Budget Travel

City Sippers: From NYC to California, Urban Distilleries Are the Toast of the Town

Once upon a time, your favorite gin or bourbon or vodka likely came from a tremendous historic distillery. Now, however, we're living in an age where hand-crafted and local is prized above all else. Today there are over 1,500 small distilleries operating in the United States, with as many as 148 in a single state. (We're looking at you, California.) Not a few of them are located in cities, which means you can easily swing by for a tour, a tasting, and a crash-course in distilling. It's a fine way to get acquainted with a region's local flavor. 

Kings County Distillery is located amid a number of creative businesses in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, easily one of the more historic areas in New York City’s history-packed landscape. Fitting, then, that there’s a museum—the Boozeum—on the distillery’s second floor, featuring objects that nod to the state’s distilling history: a prohibition-era still, newspaper clippings, and a bottle of the first whiskey they distilled, which happened to be the first made in New York since Prohibition. Tours are offered Tuesday through Sunday. A short walk from the distillery, there’s a pair of gatehouses that long stood as a symbol of the city’s industrial heritage. Today, one of them is home to an antique-chic tasting room that doubles as a bar for visitors as well as workers in the Yard. Kings County’s whiskeys are sold neat and in cocktails and, as it’s typical Brooklyn fashion to team up with other local businesses, look for events like food truck festivals.

With its menus written on chalkboards, brick walls, and overall industrial-chic look, The Shanty appears to be just another trendy Brooklyn cocktail bar. But it’s actually a far cry from it. The bar, which sits on an industrial strip of hyper-trendy Williamsburg, across from a fire station, is attached to New York Distilling Company’s distillery space, which is on full display behind vast windows. With drinks that range from the classics to the creative, the bar is so charming and engaging that the distillery almost seems like gravy, but you’d be gravely remiss if you skipped out on jumping on a distillery tour. New York Distilling is where modern history is being written, not least because the founders here, who include a founder of Brooklyn Brewing, worked with state legislature to establish Empire Rye, a new category of whiskey that’s legally required to be made with at least 75% New York-grown rye. Complimentary tours are offered on Saturdays and Sundays at 2:30PM, 3:30PM and 5PM and end with a tasting. In the summer months, the distillery is open to the public and picnic tables are set up, giving it the vibe of a community park.

Philadelphia Distilling, which started in 2005, moved to a new location in the city’s hip Fishtown neighborhood, right next to popular music venue Fillmore Philly, in October 2015. The owners refurbished a century-plus-old building that had been abandoned for 45 years, creating a bar with a rustic-chic look and touches of Victorian class. (See: tufted leather sofas and chairs.) The distillery sits behind enormous windows that make the backdrop for the bar, so you can look over the bartender’s shoulder at the sleek copper pot stills. The distillery is also visible from the patio, which is equipped with heaters, so you can pretty much hang outside year-round. The menu includes creative snacks and sliders. Drinks-wise, they offer an extensive cocktail selection, but we strongly suggest making it a point to try the Bluecoat Barrel Finished Gin, the aged gin that that helped make them a national player. Tours ($15) are offered at fixed times from Thursday through Sunday and wrap up with a tasting. No tours required to hang out at the bar or brows the store, which are open Thursdays through Sundays.

Greenbar Distillery has several claims to fame. In the increasingly crowded landscape of American craft distilleries (over 1200 and rising fast), Greenbar, established in 2004, was an early entrant at number 38. But more importantly to you now is the fact that the distillery produces more organic spirits than anywhere else gin, rum, liqueurs, Amari, vodka, whiskey—you name it, they do it all. This shouldn’t be surprising given that this is health- and body-focused LA and all, but still. Since they moved to the city’s trendy Arts District, just off the freeway, in 2012, the area has become increasingly bustling with restaurants, shops and bars. A visit here gets you a crash course in production and what’s involved in ensuring a spirit is organic. (Hint: a lot.) But the best way to understand is to taste the final product. The tours ($12), which are offered on Saturdays, wrap up with a tasting of your choice of up to six spirits. The retail shop is opened all week except Sunday. They also offer cocktail classes on Friday nights and Saturdays. 

Alameda, California, is an island across the bay from San Francisco and directly accessible by ferry. It’s home to a cluster of independent businesses--stores and restaurants and such—and because so many of them are beverage-focused (Faction Brewery; Rock Wall, a winery and restaurant; Alameda Point Craft Soda), the neighborhood, a former Naval Air station, is known as Spirits Alley. One of the first businesses to establish itself here is St. George Spirits, which was founded in 1982, making it one of the very first American craft distilleries. There are more than 1,200 around the country today. They moved into their current facility, a sweeping airplane hangar, in 2004 and now produce an astounding array of spirits, from a variety of gins to inventive vodkas, like Green Chile, to vibrant brandies, and old-world Italian-style amaro. Stop by for a guided tasting ($15) or tour ($20, includes tasting) of the gorgeous site, which boasts equally gorgeous views. Reservations are strongly recommended. 

Founded in 2004 by the owner of cultishly popular brewery Flying Dog and a volunteer-firefighter-turned-moonshine-maker, Stranahan’s is Colorado’s first legal distillery since Prohibition. When the distillery opened, there were three employees making three barrels of whiskey each week. Today Stranahan's American Single Malt Whiskey is available in 50 states. Its devotion to Old West sensibility remains, as is evident just from the bottle it comes in. (It's capped with a tin cup shot glass, the kind cowboys used to use when drinking around the fire.) The distillery also maintains a unique relationship with the Denver community, offering locals the chance to volunteer to work on the bottling line each week. The wait list is regularly around 25,000 people, so winners are drawn at random. Tours ($10) are offered Thursday through Monday. Each tour ends with a sampling of the distillery’s flagship whiskey in the saloon-like tasting room. You can also purchase a measure of Stranahan's limited edition whiskey or a drink from the extensive cocktail list. VIP tours are $60 and come with a range of perks. Like what you try? As an added bonus, every admission ticket comes with a voucher for $10 off a bottle purchased in the distillery’s General Store. the distillery is about a 10-minute cab ride from downtown Denver.

