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How Cacao Prieto’s Celina Perez trained her palate & learned to distill (Plus, what she’s making next)

By Chas Guy

Red Hook Brooklyn has become home to several distilleries thanks to its up-and-coming food scene and plenty of warehouse space along the East River. Among them is Cacao Prieto, which began making artisan chocolate before quickly realized that producing liqueurs, then rums and whiskeys was a natural next step, given the attention to detail and careful ingredient sourcing it’s already known for.

I had been hearing around town how good Cacao Prieto’s Widow Jane Whiskey is, and once I discovered the master distiller, Celina Perez, was a babe, it was over; I had to visit. Plus, Perez keeps a no-bullshit, rock-n-roller attitude we like to see. We recently sat down with whiskey drams and cigars from a Nat Sherman popup shop around the corner to chat about craft spirits in Brooklyn, how Perez learned to hone her taste and make whiskey, and what she plans to whip up next.

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Photos by Chas Guy

CG: It feels like Red Hook is becoming a popular place to run and operate a distillery. Why?

CP: There are a lot of people making alcohol in the neighborhood. You have Sixpoint making beer right around the corner. You have the Van Brunt Stillhouse who makes grappa, rum, and whiskey. There’s the Red Hook Winery. And there’s Jack From Brooklyn who makes all of those liqueurs. I would love to see more distilleries popping up here. Not only would it make it more competitive, but also there’s this renaissance happening in the distillery world. Instead of people being at each other’s throats, more often then not it’s a really open book policy. There’s a camaraderie to it where everyone just really loves what they’re doing.

CG: You obviously love what you’re doing, but when did the fascination for whiskey first come about?

CP: I’ve always loved whiskey and I really don’t think that you can do this job if you don’t love it. You can make still cuts based on temperature and alcohol percentage, but for the most part if you don’t know what it’s supposed to taste like and you don’t love that taste, then you’re never going to be able to make it.

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CG: It sounds like the taste for the product is what prompted you to start distilling, but how did you learn?

CP: I was completely self-taught. I picked it up really quickly just from reading books and started distilling in February of last year. I then got hired here at the end of August.

CG: Do you have a go-to cocktail?

CP: I love my booze neat. I’m not a mixed drink kind of person. I do like mixed drinks, but they have to be really heavy alcohol drinks, like a Manhattan or a Martinez. Stuff that’s already just booze mixed with booze that complements each other.

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Photo courtesy of Cacao Prieto

CG: Tell me about how you make the Cacao Prieto whiskeys, specifically, since you’re a whiskey girl.

CP: All of the whiskeys are made primarily from a single type of corn and we don’t blend them usually because they taste good on their own. I did make a whiskey yesterday that was 100 percent corn that I’ll probably have to blend. It’s a little too sweet, a little too one-sided. So I wouldn’t mind blending that into something else. Maybe something that’s rye-heavy to bring out the spiciness. It’s about trial and error, and finding what works.

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CG: I know you want to focus on the whiskey, but you also have to distill all of these other liquors as well. Are you learning how to do those on the fly?

CP: It’s really not that difficult to do so I don’t think there’s really anything you have to learn. It’s all the same basic process. Right now we’re working on a gin. We just had to do a bunch of macerations of different dilutions of botanicals. Eventually I’ll just grab some basic recipes of traditional gins and come up with some prototypes and see which one tastes good. It’s actually pretty fun.

CG: Do you have any tips for how to train your palate to like and enjoy new products?

CP: Besides drinking all the time…you just really have to know what you like. Taste can be completely subjective. I can taste a good scotch and know it’s a good scotch, but I’m a bourbon girl and I always will be. If I had the choice between a really good scotch and subpar bourbon, I’d probably go for the bourbon. You just really have to know what you like. I like fancy Rodenbach sour beer, but I’ll drink and Olde English 40 any day. You know? It’s really just about the time and the place. I also spent a lot of time cheesemongering, which definitely helped me be more vocal about what I taste because you constantly have to explain to other people what they’re tasting. The ability to taste something and then qualify it with a very specific word is pretty hard to do, but you get better at it with experience.

If you go:

Cacao Prieto, 218 Conover St, New York, NY , (347) 225-0130, cacaoprieto.com

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