When you think of your favorite spirit — say vodka or whiskey — you probably think of a favorite brand or cocktail.
But bourbon is so much more than just Knob Creek or a Manhattan: A certain type of bourbon might remind you of a trip down to Kentucky, or a tasty rum might inspire an afternoon of Mai Tais with friends.
The idea that spirits are tied to experiences is the driving force behind the new Hartman’s Distilling Co., which recently opened its doors on Chicago Street, next to the Resurgence brewery in the Old First Ward. Owner Justin Hartman told us his experiences at clandestine craft cocktail bars years ago in New York City triggered a long journey that culminated in the new distilling operation.
“My wife and I lived in New York for 7 years, in Midtown Manhattan, and that was our go-to was getting craft cocktails on a Friday or Saturday night,” he said. “We really got into finding little hidden bars that make phenomenal craft cocktails. It just so happened that one of the times we came back to Buffalo, we went to a birthday party at Vera and I remember saying, ‘These cocktails are just as good as they are in New York City.’
“I think appreciating a craft cocktail has a lot to do with the drink, but I think it also has to do with the experience around the drink: watching it being made, how it’s presented to you, how the atmosphere is as you’re consuming it and what is presented to you on the menu. In New York City, craft cocktails are competitive, so they spend a lot of time on the details. I noticed Vera did that too.”
So let’s get into details. Walking into the new distillery feels like traipsing into a Vampire Weekend song. It’s modern, retro, hip, approachable, artsy, cosmopolitan, slightly nautical and chill — all at the same time. You can party hard at the bar, or you can luxuriate with a cocktail in the lounge.
Of course, this being a distillery, the quality of the spirits bear mentioning. Hartman’s is a bourbon-focused operation, but since it takes at least 4 years to properly age bourbon, the current flagship spirit is a blend of bourbon products from MGP of Indiana, a large commercial distilling operation.
Having traveled the Kentucky bourbon trail many times and taken years of formal classes on the craft spirit industry, Hartman admitted that industry people used to look down on MGP, but said attitudes have shifted in recent years. Hartman said the process to make the current flagship spirit started with tasting a blend of MGP’s “high rye” content bourbon, and “high wheat” content bourbon. The result is a smooth brown liquor that packs a soft wallop at the end.
“Then were we like okay that rye is way too high, rye is a very overpowering grain,” he said. “So we knocked the rye content down to something a little more moderate, but we stayed with the high wheat. So that’s how we ended up with our blend of a high wheat and a high rye bourbon.”
Made with the house bourbon and other craft spirits, the opening day cocktail list was almost all classics: Old Fashioneds,Negronis, Last Words, etc. The Sazerac we had was as smooth as a Tre White pick-six; quite a feat considering it’s made with absinthe, rye and two kinds of bitters. But such a high level of quality might not come as a shock if you knew the man behind the cocktail list is Cameron Rector, general manager and former owner of Vera who Hartman said he was “lucky to get.”
Rector is also behind the opening day food menu, which included pretzels, meats, cheeses, warm olives and sandwiches. The items on our makeshift charcuterie plate all popped, trafficked in intricate little flavors and paired well with our cocktails. By the way, if you aren’t feeling a cocktail or want to reel in the ABV after that first drink or two, there are also good wines and beers available.
Sometimes craft cocktail culture can be a bit stuffy, but we noticed that service was friendly on our visit and the vibe was relaxed. The service staff was also knowledgeable and are currently in the process of becoming Certified Bourbon Stewards, meaning they will all be able to discuss bourbon in detail “to kind of give it that bourbon trail feel. We want people to feel free to engage our staff,” Hartman said.
Speaking of providing an experience, the distillery is hosting tours and tastings on the weekends ($10-15). Hartman and company also have something exclusive up their collective sleeve, planned for a later date. We’re not going to let the cat out of the bag because we think it’s more fun to maintain the suspense (than to scoop other blogs), but watch this space is all we’re saying…
Hartman’s Distilling Co.
55 Chicago Street, Buffalo, NY 14204
Hours: Tuesday to Thursday 4 p.m. – 11 p.m., Friday 3 p.m. to 11 p.m., Saturday 12 p.m. – 12 a.m., Sunday 11 a.m. – 7 p.m., Monday CLOSED