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Conversation with Great Jones's Head Distiller: Celina Perez

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15/02/2022 Head Distiller Celina Perez on how she found her career in whiskey distillation and her sourcing and quality control mechanism.

Celina Perez is the Head Distiller at Great Jones Distilling Co. which is Manhattan's first legal whiskey distillery since prohibition. Having vast experience in the distillation industry, Celina has worked with many notable distilleries, distilling some of the finest spirits. She specializes in distillation, handling heavy equipment, pumps, bottling, and warehouse management. After graduating in Fine Arts from NYU, she started working behind bars till she found an opportunity in a microbrewery and finally got into the distillation industry. She creates her craft whiskeys from locally sourced ingredients, delivering the authenticity of New York's tradition.

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Tell us a little about yourself and how you progressed into this role.

I’ve always loved whiskey. I worked as a bartender in NYC for 7 years and then started working as a cheesemonger. I decided I needed a change and started to teach myself how to make whiskey. I got my foot in the door assisting at a brewery and soon after I got an interview at a whiskey distillery. I was hired as their head distiller and that was ten years ago. Since then, I have worked at various distilleries as plant manager, distiller, distilling supervisor, and now head distiller at Great Jones. 

What does a typical day at work look like?    

I get to work in the morning. I fire up the still or start our mash for the day. I will do paperwork and answer emails waiting for the still or mash tank to reach temperature. Once I make heads cut to begin collecting whiskey, I will use downtime to clean tanks, work on various projects, receive and warehouse deliveries, and prepare shipments of whiskey to our rickhouses in the Warwick Valley. Also, during this time I will take periodic temperature, proof, and taste measurements to ensure quality. In addition to that, I will also have meetings, tastings, and interviews throughout the week.

Celina Perez with her colleague, Jelani Johnson

Celina Perez with her colleague, Jelani Johnson

How do you develop new products? What’s the thought behind it?

New product development begins with a recipe or idea that I want to drink or taste using grain samples from local farms, followed by charts on how to implement the process. I outline the recipe quantities, production schedule, costs, source the grain, determine adjunct to enzyme ratios based on diastatic levels, and calculate angel share to estimate the overall yield over 4 years of aging. I start with small batches and then fine-tune recipes into larger runs. 

Tell us about your sourcing and your quality control mechanism.

We source all of our grain from the fertile black dirt of the Warwick Valley. At Great Jones we uphold a rigorous level of quality control by choosing the best local grain, fermenting with nutrient-rich NYC water, precision pot distillation to taste, barrel aging for four years using the seasonal temperature swings of the northeast, and then hand-selecting barrels out of hundreds to blend together into our final product.

How often are you firing up the stills and how long does a batch take?

We run the still 7 days a week. From mash to distill 1 week. From barrel to bottle 4 years.

500 gallons pot still surrounded with explosion-proof glass at The Great Jones Distillery

500 gallons pot still surrounded with explosion-proof glass at The Great Jones Distillery

Tell us about your whiskey, the expressions, and what excites you the most about it.

Great Jones produces three types of whiskey, a four grain Bourbon, a three grain Bourbon, and a Rye.

What really excites me about Great Jones is what we have planned for this year. In addition to our current offerings, we will be working on new and experimental expressions and playing around with different grains, malts, and barrel finishes.

According to you, what makes a great spirit? What do you consider your flagship spirit and why?

The cleaner and more controlled the process, the better the spirit. You also need a healthy taste for whiskey to make great whiskey. Our flagship spirit is our Flagship 4 Grain Whiskey. 

You have an incredible tasting room, can you tell us about the experiences and the distillery tour?

Adjacent to the Distillery is the Tasting Room, a bar featuring both standard bar seating and table configurations primarily for walk-in guests. Visitors attending a guided tour of the distillery will gather in this space, which will also serve as an overflow bar when restaurant and speakeasy reservations are high, GJD will provide a totally unique bourbon tasting and distillery experience. Guests can choose to take an educational tour of the distillery, where they’ll learn about the process of making bourbon (along with the nuances of New York State bourbon), as well as in-depth tastings.

What are some of the spirits you have on your shelf?

I have a chainsaw-shaped bottle of Jim Beam.

View of the beautiful bar at The Great Jones Distillery

View of the beautiful bar at The Great Jones Distillery

Interviewed By Prithvi Nagpal, Editor & Sommelier, Beverage Trade Network

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