Jersey Distilleries Are Giving Kentucky a Run for Its Money

John Granata, founder of the family-owned Jersey Spirits Distilling Co. in Fairfield, talks local pride and the "liquor capital" of NJ.

Susan, John and daughter Noël Granata at their family-owned and -run Jersey Spirits Distilling Co. in Fairfield.
Susan, John and daughter Noël Granata at their family-owned Jersey Spirits Distilling Co. in Fairfield. Photo courtesy of Jersey Spirits

Move over, Kentucky. New Jersey’s liquor distilleries are catching the eye (and palate) of tipplers inside the state and out. Jersey Spirits Distilling Co., based in Fairfield, is distinguished by its natural products made entirely with fresh Garden State–grown ingredients. Below, founder and master distiller John Granata shares his “pure Jersey” approach with us. 

[RELATEDAn Insider’s Guide to 25 New Jersey Distilleries]

How did you come to be a distiller and owner of Jersey Spirits? 
There’s no set career path to becoming a distiller. I took the long road and made a big switch around 10 years ago. I’d been an independent TV producer, but after the ’08 recession, the streaming companies got so big they were producing everything in-house. Their newly minted executives thought they were creatives, and I didn’t love the business anymore. For my next role, I wanted to do something that, like production, combines creativity with technology, science with art. But I didn’t know what.

Did you have an aha moment? 
I absolutely did. I found my inspiration while on vacation with my wife, Susan, in Park City, Utah. At a whiskey tasting at High West Distillery, we were bowled over by the subtlety and smoothness of the liquor. We got very interested in distilling and started to volunteer at distilleries in Kentucky, New York, Vermont and Florida. We learned everything we could about distilling, which is very scientific and precise, and I got into it.  

We opened in 2015, and our production has quintupled since then. Today I’m a master distiller, and our daughter Noël is our operations manager and a distiller, too. Susan does sales and marketing, and designs our bottles and Jersey-centric labels.

A flight of liquors at the Jersey Spirits tasting room on a Jersey-shaped board

A flight of liquors at the Jersey Spirits tasting room. Photo courtesy of Jersey Spirits

Did you have a background in food and beverage?
Well, I grew up Italian, in Bloomfield. My grandfather was a longtime chef at Perry’s in Newark, and we were all into food. I grew up feeling that the kitchen was the place to be, and that good food with distinctive flavor is a great achievement. I remember being four or five and climbing up to the roof of my grandma’s house in Spring Lake to flip over her sun-drying tomatoes.

As an adult, I got into baking. I once owned a restaurant, Evergreen, in Upper Montclair, and was very involved in the cooking, with the goal of developing the flavor of every dish. The venture didn’t last, but owning another food or beverage business was always in the back of my mind.

What’s the concept behind Jersey Spirits? 
For one thing, the timing was good, as New Jersey relaxed its regulations regarding craft distilleries in 2013, opening the door to small-batch producers of under 100,000 [750-ml] bottles annually. Susan and I created our brand and our spirits very consciously. After we appraised all the liquors out there, we put flavor at the top of our wish list. We came to feel that smoothness isn’t enough, even for vodka and gin, and we saw a place for really nice-tasting alcohol, with perceptible flavor as part of the mix.  

We also wanted to make our spirits taste, and be, as natural as possible, coming from fresh, real fruit or honey or what have you. It was shocking to discover that nearly all the flavored liquors on the market are made from chemical-laden syrups or outright synthetic flavorings. We New Jerseyans know what good is, with a palate that’s sky-high. Susan and I were certain there was a need for great-tasting liquor with none of the off-taste and aftertaste of fake ingredients.  

And finally, we wanted to celebrate our state and its brilliant food and agriculture scene. Our name, Jersey Spirits, reflects what we think of as the actual Jersey spirit—that swagger of self-confidence and pride in our richly historic, varied, delicious place, from spectacular beaches to beautiful old towns to pioneering organic farms. New Jerseyans are second to no one. 

Our products are not only made here, but all our ingredients are made from Jersey-grown crops or fruit, fresh and raw. And we’ve been winning gold and silver medals at the prestigious San Francisco World Spirits Competition and the New York International Spirits Competition. In New Jersey, we do it right.

Why did you base Jersey Spirits in Fairfield? 
I’ve lived in Essex County my whole life: Bloomfield, West Caldwell, West Orange. I’ve tried and failed to leave! And Fairfield is the liquor capital of New Jersey—seriously, with the most alcohol licenses of any town in the state. Three distilleries, two breweries and a winery. Fairfield is a cool place.

Jersey Hooch liquor at Jersey Spirits Distilling Co. in Fairfield

Taste local fruits and spices in the Jersey Hooch liquor. Photo courtesy of Jersey Spirits

What’s Jersey Spirits’ product range? 
We make it all. Vodkas, rums, gins, whiskies, bourbons—the first bourbon distilled in the state since Prohibition. We even produce a single malt whiskey and a grappa. You can see our specific offerings on our website. Everything is pretty unique, such as vodka flavored with Jersey produce: hot pepper, cucumber that’s amazing in a vodka tonic, a horseradish vodka for an incredible Bloody Mary. [There are cocktail recipes, too.]

Our Jersey Hooch liquor is really popular, with complex, not-over-sweetened flavors, so you can taste the Jersey fruit and spices in our Apple Pie, Pumpkin Pie, Cherry Smash, PB & J Sandwich, peachy Beach Tea and more. Jersey Hooch is low-alcohol, around 40 proof, so you can sip it without worrying it’ll go right to your head.

Where can Jersey Spirits be bought and tasted? 
We’ve gotten a warm reception from retailers statewide and are sold in close to 200 stores, which you can find on our interactive map. We’re at Total Wine, Bottle King, many Buy-Rites and ShopRite liquor stores, and lots of independent shops. We also sell at our distillery, including curbside pickup. You can taste Jersey Spirits in more than 50 bars and restaurants across the state. And our distillery has a tasting room, plus an outdoor area serving shots, flights and cocktails. No reservation; open Wednesday through Sunday.

No one knows New Jersey like we do. Sign up for one of our free newsletters here. Want a print magazine mailed to you? Purchase an issue from our online store.

Read more Eat & Drink articles.