For more than 100 years, no whiskey distillery has called Manhattan home. That’s due in large part to Prohibition, the 1920s-era constitutional ban on the production, importation, and sale of alcoholic beverages. In the grand scheme of things, the unpopular legislation was short-lived, causing distilleries of all types to open in major cities across the United States when it was repealed in 1933. A notable exception has been Manhattan, which received its first distillery this century with the vodka-focused Our/New York in 2018. Now, the city has finally inaugurated its first whiskey distillery since the Jazz Age.
Sprawling across four stories in an 82-year-old NoHo building that once housed a discount shoe store but now embodies Old New York glamour, Great Jones Distilling Co. offers a custom built and engineered distillery where visitors can enjoy educational tours and tastings. With interiors by Groundswell Design Group, the 28,000-square-foot Art Deco marvel sports a cocktail bar, tasting room, underground speakeasy, and restaurant from Per Se alum Adam Raksin. Perhaps the hotspot’s glistening centerpiece is the Vendome Still, a 500-gallon copper pot still named after the Kentucky metal works that’s kept inside a two-story, explosion-proof glass chamber. (Because of an obscure zoning regulation that prohibits distilling above the second floor, it sits five feet below grade.) The massive apparatus wouldn’t look out of place inside Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.
Great Jones Distilling Co. is the brainchild of Juan Domingo Beckmann, the 11th-generation founder of Proximo Spirits, who notes that the opening “represents a landmark moment for spirits and New York City history, bringing the craft of whiskey distillation back to Manhattan after 100 years.”
Each variety of Great Jones whiskey is made exclusively with grains grown in the rich soil of the Black Dirt region an hour north of Manhattan, noted for their distinctive spiciness. Three varieties—Great Jones Straight Bourbon, Great Jones Four Grain Bourbon, and Great Jones Rye Whiskey—are debuting to commemorate the opening. Each is made with 100 percent New York–sourced grain aged Upstate for the past five years in new charred American oak barrels. “For 11 generations, my family has crafted some of the world’s leading spirits, and we’re proud to introduce a bourbon that truly embodies the best of New York State ingredients and the ‘lightning in a bottle’ energy of Manhattan,” Beckmann continues. “Great Jones Distilling Co. will give the city a new spirits legacy, and is dedicated to the resiliency and hustle New Yorkers have shown over this past year.”
Beckmann has every reason to feel proud—realizing the distillery from concept to creation became a convoluted tangle that stretched across nearly six years of negotiations thanks to the bizarre regulations that plague Manhattan’s real estate market. A year and a half was spent finding one appropriate building out of the 122 that conformed to the borough’s stringent M1-5 zoning regulation that permits the distilling of alcohol; three were spent situating the Vendome Still. Trucks also aren’t permitted on Great Jones Alley, the cobblestoned street that runs along the building, so forklifts need to ferry finished spirits to nearby trucks at times agreed on by neighbors. On top of those extra negotiations, the pandemic delayed the opening by upwards of a year.
While the distillery charts new territory for Manhattan’s spirits legacy, it also nods to the past in unexpected ways. During the renovation, they uncovered a nugget of New York history that otherwise would be lost to the ages: An underground tunnel that experts believe was once used to sneakily transport whiskey and other liquid contraband. We can raise a glass to that.