What you’re reading – the first installment of a column documenting the struggles of just one tiny stitch (Bushwick) in America’s restaurant and bar tapestry – owes its conception, in part, to the author’s loss of his “day job” as a bartender; many of the column’s subjects will be plucked from the writer’s own rolodex of businesses previously profiled for Bushwick Daily.
The Brooklyn restaurant and bar industry, made, not of sticks but of mildewed straw, has been confronted by arguably the bleakest existential crisis of any economic sector. The ability to think outside the box is suddenly at a premium; those entrepreneurs who can’t pivot fast enough will be flattened by the COVID bum rush in the blink of an eye. Bushwick restaurant owners won’t be alone among the casualties, of course; so will the porters, the waiters, the dishwashers, the bartenders. Even the Cheesecake Factory is giving its landlords the finger.
For those of us born into circumstances commonly, if chauvinistically, described as “First World”, the notion of security – of being cushioned like a lot of pampered, powdered Marie Antoinettes from a pitiless, fickle and treacherous universe – is very often seen as something like a birthright. Undergirding that notion is the assumption that everything, even here in one of the industrialized democratic world’s least nurturing nations, will, in the end, work itself out in the manner of an MGM musical.
But In the space of a single month, the proverbial wolf at the door – to many Americans only an abstraction – has for many been unmuzzled by the sudden public health crisis that is the COVID-19 outbreak; the canine’s baying has suddenly been amplified to terrifying decibel levels, threatening with obliteration the made-of-sticks edifice of our cherished illusions of security.
Today’s subjects are two owners of enterprises whose futures have, like thousands of others around the country, been branded with big, glowing question marks. One, while not exactly a veteran on the scene, is well-established; the other is a fledgling entity struggling mightily to take wing at the precise moment a category-four hurricane makes landfall.
Regardless of lifespan, swift adaptation to a stark new reality is, for both – and, perhaps, the industry at large – the only difference between a tenuous perseverance and extinction.
Shinobu Kato: owner, and head Brewer at Kato Sake Works
In a cramped, Frankenstein’s lab-like space on Central Avenue, just south of Flushing Avenue, owner Shinobu Kato tends daily to several, gleaming stainless steel tanks, filled with rice in various stages of fermentation. The result – crisp and cold as fuji apples – will eventually fill 750 milliliter bottles embossed with the Kato Sake Works label. Each represents about two months worth of blood, sweat and yeast.
Last month, Kato emerged, machete in hand and grim determination stamped on his face, from a forest of red tape representing several months of patience. He swiftly planned a series of soft openings to announce his sake brewery’s arrival, only the second in all of New York City.
Of those scheduled for the entire month of March, only the first three were realized. I attended the second-to-last event, where I drank next to two New York Philharmonic French horn players recently informed of the orchestra’s temporary (fingers-crossed) retirement.
A day later, Kato decided to err on the side of prudence, shutting his doors to retail business while continuing to brew sake.
The Tokyo-born brewer had originally planned on deriving profit largely from the small, L-shaped tasting counter that greets visitors as they walk in from Central Avenue. Instant ramen and Japanese curry, plus an assortment of umami-rich, thirst-conjuring Japanese snacks, would have, under normal circumstances, accompanied generous measures of Kato Works sake – to be followed, perhaps, by the purchase of one or more bottles to take home.
So what’s a micro-brewer to do?
“We’re focused on bottling now,” answered the perpetually jovial Kato, speaking to me by phone from his brewery. “The plan is to set up an online pre-order system, so they can come in and quickly pick up everything in one bag. Minimize interaction.”
When asked about supply chain, Kato told Bushwick Daily, “We have enough rice right now, but we may have to reduce the scale of production eventually. But yeah, I can’t find gloves for handling [fermentation agent] koji. We are obviously not a priority. And we use alcohol to sanitize equipment, which we also can’t find any of now…paper bags, too. Everything is out of stock.”
When the salt-and-pepper manned Shinobu Kato isn’t puttering around his small property – checking temperatures, stirring rice and just generally being a dangerously obsessed mad sake scientist – he and his wife pass the hours of enforced isolation cooking.
“I did Korean BBQ yesterday, but today I’m marinating a big steak in sake kasu.”
What is sake kasu, pray tell? Something like the sake version of wine lees?
“Mmm, kind of. It’s used sake rice, rich in enzymes that tenderize the meat.”
