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The Blurring of Art, Machines, And Vodka At Industry City Distillery

“We make booze to pay for art and science,” says the cofounder of the New York-based vodka maker.

Industry City Distillery has been a beautiful accident from the start. And much of it still doesn’t make sense four years after the first batch was created—until you taste what’s in the bottle.

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Cofounders David Kyrejko and Zachary Bruner didn’t decide to make vodka because they love vodka. The distillery came about as the byproduct of a byproduct, faced challenges most distilleries don’t face, and had a goal very different from others in the drinking game.

“We make booze to pay for art and science,” Kyrejko says.

ICD cofounder David Kyrejko

Kyrejko’s distillery epiphany came when he had a small studio in Bushwick and was experimenting with aquatic ecosystems and CO2 production. He used fermentation to create CO2 and the byproduct was alcohol. That byproduct made Kyrejko think about its applications and implications. Now, that thinking has manifested as a liquid that more and more people in New York City are coveting in the form of Industry Standard vodka.

“Vodka is one of the easiest things to make if you don’t care,” Kyrejko says, “and one of the hardest if you do.”

Vodka is difficult because there’s no way to mask the imperfections as with other liquors. To make a spirit there are usually three “cuts” made during distillation: heads, hearts, and tails. What most people drink comes from the hearts. But Kyrejko and Bruner cut theirs 30 times.

“The art is knowing how to blend cuts,” Kyrejko says, adding that other makers do not blend their vodka. “It’s a giant pain in the ass.”

Bruner was living in Providence, Rhode Island, at the time of Kyrejko’s light-bulb moment, and it took the promise of “a metal shop with actual windows” to lure Bruner to Brooklyn. In 2011, they founded ICD in Sunset Park at the reclaimed warehouses of Industry City (thus the brand’s name).

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“Not the usual story for how you start up a distillery but, then again, most distilleries don’t have an engineer and a machinist as their driving force,” Kyrejko says.

The pair, who share the same birthday one year apart, met as teenagers at an art camp, but rejected art school. Now they are distillers who eschew everything they can about the way most distilleries make and market liquor.

As a tandem, they seem to complement each other in the ways of most great duos. Bruner is the machinist and head distiller. He speaks softly, and answers slowly. He cares about the integration of function and aesthetics. Kyrejko is the chief engineer. He focuses on efficiency and quality while being eager to call bullshit on whatever he thinks is bullshit, and there’s never a shortage of that. That eagerness is also a form of efficiency.

And, yes, why should anyone ever be afraid of the truth? Mention that it’s good that Bush Terminal Park opened not far from the distillery, and Kyrejko has an important question that should be considered, even if you like the park very much: “Good for who?”

That same question is at the heart of ICD’s mission. So, yes, good for who (or, rather, whom)? Either way, the distillery thinks about its space within the community as a part of it, not separate from it. Bruner, 30, and Kyrejko, 31, offer their space freely to artists and musicians, and are always seeking to reduce their footprint.

They say they’ve considered the waste they produce from business and environmental standpoints, as well as the energy they use to create their burning water. So they lean on beet sugar instead of grain, and sacrifice the aesthetics of their stills by insulating them rather than polishing the copper to impress tour groups. And even with about 10,000 square feet of space, they use very little of it for equipment.

“The truth is, running a distillery in an urban setting using ‘traditional’ technology just doesn’t make any sense at all,” Kyrejko says.

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This is why their initial goal was to build machines that were three times more efficient than what is commercially available, he says. Now, though, he says their machines and processes are up to six times more efficient, and take up a fraction of the space and resources as traditional methods.

ICD makes Industry Standard vodka and Technical Reserve, popular at creative cocktail bars in New York City.

They’ve used the same kind of creativity to solve smaller problems, too. Their bottling parties serve the dual function of production and marketing. They serve tacos (the best in the city) to the volunteers, who take home a free bottle of booze for their efforts.

