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Brooklyn still produces premium spirits enjoyed across the country

WHISKEY ARTISANS
by: David F. Ashton Partners Erika and Sebastian Degens of Stone Barn Brandyworks pause for a moment, while operating their custom-made German still in Brooklyn.

Tucked away in an industrial park, east of the Union Pacific railroad tracks in the Brooklyn neighborhood, we discovered a group of folks gathered on a Sunday afternoon operating a liquor-producing 'still'. But what they were making was not bootlegged spirits.

One fellow was stirring a large vat of mash; another was keeping his eye on a batch of liquor, ready to be poured off. Still others were sitting along a bar, tasting the spirits.

'Is that 'white lightning'?' we asked cautiously.

'We are making a clear whiskey; sometimes people do refer to it as 'white lightning' replied Sebastian Degens, who, we learned, is far from being a 'moonshiner'. He and his wife Erika own Stone Barn Brandyworks.

'Our whiskey happens to be much smoother than that name 'white lightning' would suggest,' Degens demurred. 'It's called 'un-oaked whiskey', and what's 'coming off' our still is rye whiskey, 80 proof. It starts with Bob's Red Mill organic dark rye.'

Degens excused himself for being preoccupied as the clear liquid started to trickle out of a stainless steel tube, hooked to a giant gleaming brass and stainless steel distiller. He sniffed the liquid, and placed one container after another, a few minutes apart, under the spout.

'What's coming off first is called 'the heads' - undrinkable; it's primarily methanol. Soon the ethanol will come; it comes off at different temperatures, and at different proofs.'

The chief distiller took another whiff, and switched in another container under the steady stream of clear liquid. 'The methanol has a distinctive aroma. Each container we take is called a 'cut'. We'll take off several cuts of heads, and compare them later, to make sure we cut at the right point between the heads and what is rye whiskey.'

Although Degens is a manager at the Port of Portland, and his wife Erika works at Portland YouthBuilders - this part-time and weekend business is legit.

'In fact, unlike brewing beer or winemaking, it's illegal to do home distilling. So, the only way to do this legally is to do it commercially. We got our commercial license in October of 2009, exactly two years ago. Then, we opened up the tasting room a year ago.'

While some might call this business a 'nano distillery', having just 780 square feet of floor space - making them perhaps the smallest legal distillery on the West Coast - their business is referred to as a 'small craft distillery'.

'We're doing about 500 bottles a month right now,' Degens said. 'About half of it is sold on the east coast through a licensed distributor who provides it to the Washington DC, Florida, New York, Connecticut, and Maryland markets.'

Degens had a lifelong interest in the distilling process, but he said it didn't gel until he and his wife 'did a bit of training' in Chicago at the Koval Distillery. It was there they decided to purchase a custom-made, electrically-heated still, manufactured by Kothe Distilling Technologies in Eislingen, Germany. 'Craft distilleries in Europe win awards using their stills; ours helps us put out a premium product.'

But, as their company name implies, the Degens and their crew do more than just make whiskey - they're well-known for their seasonal fruit brandies, too.

At the time we visited, about half of the fruit from an orchard tote of pears had been cleaned, had put into a large vat, and was in the first stages of becoming pear brandy, only a few feet away from the still.

'We're seasonal, in terms of the brandies we produce,' Degens commented. 'Because we're a small producer, we'll sell out almost everything we make. We've produced strawberry and apricot, and we just finished a plum and cherry. Right now, it's pear brandy season through December, which will sell out by February. Apple is the last fruit of the harvest cycle.'

However, they produce grape-based brandy year 'round. 'Soon, we'll go pick up some Pinot Noir wine in the Willamette Valley, and will be making brandy of that as well.'

Meantime, at the still, Degens moved a large stainless steel bucket under the still's output spout. 'We're into rye whiskey now,' he said, after taking another whiff.

So, for Holiday entertaining, now you know where you can go to taste locally-produced brandies, and what they say is very mellow rye whiskey, produced by local folks.

Stone Barn Brandyworks is located at 3115 S.E. 19th Avenue, Unit B, a little south of Powell Boulevard. For more information, visit their Internet website: www.StoneBarnBrandyworks.com .