[UPDATED: See below for a response by Cacao Prieto's Daniel Preston]
I stopped into the Cacao Prieto chocolate factory and distillery in June and bought some chocolate and bourbon, sampled some spirits, and took some snapshots. I’ve been on their mailing list for a couple of years and I’d always meant to check them out. I’m a fan of their Widow Jane Bourbon and I wanted to know more.
When you look at Cacao Prieto’s beautiful brick factory in Red Hook, full of odd, ancient chocolate machinery and gleaming steel and copper stills, you wonder who could have created such a place. The answer is Daniel Preston, an aerospace engineer who made millions when he sold a business designing parachutes for the military. He got into the chocolate business in the Dominican Republic, where his family has owned land for the last 100 or so years (Preston is an anglicized version of Prieto), and he’s approached the bean-to-bar chocolate business with the same engineering zeal he brought to his previous venture.
The Cacao Prieto factory makes chocolate and rum, but in the spirits world, the name is best known for Widow Jane Bourbon and Rye. The bourbon is a sourced product—the distillery is too young to be selling its own yet—that is diluted from cask strength with limestone-rich water from the defunct Widow Jane Mine in Rosendale, New York. The seven-year-old Kentucky bourbon is delicious. It’s got a silky, viscous mouth-feel (perhaps from the water?) and a robust flavor.
Unfortunately, the distillery plays a little fast and loose with its status as a non-distiller producer. Clearly, the seven-year-old bourbon couldn’t have been produced at the facility that opened in 2010—even if it didn’t say Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey in bold type. But then, look closely at all the bottles of Widow Jane Bourbon shown online and you’ll see that some say seven-year-old, some say five-year-old, and some don’t mention Kentucky, but still say seven-year-old.
In fact, if you look at these two bottle images, one from a retailer and one from the Widow Jane site, it’s clear that the one that says “Straight Bourbon” is a photoshopped version of the one that says “Kentucky Bourbon.”
The Widow Jane website makes a clear inference that they make their own bourbon:
The owner of Widow Jane Distilling grew up enjoying the pure waters of the Widow Jane Mine. He now uses these unique waters to distill his artisan spirits in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Widow Jane Whiskey is a true New York City whiskey, evocative of both the rock that created the foundation for this city of skyscrapers and the forward looking, DIY spirit that has made Brooklyn the center of a new artisinal food and beverage movement.
And yet the bourbon bottle featured on the website in the products section says “Straight Bourbon Whiskey Aged 7 Years in American Oak.”
I’m not the first to notice some inconsistencies. The Straight Bourbon web forum had a discussion thread about Widow Jane that started in the middle of last year. By November, Cacao Prieto’s Alex Clark joined to try to explain things. Unfortunately, his promises to “clean” the website of its more confusing rhetoric seem to be slow to come.
So while they may be making their own bourbon and rye (and laying it down to age in barrels), at least some of what they’re selling is sourced from Kentucky, a fact they seem to be suddenly less interested in publicizing. This, many aficionados of American whiskey will tell you, is a mistake.
Another interesting note: According to a December 2012 profile of Cacao Prieto in Edible Brooklyn, Maker’s Mark master distiller Dave Pickerell consulted with the Red Hook distillery. Pickerell recently consulted with another non-distiller producer—Whistle Pig.
And in that same Edible Brooklyn piece, we learn that the corn used to make that bourbon was non-GMO corn. If we believe an investigative piece about the bourbon industry’s corn published in January 2012 by Grist, the non-GMO corn bourbon sourced by Cacao Prieto could only come from two distillers: Four Roses or Wild Turkey.
So what’s going on? How many types of bourbon is Cacao Prieto selling? Where is it from? Why did they start downplaying the source of the bourbon? When will the bourbon distilled in-house be ready for the market? Can it possibly be as good as the Kentucky stuff? What role did Dave Pickerell play and will he continue to advise the company? Questions abound.
I’m not as hardcore as some of my fellow spirits bloggers when it comes to non-distiller producers. I won’t completely avoid a spirit of obscure origin (Templeton Rye, for instance), but I do get a little irked by deception — deliberate or accidental.
What should be getting more attention is Cacao Prieto’s rums and chocolate spirits, which are distilled in the Red Hook factory. From what I’ve gathered (and this too is a little difficult to parse with complete confidence), the rum is made from a brandy byproduct of cacao fermentation that’s added to sugar and then distilled. I didn’t try their rum, but their chocolate spirit is delicious, and comparable in depth and style to Kings County Distilling’s Chocolate Whiskey. I’m still not clear whether this is a rum infused with cacao or something else, but at 40% abv, calling it a liqueur seems inaccurate. Unfortunately, it’s out of stock both at the Red Hook factory and in local Brooklyn shops.
[UPDATED ON MONDAY JULY 22, 2013]
Daniel Preston replied, clarifying some points about his marketing and bottling. I’m updating the post to show his response:
There are very specific rules as to how distillers and rectifiers can label their bottles. I can assure you that Cacao Prieto is 100% above board and uses no subterfuge in our marketing. Our marketing has always been open book. When we gained access to a famed cellar by Dave Pickerel we of course announced it. Now after the fact its funny that some think we attempted to hide?
Our distillery has different offerings and all are labeled correctly and accordingly. Such offerings comprise:
-Whiskies distilled 100% in house and is labeled as such (labels must say “distilled and bottled by…”)
-Whiskies from sourced barrels. Bottled in house is labeled as such. (labels must say “bottled by…”)
On bottled whiskey, if the seller’s contract on the barrel allows, then its source is disclosed by us even though not required. If the contract does not allow, our company is prevented from disclosing. When a larger brand whiskey sells excess barrels to a craft distiller for subsequent processing it is very common for them to have a strict confidentiality contract preventing the little guy from disclosing the source. This is to prevent brand association among other things. What the author of this article perhaps sees as some wrong doing or lie of omission by a bottler is really not at all. Its a contractual obligation dictated by the source of the alcohol. To disclose would be the ethical violation.
Our in house whiskeys are already available in small releases and have won multiple medals in the San Francisco International Spirits Awards and the American Distilling Awards. On the cacao Liqueur, we are back to strict laws governing how alcohol may be labeled in America: the legal defining point of a Liqueur is an alcohol containing more than 2% sugar. So even at 40% abv (a very nice touch for mixologists) Cacao Prieto’s Don Estaben Cacao based Rum is a Liqueur according to the TTB and must be labeled accordingly.
I hope this clarified some issues.
Below is a video tour of Cacao Prieto and an interview with founder Daniel Preston from the International Business Times. It gives a nice introduction to the growing Cacao Prieto chocolate and spirits business.