Mavericks On Tour: Widow Jane
Words by Dave Smillie, Scotland Portfolio Ambassador
After a failed attempt to procure some high-class BBQ (who knew hogs took Mondays off?), we wandered over to Red Hook and the Widow Jane distillery. It is a classic Brooklyn location surrounded on all sides by empty lots and old redbrick warehouse buildings. Widow Jane shares the site with its sister company Cacao Prieto — purveyors of fine cocoa and chocolate liqueurs — and the air is thick with enticingly exotic smells.
The high ceilings of the distillery building house the shop, the stills, all the chocolate-making equipment and some old glass doors with a tree that shelters some chickens. No joke. Wither these feathered beasts are the last nod to aeronautics in a building that once housed a parachute factory is unknown.
We were met by Michele, one of the founders of Widow Jane, whose full job title is Samson & Surrey Vice President of Operations and Full-Time Baller. She does a very good job of seeming unassuming while clearly being a beast geek when it comes to whisky and chocolate. Michele gave us a tour through the chocolate making process, kicking off the whole craft element of this groovy enterprise. All of the cocoa pods are sourced from ethical producers in the Dominican Republic. Using both traditional and modern techniques, these are then transformed into some incredibly banging Wonka bars.
Beside the rivers of chocolate are a series of grain stores, mash tuns and shiny copper stills. This led us on a bit of journey. The Widow Jane 10 we distribute is a sourced whiskey, meaning that the liquid we’re currently working with has never seen the inside of the stills in Red Hook — though that don’t mean it ain’t delicious. What it does mean however is that the spirit running through the stills today tells a slightly different story to that distilled in Kentucky a decade ago, primarily with regards to grain.
The vast majority of American distillers use corn to make their hooch. During such a massive industrial process, considerations like yield per acre take precedent over things like flavour, meaning most corn-based whiskey, such as bourbon, comes from a single, slightly bland varietal. However, more and more small, craft and indie distillers are seeking out and even replanting heritage (heirloom) varietals in the quest for some of that old-time flavour. Distillers such as Widow Jane are using these long, lost cobs, some of which have banging names like Jimmy Red, Wapsie Valley and, the focus at Widow Jane, Bloody Butcher. The resulting liquid is very different to what you would usually expect from an American whiskey or bourbon. It’s exciting to think about what is possible with this juice after five to eight years in oak.
Next we moved to a rickhouse on the adjacent corner from the distillery. This is a fairly nondescript factory building containing mountains of barrels that can be peaked through the large roller doors that were flung open to greet us. It has a similar vibe and smell to dunnage warehouses I’ve been to in Scotland and Australia — oak-breathing whisky looks and smells the same whatever continent you are on, apparently. The place was a lot busier and noisier than usual. The rickhouse serves as a holding area for barrels being transported to and from other plants for ageing and bottling which means we were dodging forklifts and pallets in order to access the pile of whisky at the back of the cave. It’s here we get a glimpse of the fun Vince the distiller has been having. High rye bourbons sit beside 100 percent rye ageing in ex-rum casks with 100 percent Bloody Butcher on top. It’s a lovely little snapshot into which way Widow Jane is heading with its approach to craft.
After leaving the baking heat of the rickhouse, we collect a swag bag and chat to Michele while enjoying a line up of Widow Jane’s finest. It might seem odd to make whiskey and chocolate together in the same building. But when you taste the end product and look at the processes side-by-side it becomes clear. The finest ingredients used by people with great passion and knowhow. Sound familiar?