This January marked 98 years since the start of Prohibition. The result: brutal enforcement, a public health crisis, loss of tax revenue, and the creation of modern organized crime, all evidenced the spectacular failure of the hated Volstead Act, and ensured its repeal in 1933. But from that January in 1919 - a time when even young people could remember the 1800s - all the way into the second decade of the 21st century, Fairfield County had not produced a single drop of legal spirits. Robert Schulten changed nearly 100 years of history when he opened Asylum Distillery in Bridgeport in May of 2016. CTBites decided to drop by. Here's what we saw.
Asylum Street is in a rough area, but all foot traffic seems to break like waves just on the other side of a broad esplanade. Asylum Distillery is reached by taking a left into a short alley across the street from a cemetery. The neighbors, as they say, are quiet. Either that or, as Schulten says, very happy to see you.
"People from Bridgeport could not be kinder to us," he said during the tour. "They go out of their way to stop by and say thanks for coming here. They're so proud to have something positive growing in the neighborhood."
Schulten is a chemist, a tinkerer, and not afraid of a drink. That, and a lot of permits, is how the little space in which we were standing came to be filled with stainless steel and copper equipment studded with dozens of glass eyes. Work tables were topped with wrenches and barrel shaped jars full of crystal clear liquid. During the tour Schulten gives the impression of an excitable high school science teacher explaining how plants turn sunlight into food because this is just so cool, you guys.
Briefly, making liquor at Asylum works like this: all Asylum spirits are made from 100% cracked corn, grown and purchased from Pleasant View Farm in Somers, Connecticut.
The corn is boiled in a large kettle for several hours with natural enzymes to convert the starch into sugars, and the resultant liquid is drained off and transferred to fermenters where it remains, with added yeast, for four to five days. The fermented liquid goes into a pot still at about 12% alcohol by volume, where it's heated up again for distillation.
Water boils off at 212ºF, but alcohol needs just about 174º to vaporize, and that's what makes the whole process work. The vapor rises out of the stainless steel pot into a copper helmet with a broad top. The copper transfers heat very effectively, and slightly cools much of the water vapor back into droplets which run down the helmet, leaving more alcohol to float up through a pipe at its top and continue distillation. At this point we've gone from about 12%ABV to about 30%.
All Asylum's products stem from their two main liquors: corn whiskey and vodka. The pipe which runs off the pot still leads first to a copper distillation column for the corn whiskey, which must by law finish at 80%ABV, or 160proof.
"It's about the flavors," said Schulten. "The alcohol itself doesn't carry any, so the sweetness, the grain, everything from the corn comes through in the 20% water that remains." We dip a finger tip into a vat of the unproofed rocket fuel which had come off the last run. I put it in my mouth and detect the corn immediately before heat takes over, and then nothing, because my tongue has gone numb. I nod as he continues talking: Yes, sir. That sure would be Carolina Ruckus Juice if it weren't made in Connecticut.
The distillation tower for their vodka is next in line, all stainless steel on the outside, and two to three times the height of the whiskey tower. You can see where the ceiling of the industrial space was bumped up and a kind of skylight added to accommodate its reach. Vodka (again by law) needs to come off the still at an eye-searing 95% alcohol. That's 190proof, or as pure as booze can be made without advanced degrees and enough energy to power CERN. The tower is taller because higher proof demands additional bubble plates inside the column. The bubblers sit atop the plates in full view of the glass inspection ports. As vapor rises through the column it cools into liquid at each plate, bubbles form, expand, and pop, with more water draining down and more alcohol rising up with each successive distillation.
The liquor runs out of the still in three stages called the heads, the hearts, and the tails. Schulten keeps jars of each on hand to demonstrate their different qualities, and why he uses what he does.
The heads are the first liquor to run out of the still. Strongly phenolic with lighter alcohol, the heads smell like berry scented nail polish remover. This first run is extremely pure in terms of alcohol, but doesn't make for a pleasant drink.
"This either gets tossed or used as a solvent or something," Schulten said. "But I guess you could use it to run your lawnmower."
Yes, it's that strong.
The hearts are the good part, the soul of the spirit. This is about 80% of the run, the alcohol which is proofed down to the appropriate level with water, and bottled. The hearts taste like a powerful version of whatever their end product - whiskey or vodka - will be. The entire process, from mashing in the corn to the bottle, takes a total of about a week.
