-Watt in Edinburgh, and there’s a Kentucky Moonshine University situation. Because distillations in America were carried out by a few distilleries in Kentucky for the longest period of time, there was no school to go to do this stuff. So interestingly, when we launched Widow Jane, I was coming to the business as a bartender by trade, which frankly made me qualified to do it at the time because who else is qualified to be a director of sales or a-
You know what it’s supposed to taste like, yeah.
Right, I know what it’s supposed to taste like. I know how it’s supposed to be used. So in some ways I’d be more exposed to it than most human beings on the planet at the time. It is a learning curve. And I wouldn’t say that I approached this as a distiller to start with. I was a salesperson. And it goes back to my broking days, I guess I’ve always been in sales and even the DJing promotion days, it’s all kind of sales if you boil it down.
You’re upstairs there in the courtyard and you have a nice little tasting room and lounge area, but there’s a whole Distillers Row there almost. You’ve got Barrow’s Intense. You’ve got Brooklyn Kura, Big aLICe Barrel Room, Standard Wormwood. Gun Hill right next door. Yeah. It’s nice for the consumer. I would imagine it’s nice for the proprietor as well.
I think so. It helps to get more people down. We run our program at the tasting room in an inclusive manner. We offer beer and we offer wine and we offer cocktails made with other local New York producers’ products. We run a completely New York centric bar program, actually, which we have to because we run under a New York Farm distillery license.
So we use New York grain in every product that we make. So we’re allowed to sell our products by the bottle in our tasting room, as well as in drinkable formats, aka cocktails. And we’re also allowed to carry other New York state products too, so we can carry beer and we can carry wine. So long as it’s from New York State agricultural material.
And you’re doing maple syrup now. The maple syrup is incredible.
I guess it was one of those pandemic things where I was bored. And I thought, “How can I make my life more complicated?” And the answer was, “Well, let’s find the best maple syrup in New York State and put it in bourbon barrels for a few months.” And so we do and the bourbon barrel aged maple syrup is a huge hit. Then we used that as the base for our Maple Old Fashioned, which is our go-to cocktail in the tasting room.
Do you have a favorite cocktail? If you’re at home making a cocktail, what do you do?
I do. I am an absolute sucker for a good Manhattan. Our single barrel rye whiskey was our first product that we released, and really that was built with the Manhattan in mind, I would say. Going back to the whole looking at the original cocktail recipes of America and understanding that rye whiskey is the base for them: Manhattan is the one that always stuck out like a sore thumb and was like, “Why can’t I use New York rye in a Manhattan? Because it doesn’t exist?” So let’s make it exist, and then we can have a genuine, hardcore, delicious Manhattan. And so every time I make a Manhattan with our single barrel rye, I feel like I’ve done something good.
You can’t make a drink called a Manhattan with Kentucky Bourbon.
It’s the first cocktail I ever remember knowing existed when I was a kid, the Manhattan. My mom and her mother, my grandmother, would drink Manhattans together, and it sounded so sophisticated and cool.
It’s such a great name for a cocktail. It’s got it all. And now we are fortunate enough to have great vermouth made in New York state too, and so we build this incredible New York Manhattan at the tasting room and with our single barrel rye whiskey, I think it’s our crowning achievement.
But before we go, do you have any announcements?
We are now certified kosher by the Orthodox Union. Our gin is absolutely flying right now. Distilled with watermelons and cucumbers, it is summery and delicious and it makes an incredible cocktail. We have Whisper It, a vodka coming out next month under the Fortress Label, which is kind of a sub-brand for us, but is going to be epic. And it’s already selling light hotcakes, even though it hasn’t been produced yet.
Even your logo is interesting, which we didn’t talk about. It depicts Alexander Hamilton’s Hearts of Oak Militia, which I looked up and it’s crazy. It was a militia that was founded by students who were at basically what’s now Columbia University, at King’s College. They’re these college kids who decide to form a military. They made their own uniforms, these little tight green jackets, and they drilled at St. Paul’s Chapel. I can’t imagine something like that happening today. It probably does in the south.
I’m pretty sure it does. There’s militias around. They may not be in our backyard, but they’re around.
I don’t know if they’re going to be on the winning side of history, but we’ll find out I guess.
When we were looking at the name Fort Hamilton and looking at Alexander Hamilton, who the army base was named after, ironically, of course, this is the guy who instituted the whiskey tax, which led to the Whiskey Rebellion and in a way forced distillers further west and south to run away from the tax man, which led to ultimately people settling in Kentucky and all that stems from that.
But looking at him and the Hearts of Oak Militia, it was like, “Wow, look at this story.” These guys were out of Columbia University, which was then on Park Row, Lower Manhattan. The rest of it was all farmland, of course. He marshaled them down to the battery, which is why Battery Park is called that, because it had a battery of British cannons on it. And they stole the British cannons under fire from the HMS Asia and took them to George Washington, who then declared that the Hearts of Oak Militia would be the first artillery company of the American Army. And they promptly turned the cannons around and started firing them at the British, which I should probably be more upset about.
But you’re just back to claim what’s rightfully yours.
Exactly. There you go.
Check out this episode of “Brooklyn Magazine: The Podcast” for more from Hanif. Subscribe and listen wherever you get your podcasts.
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