All September on VinePair, we’re turning our focus to America’s spirit: bourbon. For our third annual Bourbon Month, we’re exploring the industry legends and innovators, our favorite craft distilleries, new bottles we love, and more.
She may have grown up around wine country and in her father’s San Francisco bars, yet Celina Perez never imagined she would find a career in booze. It took a foray into bartending to pay rent while pursuing the arts, followed by a stint as a cheesemonger, for the 38-year-old to discover her dreams of becoming a distiller.
“I didn’t think it was even an option growing up that somebody could go to school to make whiskey or beer,” she says. “It didn’t seem like a professional endeavor.” Now, Perez is the head distiller of Great Jones Distilling Co., the first legal whiskey and bourbon distillery in New York’s Manhattan since Prohibition. “And my dad’s an old man from Spain, so the thought of his daughters working in any industry like this was an anathema!”
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While Perez recalls the fun of stints living in Sonoma and upstairs from one of her father’s bars as a child, she was more interested in nature, playing soccer and reading, and meanwhile dreamed of becoming a painter. Taking art and photography papers while completing a bachelor of science at New York University, she started bartending while struggling to find a job in the arts.
However, after entering hospitality, her path pivoted. Working as an assistant at the Dogfish Head and Birra Baladin Microbrewery collaboration on New York’s Eataly rooftop, she meanwhile developed her love and knowledge of bourbon, learning how to make the spirit through her workplaces, volunteer gigs, and reading.
Now, 20 years since arriving in the Big Apple, Perez is a key player in the exciting arrival of Great Jones, a project six years in the making, which was fraught with delays and pandemic-inflicted hurdles.
Owned by Proximo Spirits founder Juan Domingo Beckmann, Great Jones Distilling Co. launched in August with three New York-born expressions. Perez handles all spirit production at the 5,000-gallon fermentation capacity distillery, which is also home to a cocktail bar, tasting room, restaurant, gift store, and events space. “It’s an amusement park for people who love whiskey,” Perez says about the 28,000-square-foot, four-story space.
Perez talked to VinePair about the romantic side of bourbon, the challenges of being a woman in a male-dominated industry, and why it’s the perfect time for a distillery in Manhattan.
1. What did you and your friends drink when you were younger?
Whiskey and beer. I think at a younger age you’re expected to drink the things somebody your age or sex drinks, so it was Whiskey Sours or Vodka Sodas. It wasn’t until later on, I realized, I really like bourbon and the way it tastes. I realized mixing it takes away from the purity of it — you can’t taste the grains and everything. You only mix whiskeys you don’t want to taste, in my opinion!
2. How did you transition from bartending to becoming a cheesemonger then distiller?
Cheese is one of my favorite things, so I became a cheesemonger, and because I was working in cheese, I also taught myself how to make bread. Making bread is the same as making beer — grain, temperature, water, sugar, fermentation, yeast. The next step up to make whiskey is to boil that solution and pull off the ethanol. I became more immersed in that process and ended up moving from one food-based obsession to another.
3. How easy was it to turn that obsession into a career?
I started volunteering at Eataly’s microbrewery [Birreria], so they’d let me come in and sweep up and stuff, so I could get experience. Then I took a whiskey class at Cacao Prieto and met some of the investors, and they invited me for an interview. They said to bring my resume, but it didn’t have any whiskey experience, so instead I brought a jar of whiskey I made, and it worked — they hired me to be their head distiller at Widow Jane when I was 29.
I think I got really lucky by putting myself out there. I got my foot in the door through being a cheesemonger, then brewer, then distiller, so it was this weird natural progression from the service industry into production.
4. Through all those transitions and obsessions, whiskey clearly caught your attention most. What is it about making whiskey that you loved so much?
There’s a romanticism to making whiskey, even in media and television. It’s like this noble thing that people do and when you go to the distilleries, there’s so much tradition, which I really like. It was definitely a romantic concept. Then of course, I got into the industry and was like, “Oh, it’s cleaning tanks for the next five years!” You’re cutting your teeth, hauling grain and warehousing, then if you’re good at that, they’ll let you in the door!
5. Have there been any added challenges as a woman breaking into the industry?
Definitely — everybody has this stereotypical idea of a distiller and it’s like [Marvin] “Popcorn” Sutton, Appalachians with a beard. Every time I ride the forklift down the Great Jones Alley, there’s some guy giving me advice on how to drive it, even though I have 10 years under my belt driving a forklift.
And the last distillers’ conference I went to was full of cowboy hats. Everyone’s like, “What are you doing here? You don’t fit in with your leather jacket and tattoos” — because I don’t have a beard and I’m not wearing flannel.
But amongst my peers, there’s never been any weirdness. I have so many friends in the industry who are madly talented, successful women. There’s a camaraderie, especially amongst New York distillers. Everybody has each other’s back and is just in it for making good whiskey.
6. What kind of reactions do you get outside of the industry when you say you make whiskey for a living?
Nobody ever believes me. Not even my friends or mom! I invited some of them to a friends and family opening recently; and all of them were like, “Are you kidding me?” It shocks people, to say the least.
7. Great Jones Distilling Co. is the first and only legal distillery in Manhattan in more than a century. Why do you think now’s the perfect time to launch?
There were things that had to change, [city] code wise, that enabled this. I don’t think it would be possible without everything that’s happened in the past 50 years to make other distilleries pop up in Brooklyn and other parts of New York State. I don’t think people initially wanted distilleries back, and now we’re seeing more distilleries in New York. These other distilleries paved the way and convinced people it was all right. It’s amazing to see people happy in New York and just having fun in this beautiful space, especially after the past year.
8. On that note, New York took such a hard hit through the pandemic. What do you hope Great Jones Distilling Co. brings to the recovery of the hospitality and nightlife scene?
I really hope it brings people together for whiskey and to enjoy themselves after being locked up for so long. It’s good that people will have a place to go and enjoy themselves. The place is flooring — it’s like a palace! There’s so much attention to detail and it’s shockingly beautiful. It’s one of those experiences that makes you warm on the inside.
9. … Just like bourbon! Can you tell me about the three expressions you’ve created?
We have a regular house bourbon, a four-grain bourbon, and a rye. They’re all made using agricultural products that are made in New York, and it’s all grown up at Black Dirt, which is our sister distillery in Warwick, N.Y. Our three releases have been aging up there in their rickhouses, and the stuff we’re making here now will be what we bottle in four years. My favorite from the three is the rye. It’s spicier and the labelling is a little sexier.
10. What’s your advice to young women thinking about a career in bourbon or any other similar male-dominated industry?
I think you just have to get your foot in the door, take any little bit of opportunity they give you and capitalize on it. Scrub tanks, shovel grain, just get in there and do your best. And call me, because I think we could use some help!