Sip Smartly: Brooklyn Vendors Showcase the Borough’s Finest Artisanal Brewers, Wineries and Distillers at Drink Local Week

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Drop into Hill Country Barbecue, Anella, Carnem Prime Steakhouse or two dozen other participating restaurants during Brooklyn’s Drink Local Week to sample the borough’s best wineries, distillers, and brewers.

Sponsored by the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce and Taste NY, the event runs from Oct. 20-26. For more information on participating restaurants and their special offers during the promotion, check out the Drink Local Week website.

We met the makers: Bridget Firtle, founder of The Noble Experiment NYC/Owney’s Rum in Bushwick; Brian Leventhal, who along with his business partner John Stires, opened Williamsburg’s Brooklyn Winery six years ago; Devin Shomaker, who opened Rooftop Reds,Brooklyn’s First Rooftop Vineyard, New York City’s first rooftop winery last year in the Navy Yard; and

The Noble Experiment NYC/Owney’s Rum in Bushwick 

When Bridget Firtle was choosing a place to open her rum distillery, there were no second choices. Brooklyn was it — Bushwick to be precise. After all, she was born in Brooklyn Hospital and raised in Rockaway, Queens, and both sides of her family have been living in Brooklyn since the early 1800s.

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“I am proud to be from the city, but I wasn’t married to the idea of building a distillery in Brooklyn,” she says about The Noble Experiment, the distillery-bar that produces Owney’s Rum. “It was more important to be by a subway in a manufacturing zone — there aren’t many choices outside of Brooklyn for that.”

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Firtle’s choice to distill rum, of all liquors, usually generates the following reaction: “Rum? From Brooklyn?” She says that once people learn that rum was actually quite important to the history of this country and this city, they are even more captivated. “That’s how I get them to taste.”

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Customers are always intrigued, she says, upon learning that rum was the first spirit distilled in New York City, on Staten Island in the 1660s.

“The inspiration for founding The Noble Experiment NYC was to bring rum distilling back to my hometown and its birthplace in America — New York,” she says, noting that hers is the only exclusive rum distillery in Brooklyn and the first one here in 93 years.

“I see us getting bigger and stronger with continued national and international distribution,” says Firtle. “And I see Brooklyn and its worldwide reputation as important to that expansion — in both manufacturing and brand building.”

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Participating in Drink Local Week, for Firtle, is not only a labor of love, but a civic duty. “Supporting local business is imperative to the success of our company and product,” she says. “It is awesome to build a business in a borough that is so forward thinking in helping aid the resurgence of American manufacturing.”

Rooftop Reds: Brooklyn’s First Rooftop Vineyard

Devin Shomaker likes a challenge — starting a swim school in China, which he did in 2010, was one example. But when Shomaker decided to open a winery and grow the grapes on a rooftop in Brooklyn, that might be his most challenging endeavor yet.

She said "I do" at Rooftop Reds! ?: @sarahyardley

A photo posted by Rooftop Reds (@rooftopreds) on

When Shomaker and his business partner Chris Papalia brought their winemaking knowledge from the Upstate New York Finger Lakes region and set up their vines on a 14,800-square-foot rooftop in the Brooklyn Navy Yard last April, it was the first of its kind.

“Brooklyn seemed like the market that would have the outlook to embrace this business,” says Shomaker, who studied at Finger Lakes Community College’s Viticulture and Wine Technology program before making the move to Brooklyn. “Brooklyn draws people because of its uniqueness and opportunities.”

The oddity of being the first rooftop winery in New York City has garnered plenty of attention for the brand—tons of press, goodwill from the Brooklyn maker community, even a visit from actor James Franco.

Visitors come from all over the world to sample the wines while resting in a rooftop hammock with views of Downtown Brooklyn. Despite customers’ diverse backgrounds, Shomaker says it’s impossible to detect a difference in their palettes. “Palettes are remarkably similar,” he says, “be it Brooklynites, people from throughout the country, or from around the word.”

The first harvest of rooftop-grown grapes is occurring this month, with a product release date slated for the fall of 2017. “It is best to allow grapevines to grow through four seasons before cropping the vine,” says Shomaker, who adds, “Rooftop Reds is currently in its third growing season and is very much looking forward to our first harvest next year.”