The tails don't even look good in a jar. I had asked Robert earlier how he knows when a run is about done.
"This is how I know it's done."
The tails are yellowy and smell like rotten grass. Composed of heavy ethanol, the tails are even oily to the touch.
"So," he says. "Now that you know - care for a drink?"
Asylum produces corn whiskey and vodka, but that is far from all they make.
The point of vodka is purity, and alcohol doesn't carry flavors well, so - with minimal variations based on what you make it from - vodka is vodka. Asylum's is that, at 80proof, with its major selling point probably being the fact that by buying it you're supporting at least two local businesses in the distillery and the farm. Asylum also contributes profits to the Klein Center, the Bridgeport Art Trail, and the Bridgeport Center for Family Justice.
The corn whiskey was much more engaging. Unaged, sometimes called white dog, the whiskey was very sweet on the nose, but significantly less so on the tongue. Traces of corn lingered, and the overall effect is a smooth, rounded flavor. It's nothing like the coals of madness which burrow into the tongue after a good hit of backwoods moonshine. At 80proof, the whiskey could be a sipper all on its own, but could work well in cocktails where a sweeter, more neutral spirit would do the trick.
Asylum produces a small batch, aged version of corn whiskey they call Fifth State, after Connecticut's order in ratifying the constitution and officially joining the United States in 1788. This whiskey is rested for roughly a month in #3 charred new oak barrels from The Barrel Mill in Minnesota. The barrels impart a pleasant amber color, and hint at some caramel flavoring. The aging isn't intended to make the aged corn whiskey a bourbon clone, just to add a new level of depth, and maybe knock down the sweetness. It's bottled at a slightly beefier 90proof.
I got the impression that Asylum's gin is really Schulten's baby. All gin starts as vodka before being infused with botanicals. Asylum uses a mixture including dried orange peel, coriander seeds, cinnamon, cardamom, Angelica root, and of course Juniper berries. The nose isn't too far off other gins, but this one grabs you right by the booboo as soon as it hits your lips. Pow!
Schulten watches this, smiling broadly.
"Yeah, we wanted that big hit at first," he says of the 94proof toe curler. "then some of the other botanicals arrive in the flavor, but the cardamom coats the mouth and stays with you. That's the aftertaste we wanted."
The outlined steps follow the experience precisely. This is a bold, assertive gin, and more herbaceous than piney. As taken as I was by the soft, rustic curves of the corn whiskey, the gin may well be Asylum's best product. It's not just "good, for Connecticut," it's legitimately good.
The gin is made using a short column called a gin basket. It has a perforated plate onto which is placed a bag containing all the botanicals. The vaporized vodka flows through the bag, et voilà: gin. The large inspection port on the gin basket gave it the nickname at Asylum, "the Minion."
"We're not using sugar or anything, and we're not making anything you could make at home. There has to be real value there," Schulten says of the philosophy behind his spirits. "We're going to move into creating seasonals, use new botanicals. We're doing a lot of experiments."
I'd made an appointment, and the tour was just me, so Robert began to show me what he meant. He pulled two jam jars out from somewhere and placed a few drops from each on plastic spoons. One was marked A, and the other B.
Experiment A was electric with cinnamon, but there was something else giving the infusion a bit of an anise flavor.
"Caraway seed," said Schulten, and everything popped into place. A sip was like a very high class version of Fireball, which is generally best used when thrown over one's shoulder as a distraction should one be chased by an irate pack of meatheads. I liked the experimental quite a bit, however, and was left thinking about its potential as a cocktail ingredient for someone much more skilled at mixology that me.
An acquiescence to brevity keeps me from listing every experiment I sampled, but the highlights were a vodka infused with lemongrass, and another heavily macerated version which felt like your tongue had been possessed by the flaming ghost of ginger root. A Moscow Mule made with this vodka could be life changing.
"Mix that with just some club soda," said Schulten. "And it's got summer written all over it."
Asylum Distillery offers tours on a reservation basis Thursday-Saturday. Locations serving their vodka, corn whiskey, and gin can also be found on their website, asylumdistillery.com.
Asylum Distillery, 259 Asylum Street, Bridgeport, CT