If you’re interested in getting on the ground floor of New York’s second sake brewery – and the city’s sole producer of small-scale, craft sake, go to katosakeworks.com, where Kato has set up a system whereby customers can pre-order one or more bottles and then go directly to the brewery for a quick, currency-less and sanitary hand off of goods. I highly recommend their nama, or unpasteurized, sake.
(P.s.: Kato hopes that, in a few weeks, he’ll be able to delivery, via UPS or Fedex, to buyers’ doorsteps. Stay tuned.)
Marie Estrada: owner, distiller at Moto Spirits
Marie Estrada of Moto Spirits, whose distillery is a 10-second walk around the corner from Kato Sake Works. The close proximity and shared interest in recreational alcohol, given the two proprietors a, “can borrow a cup of sugar?” relationship.
While Kato, thus far, seems to be in a good place vis-a-vis his rice supply, the grain picture for distiller Estrada and her business partner Hagai Yardeny isn’t as sunny.
Estrada and Yardeny began commercial production in 2017, with their primary products being rice whisky and Jabuka, an apple distillate. In three years, they’ve gained a solid customer base in hotels, liquor stores and wine shops. However, the stocks of the California Central Valley firm which supplies Moto with her special Kokuho rice were looted by panicky buyers after the coronavirus exploded; the company has since limited orders of rice to 500 pounds. This, unfortunately, makes it difficult for Moto Spirits to keep up with the demand they’ve managed to build over the years. The result?
SO WHAT’S A MICRO-distiller TO DO?
“We took the last 500 pounds of rice we were able to purchase to make hand sanitizer instead of whisky and Jabuka,” said Estrada from her Williamsburg apartment. “500 pounds isn’t much, though, so after the rice runs out we’ll purchase ethanol from much larger New York distilleries and make the hand sanitizer from that.”
“And we’re not selling it,” Estrada emphasized. “We’re asking people to buy a bottle of our drinkable product and you’ll get the sanitizer for free.”
While free-bees of hand sanitizer will, while supplies last, be included in orders of whisky or jabuka, the priority is hospitals; their first batch went almost exclusively to Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx.
Clearly, neither Yardeny nor Estrada seem content to sit on their distillate-stained hands, least of all during a crisis; the duo has also found time to volunteer with motorcycle-centric organization Motoveli, delivering much needed medical supplies to health care facilities around New York.
Estrada also occupies herself keeping track of the ways the city government has been tweaking her industry’s bylaws to help keep distilleries and breweries afloat. (She’s a part of the New York Distillery Guild, whose members keep each other updated on any issues potentially affecting their livelihood.) Cocktail delivery was, up until a couple of weeks ago, a distillery no-no. Now, it’s been given an indefinite green light, as has the ability to use delivery apps like Postmates, Uber Eats, Seamless, etc.
These concessions will, of course, be rescinded once the crisis ends, like the recent expansion of unemployment. But they provide, I think, at least a glimmer of silver-lining to rim the blackest of storm clouds – that is, that our governments are, never mind what political motivations may be involved, trying in their imperfect, clumsy and glacial manner to do what it’s supposed to, which is assist its citizenry in times of need. (That it should take a crisis of this magnitude for that assistance to make itself manifest is highly problematic.) There is much more to be done.
Marie Estrada, human dynamo and distiller of rice whisky and what I’d hazard to guess is Brooklyn’s only apple distillate, doesn’t seem too preoccupied by the U.S. government’s belated (and still wanting) efforts to tend to its citizens. When she isn’t at the distillery – or failing that, communicating with Associate Distiller Emily Pennell, who tends the Moto fires on the reg – she’s snug at home, one of that breed whose lifestyle hasn’t been terribly affected by the health crisis.
“This situation is perfect for me,” Estrada ruefully admitted. “I practice my golf putting. I have a classical guitar and a ukulele that I figured I’d start back up on. Oh, and I’m reading Murakami’s ‘After the Earthquake.’” (The Japanese novelist’s 1999 work is a short story collection whose backdrop is the aftermath of the 1995 Kobe Earthquake, which killed over 5,000 people and displaced many more.)
Moto Spirits’ line of distillates can be ordered here. A 50ml bottle of hand sanitizer will be included free of charge while supplies last.
Cover Photo: Marie Estrada of Moto Spirts distillery and Kato Sake Works’ Shinobu Kato.
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