Artisanal living is pretty much the norm in Brooklyn. Despite the ever-raising rent hikes forcing historic mom-and-pop shops out of their longtime spaces, a new breed of hyper-focused provisioners is allowing more locals to take on a handcrafted approach to living an increasingly authentic Big Apple life. Take advantage of these folks’ loving attention when it comes to everything from chocolate to whiskey. Here’s where you should be eating and sipping the best specialty goods in the borough.
Landing in the seaside neighborhood is much easier nowadays thanks to the recently launched South Brooklyn ferry service. So slip on your boat shoes for a day trip devoted to exploring the area’s bountiful selection of distilleries and spirit factories.
Cocoa lovers rejoice when the first faint whiff of beans roasting inside Raaka Chocolate (64 Seabring Street) hits their nostrils. Aromas lead them inside the warehouse factory, where modern-day Willy Wonkas are hard at work grinding, milling, tempering, and molding the single-origin bars. Tours and classes are held only Friday through Sunday, but unofficial tastings are offered every day. You’d be doing yourself a disservice if you didn’t sample some of the more exotic bars—I’m particularly keen on the cask-aged bourbon and velvety coconut milk flavors.
You’ll be able to easily transition from snack mode to cocktail time at Cacao Pietro (218 Conover Street). The space actually houses two delicious artisanal endeavors: the small-batch namesake operation turning Dominican cacao into chocolate bars, liqueur, and rum, and Widow Jane Distillery, producing some of the smoothest bourbons and whiskeys outside of Kentucky. The rustic spot is open enough that you can give yourself an informal tour before trying out the goods during an $8 tasting of five of Pietro’s most distinct spirits. I also guarantee this is the only distillery in Brooklyn where there’s a courtyard oasis with a chicken coop.
If you were to choose just one distillery in Red Hook, though, my personal pick would be Van Brunt Stillhouse (6 Bay Street). Located in a former paint factory, the spirits house and tasting space is the brainchild of former Daily Show editor Daric Schlesselman. You never know what you’re going to get from the fire-truck-red–topped barrels from year to year—Van Brunt likes to experiment with flavor profiles—but expect to sample some award-winning single-malt whiskeys, rum made with unprocessed sugars, and America’s first handcrafted soju. The bartenders working the Tasting Room will also happily offer to make your cocktail of choice if they have the ingredients on hand. They nailed my signature old-fashioned, but you should save a dance for the green fairy with the absinthe-kissed March Hare.
The neighborhood’s Washington Avenue has seen its share of change within the past decade. The historic stretch used to only be known for its beautifully preserved 19th-century brownstones, the one-two punch of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and the Brooklyn Museum, and the blueberry-ricotta pancakes and cherry lime rickeys served at the treasured Tom’s Restaurant. Nowadays, though, Prospect Heights is home to some of the borough’s most one-of-a-kind shops and haunts.
The area has a spot for every kind of beer lover—I’m particularly keen on the Doctor Who–themed Way Station (683 Washington Avenue), equipped with a proper TARDIS—but Bitter & Esters (700 Washington Avenue) acts as a second home for the neighborhood’s DIY hops-heads. Inside is everything a home brewer needs to get started on his or her craft inside any size apartment—equipment, a variety of malts and yeasts, kits for every beer preference, a rainbow of bottle caps—plus a beer-making “laboratory” for those who need a little more breathing room. There’s even a monthly swap on the first Wednesday, when local beer nerds can share the wealth (and libations) of their own product.
There is also an artisanal cheese store…for vegans. Similar to the Lower East Side’s Orchard Grocer, Prospect Height’s Riverdel (820 Washington Avenue) is a hub for those who live a cruelty-free lifestyle. Jars of such delicacies as caviar made out of seaweed, organic pastas, and nut-based milks line the shelves, while sugary vegan treats from Cinnamon Snail and Brooklyn Whiskers add a hint of sweet to the air. Stick around for a little while and treat yourself to Riverdel’s take on the classic cheese plate, including Chives Billy (a cashew-based spread with a mouthfeel eerily similar to goat cheese) and the aged beer “cheese.” You might want to reconsider your trip to the supermarket cheese aisle every now and then.
If you’ve been living under a rock for the past few years, you should know that Industry City is having a bit of a moment. The micro-city within Sunset Park has been the sunny solace for summer lovers who can’t bear the long subway ride to the Rockaways or Coney Island, thanks in part to its yearly partnership with Rooftop Films; dance-filled shindigs hosted by Mister Sunday and the Freedom Party; and the new adult playground Summer Spree. While I wouldn’t go as far as calling it the “Soho of Sunset Park” like The New York Times did, there’s a lot more joy in finding new nooks and crannies tucked inside the 16-building complex than taking on crowds toting overflowing shopping bags on Lafayette Street.
You may have heard about the world’s first avocado bar residing in Industry City—it’s the sole reason why millennials can’t afford homes, after all—but it’s not the only specialty food purveyor there. Take Brooklyn Brine (67 35th Street), for example. The Kings County born-and-raised operation has been making some of the city’s boldest pickles and condiments, using local ingredients (cider made from New York State apples, bourbon distilled in the Finger Lakes), since it burst onto the artisanal food scene in 2009. The self-coined “executive briner,” Shamus Jones, will even instruct you on how to utilize Brine’s signature ferments; he taught me how to properly use the preserved rosemary lemons I bought myself for a Middle Eastern dinner I was cooking. The space recently introduced a vegetarian menu called Brine + Dine for those looking for a (semi) healthy lunch.
Aimlessly roaming through the buildings, I stumbled upon the only vodka distillery in the five boroughs…and the only craft shop I encountered with a feline tour guide. When I hit the top-floor Industry City Distillery (33 35th Street), I was greeted and led to the minimalist industrial space (think: strings of Watson lightbulbs strung underneath bright red piping and glass-paned windows with faint views of the Statue of Liberty) by Scratchy, a white-pawed black cat. ICD’s working space, only open for tours on Saturday afternoon, resembles a science lab more than your usual distillery—beakers are littered throughout and much of the equipment was handmade by cofounders Zachary Bruner and David Kyrejko—but the beet-sugar mouthfeel of its go-to spirit (the appropriately named Industry Standard) tastes like it could easily be found at the Union Square Greenmarket. Industry Standard also has the rare power to convert reluctant vodka drinkers like myself into fans for the night. The bartender, John, customized a cocktail based on my flavor profile; he described it as “not my best work,” but the grapefruit, cracked black pepper, and dried citrus floating on top perfectly capped off my craft crawl in wonderfully buzzy fashion.