While you were sucking down pumpkin spice lattes this fall, business partners Noah Braunstein and Yoni Rabino were holed up in their Port Chester, New York distillery crushing thousands and thousands of pounds of pears. Like 24,000 pounds.
Instead of becoming centerpieces in a Harry & David holiday gift basket, those New York-grown pears are on their way to become a small batch of Neversink Spirits pear brandy. "It's an extremely, extremely low-yield product so we only do a few hundred bottles of it every year," Rabino said of the brandy. It takes more than 45 pounds of fruit to make a single 375-milliliter bottle.
Braunstein and Rabino knew they wanted to work together long before this fall's pear crush. Their friendship goes back to high school. "We used to get down with a lot of weird science experiments. We were both science geeks," Rabino said. "It was a natural extension of how our friendship always has been to start a distillery together."
Even though they had made cider and beer together, and Rabino's first alcohol love was bourbon, they decided to try their hands at distilling apple brandy, something they felt made sense as New Yorkers.
"This is New York, we grew up picking apples upstate, we should do a New York apple brandy," Rabino said of their thinking process. "Now, of course, there are a bunch of New York apple brandies, but at the time it seemed like a really different idea."
Using only local ingredients, the two-year-old operation produces apple brandy (both aged and unaged), gin, and, most recently, bourbon in addition to the pear eau de vie.
The partners quickly realized that there was a lot of noise to break through in the alcohol industry.
"Just the fact that you're a local craft distillery doesn't mean that much to people," Rabino said. "There's a lot of locally made spirits and they really run the gamut. There's over a hundred distilleries in New York. You literally have every kind of distillery. You have distilleries who are not distilling anything and just relabeling booze from Kentucky and you have distilleries that are doing everything in between."
Neversink falls into the latter category. Their process begins with local, raw ingredients. If they're making pear brandy, that means using whole Bartlett pears. The bourbon calls for New York-grown corn.
There's even a local effort with the waste. Neversink falls under parent company Food Cycle's umbrella along with Kent Falls Brewing Company and Camps Road Farm, opening up opportunities for interesting collaborations like their upcoming single malt whiskey. After Kent Falls Brewing Co. and Neversink have their way with the malted New York grains, the spent grains go back to Camps Road Farm, where they are fed to the livestock and used as compost.
Partnering with their sister brands is easy. Doing business as a tiny operation is not.
"We're just small potatoes, and everybody knows it. When it comes to getting anything done, you're nearly asking for a favor when you're starting out. You're working on a small scale," Braunstein said. "Sometimes it's still 'can you help me out?' or 'can I pay you to do this, please?'"
But Neversink still makes it happen and is gaining traction in the spirit game despite its size. They've grown from selling products exclusively at farmers markets and liquor stores to popping up in some of the city's best bars. At the Up & Up in Greenwich Village, Neversink clear apple brandy is paired with rye and vermouth to make the Town & Country, a cocktail that proprietor Matt Piacentini even featured in a cocktail competition in Iceland.
"Every cocktail menu is huge for us because we're so small. If we were on 50 cocktail menus in New York City, we wouldn't have enough booze. We don't really even want that yet. We want to be on a handful of really great ones."
The Neversink team plans on continuing to grow slowly, experimenting with new aging techniques and putting out new products. They're working on a pommeau, a French apéritif made with apple brandy and apple juice.
They'll probably need to hire more people, too. Braunstein and Rabino are the distillery's only full-time employees. The founders are responsible for every aspect of the business, from marketing to bottling to watching over the distillery cat, General Patton. You'll find them on the front lines, changing people's perceptions of gin, one sample of Neversink at a time.
"Every time people say, 'Oh, I hate gin,' we say our gin is different," Rabino said of their farmers market experiences. Braunstein still loves seeing the change on people's faces after they try Neversink's gin.
"Our gin recipe is based on what we like to drink," Rabino said. "We're not crazy about the juniper-forward gins. We like baking spices, we like apple, so we made something that we liked and hope other people like it too. So far, so good."
With their clear apple brandy swooping a gold medal at the 2016 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, it appears that so far so good is indeed true for the fledgling distillery.