Reclamation of discarded objects is also a signature at the distillery, such as the old windows that surround the stills, and the tables in their tasting room, which has million-dollar views of sunsets over the Hudson River and the Manhattan skyline. The tables were made from the wood inside metal warehouse doors that had been thrown away. Polished and repurposed, the wood is scarred and dented by generations of lost industries that used to occupy these waterfront warehouses.

The cliché about necessity and invention is evident in everything at ICD. They did not build their machines because they wanted to. They built them because they had to. Bruner says the continuous stills they sought, which needed to be capable of distilling spirits in the quantities they needed, don’t exist. And if they had bought a batch fractional reflux still that met their requirements, it would have cost more than the tasting room’s view is worth.

“We have a habit of making prototypes that work well enough that it’s not worth building a final version,” Bruner says. “On one hand, this is pretty great; on the other hand, it means there are a lot of opportunities to make things faster, easier, and better-looking.”

They also built a bioreactor system that what would fit inside a closet one might call small even by the cramped standards of New York City. Bruner says their plan had been to open-source the technology they’ve developed rather than pursue patents, but that has been delayed by legal issues.

These machines produce about 12,000 bottles of vodka each month, as well as about 240 bottles of Technical Reserve. Kyrejko says they have the capacity to produce up to four times that amount, with the hopes of going national, but they still have to tackle marketing, logistics, design and sales—all of which have been weaknesses since the beginning.

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“Learning that intelligent marketing is just as important as the science that goes into the product has been a heck of learning curve,” Kyrejko says. “When we first started out, we really had no idea what we we’re doing, but we’ve learned a lot since then.”

Ronak Parikh, head of sales, distribution, and operations

To help them solve these riddles, Ronak Parikh, 32, has joined the team as head of sales, distribution, and operations. Bruner called Parikh “one of the best things that ever happened to ICD.” Parikh brings a missing smile to the team. He’s enthusiastic when he talks about the business or the neighborhood or sports or anything else—but if you disparage his home state of New Jersey, he will defend its virtue sternly while maintaining that smile.

Parikh stepped into a role that has been vacant since ICD parted ways with one of its initial partners, which resulted in a lawsuit. Despite the cost of the ongoing litigation, which Kyrejko says has been a huge financial burden, ICD is not losing money. This is in part, he says, because they are paying themselves “literally, spaghetti.”

The pitfalls of choosing partners are common among startups, whether it’s a new app, a ride-sharing service, or booze.

“You have to make sure people are comfortable with their job descriptions—or the likely permutations of them—that they’re either competent or can clearly demonstrate quick learning and the potential for competence,” Bruner says, “and that there are systems in place for keeping everyone on track.”

Bruner also warns against leaning on friends or family when raising capital: “It might seem easy, but the expertise and external accountability that an outside investor can provide is worth the tradeoff, and family is an easy way to bring way too many emotions into the mix.”

Small-batch booze makers often build their brands around “authenticity,” and in some ways, ICD is no different—but not only because of what’s in the bottle. “We’re not vodka makers,” says Kyrejko. “We make machines.”

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According to Kyrejko (and at least one other legal action), some distilleries don’t really make their booze where or how they claim, and he warns against being suckered by the lauding of ingredients or pot distilling. He says that kind of marketing is “all bullshit,” as are the narratives some distilleries use to sell their product. He says some of the competition thinks of its story first, then just puts anything into the bottle.

If Parikh is looking for a slogan, he probably won’t pick, “We make machines.” But speaking to more of his truth, Kyrejko added that he is well aware of his skills as a marketer, which is why ICD needs someone like Parikh.

Marketing isn’t now, nor has it ever been, about speaking your mind. But even if one disagrees with the position of another who speaks his mind, at least there can be appreciation of the honesty’s flavor. And sometimes Kyrejko’s flavor comes close to what could be a slogan, even if it’s just another beautiful accident.

“It’s all about the spirit,” Kyrejko says. “It’s really good, and we’re not full of shit.”

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