(Courtesy of Astoria Distilling Co.)
New York is full of lawyers. New York is also full of former lawyers now doing something less soul-crushing (often their words, not mine) but no less hard.
One of them is Chris Murillo, 35, the founder of Astoria Distilling Company. He made a New Year's resolution a few years ago that (unlike many of us) he actually followed through on: to make a well-crafted spirit and open his own distillery (the first part, check; the second is a work-in-progress).
Making spirits in New York State has exploded in the last 10 years thanks to changes in the distillery permits in the 2000s that drastically dropped the cost for small producers and farm-based spirits makers. The catch? Distillers must use a majority of New York-grown products in the production of the spirit.
The state went from having zero distilleries before 2005 to now having dozens. Several are located within New York City, but Queens has none.
Chris, who grew up in Costa Rica and San Diego but has settled in Astoria, hopes to change that. He partnered with Jordan Via, the master distiller at Breckinridge Distillery in Colorado. Via is the main distiller for Chris's flagship product, an Old Tom gin called Queens Courage, which debuted in June. Chris quit his job at a big law firm and isn't looking back. Right now, he and Via make the spirit in upstate New York but the goal is to establish a distillery in Queens within a year or so.
The craft distilling explosion in the state has been a boon to the economy but it also means Astoria Distilling has a lot of competition from not only the mega-brands but also the small-batch whiskey makers, all vying to quench New Yorkers' thirst for good booze.
1. Why did you decide to embrace "Queens" and specifically "Astoria" as your brand identity?
CHRIS: The genesis for this project was New Year's 2011/2012. We had some friends who lived in the neighborhood here who moved to Puerto Rico to start a brewery. I thought it was a genius idea because there's very few people doing craft brewing in Puerto Rico.
So that got me thinking: "Well, what's nobody doing in Queens that's fun and interesting?" And I love Queens. My wife and I bought a house here. It's just a fantastic place to be. And I said: "Wouldn't it be awesome to open a distillery in Queens?" Two and half years later, we've launched our first product and hopefully by next year we'll have a facility here in Queens.
2. What are the big challenges in getting your product out there in the market to retailers and bars?
CHRIS: It's bandwidth on my time, really, more than anything else. I have a distiller who I'm partnered with [Jordan Via, see above] but other than that I don't have any employees at this point. I quite literally do tastings almost every single night.
I go around and I talk to bartenders and liquor store owners and take some of my product and get it out there.
I'm really fortunate that almost immediately upon launching our spirit, we got picked up by a fantastic distributor, and they've been able to grow our footprint in terms of where we can cover. [From] being basically Astoria, Manhattan and Brooklyn -- which is where I can get to on my bike or my car -- to now be distributed throughout New York and New Jersey.
3. What other spirits do you have in the works?
CHRIS: We are really, really proud of Queens Courage, and that's going to be our flagship, I believe, for the entirety of the business. I just think it's a really innovative spirit and we wanted to hit it out of the park with our first product.
But my vision for the business is really centered around Queens. As you know, Queens is one of the most diverse places on the Earth. That creates a lot of opportunities for us to draw on distilling and spirit traditions from around the world that a lot of small craft distillers don't have access to.
So we're in Astoria. It's one of the largest Greek communities outside of Greece. When you think "spirits" and you think "Greece," you think "ouzo." So I'd really like to put out a really high-end, ultra-premium version of an ouzo. [Ouzo is an anise-flavored aperitif.]
So that's the kind of thing that we want to do. There's a lot of really talented distillers making rums, whiskeys, vodkas. I don't want to preclude making those, but what's exciting to me and what I have my vision for my company is to do spirits that are unusual and drawn from the cultural heritage of Queens, which is so rich and so deep.
4. What role does social media play into your marketing and building of brand awareness?
CHRIS: I'm focused on Twitter just because I think the local Astoria community is very focused on Twitter. Twitter has been the one that has really let me connect with the community. And we've definitely had a tremendous embrace from the Astoria community. We've made Key lime pies with our gin, we've met accounts through Twitter, and that's how we get our information out.
And what I really like is that it's a two-way communication. I can directly connect with people, and people can directly connect with me. It's so important to me that we get the support, and that we're true to our Queens/Astoria roots. And having that two-way communication we have through Twitter has been a real great way to make sure that that connection's happening.
What I actually really like about social media is when you take that next step. You interact with someone, send a couple messages back and forth on Twitter, Facebook, whatever. And then you sit down with that person in real life and you get to actually make a connection. The fact that I can meet people that I would've never otherwise met and actually start forming relationships in real life, I think, is absolutely fantastic.
5. What's your favorite cocktail? (And can you share a recipe?)
CHRIS: I definitely like to make my cocktails seasonal. Right now it's fall. What I'm drinking when I get home from a long day is the Martinez.
The Martinez cocktail is very much like the Manhattan. It's two parts Old Tom gin, one part sweet vermouth, a dash of orange bitters, served up. It's real simple. But it's absolutely delicious. The maltiness and the sweetness from the Old Tom gin works really well as a replacement for the bourbon or the rye in a Manhattan. And my understanding is that cocktail actually predates the Manhattan.
So where did the name "Queens Courage" come from? Read Chris's answer to that and one other BONUS QUESTION on my Google+ page.
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