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Like so many Brooklyn companies, Rooftop Red’s future  — Shomaker says being part of the ongoing business development plan at the Navy Yard “allows our cork to float” — has ambitions beyond the borough.  In five years, they hope to make inroads into Virginia, North Carolina, California, and New Mexico.

To help them get there, Rooftop Reds will be participating in Drink Local Week. “It’s important because it gives local producers a platform,” says Shomaker. “Farm to table is a pretty ingrained term and one that has been embraced as a symbol of fresh and sustainable food sourcing.”

You've had a long week; grab a hammock and a glass. ?: @lovejamayka

A photo posted by Rooftop Reds (@rooftopreds) on

Shomaker says he’s such a ubiquitous presence at Rooftop Reds that he gets asked quite often whether he sleeps up on the roof. “I don’t,” he laughs, “but it is a beautiful place to sit on a hammock and see about seven stars.”

Rooftop Reds’ promotion for Drink Local Week will include 20 percent off bottle purchases. Additionally, if you buy two glasses of wine, you’ll receive two wine glasses with Rooftop Red logos on them.

Coney Island Brewing Company

Coney Island has been called “America’s Playground,” an element that the founders of Coney Island Brewing Company found appealing for brand-building.

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“It’s a fun, freaky place like no other,” says Chris Adams, brewery operations manager. “The name Coney Island resonates with people across the country and the world as a place of wonder and fun, and we love to take that spirit and translate it into the creativity that goes into everything we do.”

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It seems to be working. Their Mermaid Pilsner — packaged with a colorful, almost psychedelic illustration of a long-haired mermaid that’s difficult to ignore on the grocery store shelf — uses rye malt and west coast-style hops, popular among craft beer enthusiasts. According to Adams, it’s the best-selling Pilsner in the New York metro area.

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The brewery, which celebrated its first anniversary on Labor Day weekend, is ingratiating itself among the Brooklyn maker community by incorporating local ingredients like Café Grumpy coffee from Greenpoint in its Freaktoberfest and upstate honey in their New York Honey Stout.

Coney Island is home to not just the brewery, but a taproom on Surf Avenue, and a research and development facility — the latter a source of brewmaster myth making. “There was a rumor going around that the secret ingredient in our Hard Root Beer is fresh mermaids,” says Adams.

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While their brewery is expanding beyond NYC — they’ve just entered the Connecticut and Rhode Island markets — Drink Local Week allows the brewery to focus on its roots.

“It is extremely important for us to let people know we’re here,” says Adams. “We had a fantastic first summer, but ‘The Coney Crew’ is here all fall/winter long as well. We have a passion for making great beers and sharing them with our NYC neighbors.  During Drink Local Week, we are looking forward to hosting friends both new and old.”

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Williamsburg’s Brooklyn Winery and BKW
Brian Leventhal, co-owner of Brooklyn Winery and its satellite restaurant BKW, says he’s most proud of being a part of something transformational.

“Brooklyn is becoming the borough of makers,” says Leventhal, who opened Brooklyn Winery six years ago with his business partner John Stires. “There is a very strong community of passionate people who are crafting amazing products — from furniture to food and beverage. We felt strongly about joining that community and showcasing our wine to our fellow Brooklynites.”

But that wasn’t the only reason they set up shop in the borough of Kings. Leventhal and Stires needed to find a location where they could legally manufacture wine while also maintaining a retail presence.

They found it in Williamsburg, in a space formerly occupied by a nightclub. There, winemaker Conor McCormack produces premium small-batch wines from grapes cultivated in upstate New York and California — everything from a rich old vine Zinfandel to a slightly lighter unoaked Chardonnay.

“We wanted to give people the opportunity to experience a winery and learn about wine without having to travel upstate or out to the North Fork,” says Leventhal.

Over the past six years the customer response has pushed the brand beyond Brooklyn’s borders. They’re currently distributed in Denmark and Japan, in addition to a dozen states, and are in the process of expanding to Washington, D.C.

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Another mark of the founders’ ambitions can be found in the recent launch of a satellite restaurant, BKW, in Crown Heights, with a menu created by Executive Chef Michael Gordon, who favors wine-friendly Chilled Shiitake Soup, Crisp Brussels Sprouts with Pastrami, or Roasted Chicken Breast with Leg and Thigh Potpie.

Brooklyn Winery will increase its footprint by participating in Drink Local Week. “We pride ourselves on the fact that we not only serve drinks locally, but we make those drinks locally too.”