Asked if there had been any notable disasters or setbacks in the few years she and her partner, Hagai Yardeny, had been operating the ultra-boutique MÔTÔ Spirits in north Bushwick, co-owner Marie Estrada thought for a second before answering, “Oh, yeah! There was the explosion.”
Laughing at her interviewer’s taken-aback expression, the Phillipines-born American entrepreneur quickly added, “It wasn’t a dangerous explosion, although it could have been.”
“In the early stages of the business there was a lot of waste built up where the mash pump hose connects to our 120 gallon still. Hagai, my partner, was about to unclamp the hose, and I told him to do it very, VERY slowly,” Estrada told Bushwick Daily. “So I was standing way back and, BOOM, the whole thing exploded. The fermented blockage had created a ton of pressure and blood-red yeast sprayed everywhere, coating everything. It looked like a massacre.”
The warehouse section of Bushwick is home to many a hare-brained scheme, hatched by pathologically determined individuals with enough cash on hand (or sufficient persuasiveness to convince others to give over theirs) to finance them. No doubt untold scores have failed, their gossamer fancies crushed under the weight of commerce’s big fat ass.
But Estrada and Yardeny’s MÔTÔ Spirits, which produces whisky and a Croatian-inspired apple distillate the owners call Jabuka, seems to have found a way forward from the perilous early stages that often make or break a business. Starting life as a bathroom experiment in the Williamsburg loft apartment where the two first met, MÔTÔ has slowly picked up speed, moving faster and faster up the road like one of several fine, old motorcycles that share a warehouse space with a few wooden benches, bins of Kokuho rice, and assorted gimcracks.
Those motorcycles aren’t there by accident: aside from distillation, Yardeny and Estrada share a passion for two-wheeled travel. In fact, it’s what ignited everything in the first place.
A half-decade ago, Yardeny, an Israeli native who moved to the United States at age 14, traveled to the damp hill country of northern Vietnam. There, he bought a cheap motorcycle and began riding from village to village. During his journeys, he became intrigued by the practice among the villagers of producing what they call “rice wine.” Every family, it seemed, had their own little still. He brought several plastic water bottles filled with the volatile substance back to Williamsburg, where it met the lips of Estrada, who among other things is a certified sommelier.
“It was awful,” Estrada chuckled. “Hagai smokes like a chimney and as a result doesn’t have much of a palate. I told him that it wasn’t commercially viable as it was.”
Skepticism notwithstanding, it wasn’t long before bubbling pressure cookers and other machinery filled an unused bathroom, obtained from their Hasidic landlord, on the ninth floor of their ex-pasta factory apartment building.
At first, neither Yardeny nor Estrada called what they made “whisky,” which is generally defined as a grain-derived spirit (only grain) aged in oak barrels for varying periods of time.
“We had no idea,” exclaimed Estrada. “A friend of ours was like, ‘Dude, you’re making whisky!’”
The intrepid pair’s fledgling operation quickly outgrew its lavatorial incubator, and the operation was moved to its current home on a quiet side street off of Flushing Avenue, right across the street from a police station. After hacking their way through a thicket of red tape, MÔTÔ’s first bottle of rice whisky was sold in 2017.
To date, you can find MÔTÔ’s cute little bottles (some small enough to fit in your pocket) in about 70 locations around New York, including a midtown Marriott hotel. Still very much a start-up, they handle the chores of both distribution and PR themselves. The business is self-financed, with only one employee (Emily Pennell, who recently graduated from NYU in biomolecular engineering), making the operation as trim and streamlined as one of their bikes.
Their other product, Jabuka, was born, like their rice whisky, from another motorcycle trip abroad. This time, Vietnam was traded for the Balkans, and Yardeny was joined by Estrada. In Croatia they discovered another home distilling culture, with apples taking the place of rice.
But according to Estrada, if you go to Croatia and ask for a liquor called Jabuka, you’ll likely receive one of two things: a blank stare or the address of a nearby apple orchard.
“We just stole the Croatian word for ‘apple,’” said Estrada by way of explaining their distillate’s moniker. To further demystify the liquor for potential consumers, she describes its flavor profile as being similar to “Calvados [a French apple brandy] on the front end and bourbon on the back.”
The distillery’s copious use of apples (Jabuka is made from 80 percent apples and 20 percent rice) highlights another key element of the company philosophy: supporting local farms and other businesses. Because while their rice comes from California, their fruit comes from Wilklow Orchards in upstate New York, and aging barrels come from Brooklyn distillers (like Stillhouse, whose used bourbon barrels are utilized to age both their Jabuka and rice whisky).
MÔTÔ Spirits is also looking to tailor future distillates around more unusual products grown by Empire State farmers. Estrada clearly enjoys a challenge.
“We’re experimenting right now with blueberries,” mentioned Estrada, “and maple syrup from a friend’s farm upstate called ‘Tree Juice.’ We also have some concentrated concord grape juice we might do something with.”
Everything, though, seems to come back to travel when speaking about what inspires Estrada and Yardeny’s creative endeavors.
“The intention,” asserted Estrada firmly, “isn’t that we travel in order to find these spirits, it’s literally that we love to travel and then we just find things along the way.”
For more information about MÔTÔ Spirits, click here or check out their Facebook page, where you can keep track of events held at their address, which have included a once-a-month dog friendly “Yappy Hour,” tastings of their own products, motorcycle events, and even clothing swaps.
Photos courtesy of MÔTÔ Spirits, unless otherwise specified.
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