Trying to describe Red Hook, Brooklyn’s Cacao Prieto is a tricky task – is it a distillery? A chocolate making wonderland with a heavenly shop full of organic confectionery treats? A science lab and farming-innovation think tank? A seasonal botanist-centric cocktail concocting respite? I suppose pinpointing the exact nature of this multi-purpose company housed in an old brick building on Coffey Street (fittingly, the last name of the man credited for creating the column still) sort of depends on what you’re in the market for. But for its owner Daniel Preston, this center of confectionery and spirited discovery isn’t a confusing mishmash of ideas at all. It makes perfect sense.
Preston himself isn’t a man you can easily pin down with a name tag and a footnote. As reported by writer Emily Warren in the recent alcohol issue of Edible Brooklyn, Preston started out in super prepubescent Doogie Howser style, skipping junior high and heading straight to college at the tender age of 12. But that didn’t really float his boat, so he quit before graduating and started a specialty glass company right around the time most of us were worrying what to wear to senior prom. And about the age you were probably feeling pretty good about yourself for knowing which frat house had the best keggers on Saturday night? He sold that company for a mid-seven digit price and…took up skydiving. Then he broke his neck because of a shoddy parachute. So he invented a new one that was so much better, it became the floaty device of choice for the American military. One $22 million deal later and he sold that, too.
So what does a guy like this do for his third act before he even gets to go through a midlife crisis? Oh, revolutionize cacao production, open up a slammin’ confection factory, and start distilling gorgeous liqueurs and rums that are like nothing you’ve ever had.
“My great grandfather, Esteban Prieto Casas, immigrated from Spain in 1898 to come to New York,” says Preston of the Prieto family lore. But on the way, Great Grandpa Esteban stopped in the Dominican Republic, and there he fell in love with Carmen Buenaventura. Eight kids and numerous sugar cane and cacao plantations later, a family business was born.
“My family has been big in agriculture for over 100 years, although they lost most of their lands during the dictatorship. They reemerged big in tourism. The plantation I work with now was my family’s and run for ecotourism more than production. I purchased [it] and shifted our focus to production and complete vertical integration.”
By “vertical integration,” Preston means he oversees the entire process – from trees and care of them to seed-to-production decisions to the eventual bar or delicious distillates. As to that end of the business, along with some guidance from famed Master Distiller Dave Pickerell, Preston holds the fort as the main distiller at Cacao Prieto, where he began making a duo of liqueurs named for his family’s line of patriarchs around 2011 – the Don Rafael Cacao Rum and the Don Estaban Cacao Liqueur. But last year, Preston got thirsty for a little more adventure (yet again) and wanted to explore the world of whiskey. Enter the Widow Jane.
In the same way Preston knew he wanted to source the cacao he’d use for chocolates and liqueurs from the best place he could, he followed suit for his latest venture. To launch a bourbon is not an simple task. While bourbon need not be made in Kentucky, it must spend a minimum of 2 years (by law) in new charred white American oak barrels in order to earn the legitimate title of straight bourbon. Preston sourced enough to make an initial run of 1,500 bottles with far more than the minimum barrel-age requirement, but chose to use mineral-rich New York water sourced from the limestone-packed Widow Jane mine in the Catskills to fulfill one of the other bourbon rules: bringing the spirit’s abv down from its initial cask strength to his preferred 45.5%. The 7-year aged version is a wonder of rich, spiced aromas – like a baked apple cooked with vanilla bean, cinnamon, and allspice. When you sip it, the spice gets more peppery, but more akin to cracked black pepper in white chocolate – a little soft sweetness with the zing – along with great notes of orange peel and a sort of savory but clean caraway-like finish. It’s a bourbon of both expected and unexpected complexity and pleasures. But coming from a guy like Preston, it’s all in a day’s work.