(Bloomberg) -- A whiskey can express its provenance in myriad ways, from the flavor of the malt used in production to the story sold on the back of a bottle. For Great Jones Distilling Co., which opened in August as Manhattan’s first legal whiskeymaker in more than a century, it’s all in the water.
Connoisseurs of New York City’s beloved bagels and famous pizza pies have something to say about this. What pours out of the tap here is a “hard” water, they’ll tell you, lower in calcium and magnesium and higher in limestone and pH than the national average. This particular chemical composition gives birth to a lighter, more airy dough—the hallmark consistency of the legendary local carbs.
Celina Perez believes that formula will result in a better whiskey, as well. “The water for our mashing and fermentations comes straight from the municipal water system, piped through a depth filter and into our mash tank,” says the head distiller for Great Jones. “Its minerals and pH make it perfect for the process.”
Perez goes on to explain that the Catskill and Delaware aqueducts that bring the majority of the city’s water from upstate are treated using ultraviolet irradiation. And while it’s also dosed with chlorine and fluoride, which would seem to run counter to the “pristine, pure water” tales told ad nauseam by whiskey brands the world over, these chemical additives are not nearly as influential in flavor formation as the minerals it picks up on the journey south.
“A lot of our water comes from limestone quarries,” Perez says. “It’s the same as in Kentucky, and the same with sandstone in Scotland. Generally speaking, softer rock equals harder water equals better whiskey.” Which is why the team at Great Jones opts to use what flows from the tap to brew the grain soup which it ferments and distills into bourbon and rye. The industry standard at distilleries across the country would be to employ some form of reverse osmosis filtration to remove fluoride and chlorine.
The primary point of leveraging the city supply isn’t necessarily about making the mash—and ultimately the whiskey—taste better, but rather to create an ideal environment for yeast to thrive. It’s about efficiency. “The water here just makes for happy yeast,” Perez says.
Across the East River in Brooklyn, Widow Jane also advertises native hydrology as a selling point. In fact, the Red Hook distillery, founded in 2012, is named after the limestone cave from which its water is sourced in Rosendale, N.Y., 99 miles north. “We use it not for fermentation, but to proof our whiskeys to bottling strength once we have extracted our bourbons from the barrel,” says Lisa Wicker, president and head distiller. “This water, unique in its material makeup, is our New York ‘fingerprint’ on every bottle. It gives our whiskeys a smooth, creamy mouthfeel and an impressively long finish.”
Limestone-rich water has long been marketed as a key point of separation in bourbon’s birthplace, the Bluegrass State. “It’s interesting to note that New York is similar to other geographical areas known for making whiskey,” Perez says. “New York and Kentucky both can claim water from soft, stone-rich rivers and quarries.”
As for how this will all play out on the palate at Great Jones, you’ll have to wait patiently: The distiller’s newly laid Manhattan spirit needs to be aged in the barrel over the next four years. What you’ll find in the bottles at its gift shop now is a trio of straight whiskies—two bourbons and a standout 100% rye—produced at Black Dirt Distillery in the Warwick Valley, a bucolic farm region upstate from which Great Jones sources all of its grains.
Perez, for her part, is confident she has it all dialed in. “When we tested the city’s tap water on our density meter, it read within a fifth of a decimal point to the density of distilled water,” she says. That might not sound like a big difference, but, according to her, “you would taste more salts [in the latter], which would lessen the complexity or mute the sweetness of a finished bourbon.”
Some New Yorkers argue that water consistency across the five boroughs is more circumstance than science.
“All water is not equal,” says Franky Marshall, a spirits educator and prominent industry personality. “People always say that New York water tastes great, but it really depends on where you live, the plumbing, age of the pipes, etc. I recently moved, and the water coming out of my tap now is quite unpleasant and tastes completely different than before.”
A brief tour of Great Jones’s pristine 28,000-square-foot distillery and gleaming art deco tasting room in NoHo would suggest that plenty has been invested in proper plumbing. And Marshall herself is excited to sample what’s being laid down here. But her personal experience speaks to the fine line between perception and reality.
New York water has amassed a mystical aura over the years. You can even purchase a device mimicking its purported attributes. And while anyone who’s enjoyed a slice of pizza in the five boroughs would agree that something is there there, a degree of magical realism is inextricably a part of the secret sauce.
Great Jones is tapping into it right out of the gates. Before Prohibition, “whiskey enjoyed a rich history in New York City,” Perez says. “When we brought distilling back to Manhattan, we knew that we would be using New York City tap water, relying on the rich mineral content available right at our fingertips.”
The unique water source at her disposal might just make for a better whiskey one day. But it’s already guaranteed to offer a superior sense of place.
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