High West Distillery is a skier's dream come true. You barely have to take off your skis to visit this downtown Park City stalwart. The so-called gastro-distillery, a pub/distillery hybrid, has a ski-in facility, so during the winter people just coast to the front of the saloon and hang out around one of the outdoor fire pits and sip warm wintery drinks with whiskey made at the distillery just inside. The saloon, set up in a circa-1904 landmark building, its period detail well preserved, is well worth the visit just as a lesson in Old West Americana alone. The food, however, is not frontier-inspired, so expect burgers and seafood, not squirrel. And FYI: a second much larger distillery, located 25 minutes from town, is also open for tours so you can learn the process from grain to bottle. Because of Utah's notoriously odd liquor laws, samples are available for purchase. Both have cute general stores 

The Seattle Westland is arguably one of the most progressive in the United States, as they’ve created some forward-thinking whiskies since they started distilling in 2010. For instance, they’ve been among the first to produce and champion American single malts, a style that’s common in Scotland and differs from bourbon because it’s made from barley instead of corn. They also like to play around with aging whiskey in barrels made from unusual wood. It’s not surprising, then, that you’ll find some creative flourishes when you visit the distillery, which is located on an industrial strip of the city’s SoDo district a few blocks from the Starbucks HQ and next door to Seapine Brewing. Tours of the 13,0000-square-foot facility, which includes a massive barrel room, are offered by appointment. Or just swing by and hunker down in the Cantilever Room, an airy, high-ceilinged yet cozy tasting room that doubles as a bar where it’s easy to spot locals hanging out. They serve a menu of snacks made by local producers as well as cocktails and, of course, whiskey flights. One of the most talked-about item is the cocktail flight, which includes small pours of three different cocktails, each made with the whiskey distilled on the premises, and a pour of whiskey, neat. There’s a retail space that stocks whiskeys and all kinds of Westland items. (Tartan blanket, anyone?) And as an added bonus: every flight comes with a $10 voucher you can use towards purchasing a bottle. 

Fletcher Place, an Indianapolis neighborhood with homes dating back to 1855, is on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s also easily the city’s coolest neighborhood, home to popular restaurants like Milktooth, a hip, airy cafe/brunch joint, and Southeast Asian specialist Rook, as well as Metazoa Brewing Company and a variety of cute boutiques and vintage shops. Amid the free-spirited hustle and bustle you’ll find Hotel Tango Artisan Distillery, a husband-and-wife owned facility that turns out gin, vodka, rum, limoncello and more. The charming, rustic-chic bar/tasting room that evokes a ski lodge, not least because of the giant stone oven. Come for the tour, and stay for the seasonal-minded cocktail selection, the popular house cat, Fletcher Pickles, and free popcorn. 

Until 2016, if you wanted a glimpse behind the scenes of New Holland Brewing Company, which has been making beer since it was founded in 1997 and got into the distilling game in 2005, you’d go to their sprawling facility in Holland, about 30 minutes outside Grand Rapids on the west coast of Lake Michigan. But in 2016, they opened the Kickerbocker, a lively local-focused restaurant that dishes out creative, seasonal takes on familiar pub food and features a smaller—but hardly small--brewing and distilling operation. Tours are offered on Saturdays and include a tasting at the end, but the distillery is on full view from the restaurant, so you can watch them make their gins and vodkas process any time you stop by. (The whiskeys are made in Holland, which also offers tours.) And PS: New Holland also has another joint, Pub on 8th, on the other side of Grand Rapids. Their beers, spirits and a locally minded menu are on offer. There's also live music. 

Portland, Oregon is on the top of every culinary-minded traveler's bucket list these days and with so many restaurants and cafes and bars and breweries in the city, there's a good chance you won't get to all of them. We strongly urge anyone who appreciates top quality booze to make time for a visit to House Spirits, which was founded in 2004 and is recognized today as the largest craft distiller on the West Coast. It's located in a neighborhood in Southeast Portland known as Distillery Row. Tours ($20) are offered weekdays on the hour from 1PM to 5PM; Saturday tours are 1PM and 3PM and Sundays at 3PM. You'll get a look at how they produce their head-turning small batch spirits, like Westward American Single Malt Whiskey, Volstead Vodka, and Krogstad Aquavit (named for founder and distiller Christian Krogstad), then sample each in the laid-back tasting room. However, this is one city where you don't have to beat yourself up too hard if you get too busy to swing by. House Spirits is the world's first distillery to open a tasting room at the airport, so leave yourself plenty of time before your flight for a whiskey flight.

Heaven Hill Distillery in Bardstown, Kentucky started turning out whiskey in 1935. Today it claims status of largest distillery in the USA. Needless to say, its history is long and glorious. In 2013, they opened the Evan Williams Experience in downtown Louisville to showcase the company's history (it's named for Heaven Hill's founding distiller) as well as the whiskey-making process. A visit includes a tour through a working demo distillery as well as a tasting. The Experience is located on "Whiskey Row," a long abandoned strip where a mix of small craft distilleries and larger producers have set up their distilleries, so take your time and make a day of it. 

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