The title of “first whiskey distillery in Manhattan since Prohibition” is inherently an impressive one, though it’s not hard to understand why that accomplishment hasn’t happened until now. Whereas the likes of vodka or gin are easy to produce relatively quickly in a distillery setting, allowing for some microdistillery project to set up shop even in the incredibly expensive confines of the isle of Manhattan, American whiskey is a long haul operation. You’re looking at years of aging within newly charred oak barrels before you produce your first product, nor is it likely that any Manhattan distillery will be springing for warehouse space on the island, either. For any would-be whiskey company to even start distilling there in the first place, it stands to reason that they would need very deep pockets.
And thus, it’s no surprise to see that the newly launched Great Jones Distilling Co. has exactly that sort of money to throw around. Owned by Juan Domingo Beckmann’s Proximo Spirits, a powerhouse that owns brands such as Proper No. Twelves Irish Whiskey, Jose Cuervo, Bushmills and Gran Centenario Tequila, Great Jones clearly has massive support behind it—enough to fund the six-year renovation and retrofitting of its Manhattan distillery, located in an 82-year-old building that now operates a pot still and two column stills, along with a restaurant, speakeasy and events space.
Those stills will be used to produce whiskey for Great Jones as it grows into its own, but patrons should understand that nothing they’re consuming has been produced on site, nor will it have been for years to come. The inaugural lineup for Great Jones, which includes straight bourbon, four grain bourbon and a straight rye, are all distilled and aged at Black Dirt Distillery, an upstate operation also owned and operated by Proximo Spirits, albeit without all the pomp and circumstance of being “Manhattan’s first.” They’ll likely be the source of all Great Jones whiskeys for at least the next four years, and likely more, as the company undertakes the arduous process of bringing its own bourbon to maturity.
So then, what has Great Jones actually bottled for its initial bourbon release? This is a pretty classic straight bourbon as far as the specs are concerned, made from a mash bill of corn, rye and malted barley—they don’t specify percentages exactly, but Black Dirt’s flagship bourbon seems to be 80% corn, 10% rye, 10% malted barley, all of which are grown in New York State. This whiskey has been aged the four years necessary to both bear the “straight” label and not have to legally list an exact age, and was bottled at a very approachable 43% ABV (86 proof), not unlike the flagship Old Forester bourbon. It retails for an MSRP of $43, still within the realm of affordability but notably higher than what you’d expect to pay for a not particularly strong, 4-year-old bourbon out of one of the big distilleries in Kentucky. You are clearly paying a bit of a “craft distillery” premium here, regardless of the well-heeled ownership. It’s bottled in a ridged, wide-shouldered brown glass bottle with some apparent Art Deco stylings.
So with that said, let’s get to tasting and see how Great Jones’ bourbon represents Manhattan.
On the nose, Great Jones Straight Bourbon is fairly unassuming, with notes of anise, red licorice, rye spice and some rye bread, and a faint nuttiness that is hard to dial in more precisely. It’s mild in terms of assertiveness, and a grain-forward character definitely hints at the overall youth of the whiskey. Ethanol, thankfully is quite mild as well, leaving the drinker free to attempt to tease out more details. All in all, though, the profile strikes me as a little generic on first blush.
On the palate, things turn a little bit hotter and spicier for the proof, and the rye in the grist is speaking up with a bit more authority. Residual sweetness is moderate, with a bit of chocolate banana, along with pepper, subtle vanilla, anise, and a little wet oak. The finish turns back to tingling pepper and chiles, a little more aggressive perhaps than one would want at the low 43% ABV. It feels like a bourbon that hasn’t quite settled on the thesis of what its flavor profile is all about, or one that doesn’t have the backbone to stand up to the more spicy qualities it’s bringing to bear.
All in all, Great Jones Straight Bourbon feels a tad immature—there’s little specifically wrong with it, but there’s very little to call out as a unique feature, either. The only real selling point that remains is its status as a New York-grown, distilled and aged bourbon, which may be of interest to some consumers. For “Manhattan’s first distillery since Prohibition,” though, one would have hoped for a launch that had a bit more verve.
Distillery: Great Jones Distilling Co. (Black Dirt Distillery)
City: NYC, New York
Style: Straight bourbon
ABV: 43% (86 proof)
Availability: 750 ml bottles, $43 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer and liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.