Housed in a large, warehouse-ish space in Brooklyn, New York Distilling Company’s The Shanty is sort of the anti-speakeasy. You’d be forgiven for obliviously walking past it, but the difference is that The Shanty does nothing to hide its brilliant operation—in fact, quite the opposite. On one side of a wall of windows, New York Distilling Company churns out its highly-acclaimed American gins and puts the finishing touches on its much-awaited Rye Whiskey, in full glorious view of patrons of the superior cocktail bar. Leave illusions and mystery to the Manhattanites—The Shanty needs no such gimmick to be noteworthy. We caught up with Nate Dumas, who’s as refreshingly transparent as that windowed wall and humble as the warehouse itself, to talk shop.
First thing’s first. What’s The Shanty?
Nate Dumas: For me, The Shanty is here to provide a good base for New York Distilling Company. It’s here to get people familiar with the product. At the end of the day, the distillery is the main business and The Shanty is the tasting room. It’s an important part of the business right now, because it’s generating more money than they expected, but it’s about being the friendly, welcoming face, and also a part of branding the product. Coming from my background, working at nerdy cocktail bars, I have a lot of friends who are the best in the city. They were really happy to work here, so right off the bat, it’s really good for the company to be associated with some of the best cocktail people in the city or the nation. In terms of branding, it’s about having great cocktails to offer, but it’s not like we’re wearing vests and collars and arm-garters and listening to old jazz all the time. We wanted to keep it real, keep it neighborhoody. So the mission is: Good cocktails, but we’re going to listen to Merle Haggard and AC/DC.
ND: Going aways back, I studied social work as an undergraduate and did that in Seattle for a while. I was going broke, and I started getting interested in wine. So I studied wine in the Nappa Valley. Then I had a lot of friends who had moved out here, so I came to New York and made some nice contacts with people who are now good friends—they were working at Pegu Club at the time, and some guys from Milk + Honey as well. So I got a pretty good cocktail nerd job at the time. I worked at Clover Club, Flatiron Lounge, and PDT. Then I took off to Scotland and studied distilling there for a while.
All you bartenders know each other!
ND: New York’s like that in any business though, I suppose.
So, how did the decision to open The Shanty happen?
ND: The root of it is that the laws have been opened up to make New York more hospitable to distilling. This would not have been legal two, three, four years ago. They laws opened up to where, if you’re operating on a farm distiller’s license (which we are because our rye whiskey is 100% New York-state product), your could run your tasting room as a full bar. The thought behind that being, who’s going to want to just come try one gin? So now you can have a full bar to show off your spirit. As far as I know, we’re the only people in New York State to take advantage of that…and I think there are only like two or three other places in the nation that have done what we’re doing. I think there’s one in Boise, and one in Seattle.
So, why was gin the first thing that NYDC decided to distill?
ND: The central reason is because of aging—it’s quicker to produce. But as far as, why did we not start with a vodka? None of us are particularly interested in vodka. Gin has a flavor and there’s a process of figuring out the recipe and that’s a lot of fun. Plus it just has more of a central place in good cocktails, and in this cocktail scene.
Speaking of the cocktail scene—why do you think that’s coming back?
ND: I think there’s just a re-emergence of interest in the process of making interesting booze, whether it’s brewing or distilling. It probably started in brewing, but distilling is an obvious way for people who are interest in beer to move forward. It seems like it’s part of an overall trend of people getting into craft products and becoming really involved in the process of making them. Whether it’s bread, or artisanal salumi, or cheesemaking, it’s all sort of the same thing.
So, it’s part of an overall trend of people making things the way they did a hundred or two-hundred years ago?
ND: I don’t like to couch it quite in those terms—in a certain sense that’s undeniable, but I think it’s also just a return to good methodology. So some of the small artisanal cheese producers aren’t necessarily going “old school” when they’re using methods that have been around for hundreds of years…they’re just actually using the best methods. I’m sick to death of the whole speakeasy prohibition bullshit. Because, for me, it’s not about being old school, it’s just about doing things the best way. Prohibition was actually a really shitty time for cocktails! Right before prohibition was okay, but the recipes were still pretty shitty at the time. We’ve already moved lightyears beyond that. Stirred drinks…it’s not about whether stirring is more old-timey, it’s just about a better way to make a martini.
ND: Aren’t you sick to death of it?!
But you worked at PDT!
ND: I worked at PDT but we were listening to Dizzee Rascal and Ozzy Osbourne and serving hot dogs with kimchi on them! There’s that element of prohibition obviously, it’s part of the architecture, but it’s not everything.
So, this is the best time for cocktails in history?
ND: Yeah! There were some great bartenders before prohibition, but there are probably more great bartenders in NYC right now than there were in the world at that point. I mean, maybe not. What do I know? But I know that there are nerdy cocktail bars in every city. Someone was telling me that Charleston, SC has its nerdy cocktail bar…I was in Boise, Idaho and they had one there. It’s a good time for cocktails right now. I mean, have you read some pre-prohibition cocktail books? You can’t carry the recipes straight across. There are so few that actually make sense. You can think, “Hmm, there are some interesting flavors I’d like to play around with a bit,” but you have to tweak them. They’re way off-balance. In any cocktail book from that time, there are like three good cocktails maybe, and like a thousand bad ones.
I mean, The Savoy is one of the holy grails, right? But do you want to drink the Savoy Hotel Cocktail? It’s one third crème de cacao, one third Benedictine, one third grenadine. That doesn’t sound good to me. This other one is equal parts sloe gin and calvados or apple jack. Sounds kinda gross. Ninety percent of these drinks you would not want to drink. Most of them are just totally out of proportion. I like most of the ingredients they’re playing with, because they’re like Whole-Foods, artisanal-type ingredients. That’s the good side of it, I guess. That’s the part we want to keep.