Beer on Whiskey, Mighty Risky?
Something had gone terribly wrong at Port Morris Distillery late last summer. Ever the experimenter, distillery co-founder Rafael Barbosa had tried cooking up beer to create a beer-whiskey hybrid. But somehow the boozy alchemy went awry and the concoction boiled over, spilling across the cement warehouse floor. Hours later, after much mopping, the distillery on East 133rd Street still reeked of sour wheat and old gym socks.
Dave Lopez, co-managing partner of Gun Hill Brewing, chuckled when reminded of the distilling debacle.
“That was actually with our beer. They burnt it the first time,” Lopez said of the beer-whiskey attempt. “They did more of it subsequently and it actually came out really, really nicely. It still has some of the aromatic features and upfront roasty-chocolatiness of the stout that it came from, but at the same time is very much a whiskey.”
There’s no sense in looking for the hybrid spirit on liquor store shelves. The only place to have a sip is in the emerging craft-beverage corner of the South Bronx where Lopez and company opened the Gun Hill Tavern. The industrial-looking, sports-friendly, 2,000-square-foot hangout is a partnership with Port Morris Distillery (PMD), whose copper-pot still next door supplies some of the New York–only spirits on the menu.
PMD held the lease on the space and reached out to Lopez and Gun Hill business partner Kieran Farrell. They had never operated a restaurant or bar aside from their tasting room in the North Bronx and admitted to being a little unsure whether the venture was for them.
“We weren’t sure if the timing was right for us or not, but they said, ‘We think it would be good for the area if you guys were here.’ And the more we looked into it, the more we thought it was important for us to have a hub in the South Bronx because there is no direct transportation from there to our brewery,” he said. “We’d had the South Bronx in mind for some time, but we got a bit of a jolt forward from the Port Morris guys, so we decided to join forces with them on this location.”
Beyond just beer-whiskey, the PMD team are tireless experimenters, infusing their Puerto Rican moonshine (pitorro) with every imaginable all-natural flavor, and a few unimaginable ones. Some of this pitorro makes it to the Gun Hill Tavern menu, joining New York ciders, wines and of course beers. Of the 20 draft lines, 10 are dedicated to different Gun Hill beers and 10 more for beers from around New York City and State.
The tavern has roughly 15 tables and a limited—although delicious-sounding—menu, including mac & cheese balls, and a burger with pickled jalapeños.
“Right now we’re looking to make it the place for people go to drink after work, get lunch, dinner, hang out, meet people. We’re looking to, right now, cement our footprint in the neighborhood and ultimately have it become a destination for craft beverage drinkers not just from the Bronx, but from all over,” Lopez said. In the summer he plans to open two large roll-up doors for a nice al fresco feel.
Both Lopez and Farrell were new to brewing when they founded Gun Hill in early 2014. With backgrounds in business, they knew where their knowledge base fell short and hired a career craftsperson to run the brewing side. As for running the business side, Lopez and Ferrell found success in learning to trust themselves.
“There’s definitely been a learning curve with the brewery and a learning curve with this [tavern]. And it’s really been about picking as many brains as possible, books, any sort of research,” Lopez said. “We had to learn to trust our instincts. I think that was one thing we were a little hesitant to do because we were so new to the industry. But as we learn more we realized we needed to stick to our guns a little bit, and that’s how we got to where we are. At the end of the day, you need to trust the gut that got you there in the first place, whether that’s being a sound decision maker or trusting that your ideas will be something that will work.”
The biggest concern has been surmising what the market wants, he said. The Gun Hill master brewer keeps an eye on beverage trends while Lopez and Farrell monitor the business end. It helps, he said, that they both have roots in the Bronx—family, school, friends. The idea for the brewery started over home brew made by a teammate in their men’s baseball league.
“The Bronx had a lot of personal and historical ties for us,” Lopez said. “We looked into what has happening in the city and around the country. Then we looked at the surrounding metro area, and we realized there was a real opportunity to do something about the fact that there weren’t enough breweries servicing this enormous metropolitan area.”
Using the Revolutionary War battle as its namesake, Gun Hill names most of its beers likewise. The tavern serves a pilsner called Spirit of ’76 and a rye saison called Rise Up Rye. The beer that the PMD guys accidentally burned, then later refined into the beer-whiskey, is last year’s Anti-Imperialist Stout.