The Widow Jane mine on the Snyder Estate has long been known as one of the mining sites of Rosendale’s natural limestone cement, famously used to build the Brooklyn Bridge and the pedestal for the Statue of Liberty, among other national landmarks. More recently, however, the Widow Jane and adjoined mines are getting some notice for another reason: it’s become the namesake of a new, and much-acclaimed bourbon.
The mastermind behind the Widow Jane bourbon is Daniel Prieto Preston, founder of Cacao Prieto, an organic “farm-to-bar/bottle” chocolate and liquor distillery located in Red Hook, Brooklyn.
Preston’s idea for the Widow Jane bourbon was 10 years in the making. A close friend of Louisa Duffy, a former director of the Century House Historical Society, Preston fell in love with Rosendale and the historic limestone mines and canals around the Snyder Estate.
“After 10 years of looking for a place to move into the area, I lucked out,” he said.
He bought the historic Dewitt Estate, which not only encompasses a five-lock section of the Delaware & Hudson canal and a portion of the mines, but also a series of limestone kilns and the old Lawrence Cement Company’s mill and water bridge. Water from several sections of the local mines flows and even bubbles up into springs on Preston’s property.
“It’s a wondrous historic property,” he said.
Preston is an inventor and aerospace engineer whose family has been farming organic cacao and sugar cane in the Dominican Republic for more than 100 years. He has more than 140 patents or pending patents in 17 countries, and has been heralded by the Chicago Tribune and the Washington Times as the real life “Q” from the James Bond series.
As a contractor to the U.S. military, his contributions to this country include the invention of satellite-guided parachute systems, which enable planes to airdrop cargo above the range of surface to air missiles, and a body armor that is 1/3 the weight of standard military issue. With a 1/2 billion dollar contract in the pipeline, Preston sold his controlling interest in his company. This involved a strict non-competition agreement and Preston was forced to move on into new fields of work.
Enter one of Preston’s best friends, Alex Clark, a noted NYC foodie and mixologist. Clark talked Preston into designing some food machinery for him and after a trip to visit family in the Dominican Republic, the concept for Cacao Prieto was born. The company began fermenting chocolate and cacao-based rums, but whiskey was later added for fun.
“You can’t be a distiller in America and not try your hat at our country’s signature spirit,” Preston said.
During a pilgrimage to Kentucky, Preston and Clark discovered that the reason why 95 percent of all bourbon is made there is because of the state’s unique limestone aquifer.
“Our distillery is located in Red Hook, on the Brooklyn waterfront,” he said, “and we had some problems with ‘stuck’ fermentations when starting up whiskey production. New York City tap water is just not that good for yeast’s well being. To keep the yeast happy, we had to do all sorts of filtering and add chemical nutrients that prevented us from going 100 percent organic.”
All this changed when they tested their very own limestone mineral water from the Rosendale mines.
“It has all the same dissolved minerals as the water from Kentucky,” he said. “Actually, it has higher quantities of desirable dissolved minerals. Our yeast went crazy, multiplying super fast and generating beautiful fermentations of our grains.”
They immediately purchased a stainless steel water tanker truck, and have since executed a partnership with Joe Turco of Turco Brothers Water Service in Rosendale. Turco owns a portion of the mines, in addition to many more water tankers.
Aging now and soon to be released this year is Cacao Prieto’s Widow Jane Organic Wapsie Corn bourbon, Organic Hopi Blue Corn Bourbon, and Organic Bloody Butcher red corn bourbon.
Not wanting to use genetically-modified corn for his whiskeys, Preston exhaustively researched heirloom corns, and latched on to the idea of hybrids, developed by families in the 1700s and 1800s and kept alive by passionate family members and followers.
“We are growing a large crop of heirloom corn this season in Rosendale and Hurley,” he said. “We have been told we are the only distillery in America that doesn't use GMO corn. Expect a wonderful release of Bloody Butcher Bourbon from us. We will also have test fields of several other heirloom grains ranging from scarlet barley to painted mountain corn.”
Cacao Prieto released 2,000 bottles of their 5-year Widow Jane bourbon last fall, and it’s available for purchase at both Rosendale Wine and Spirits and Stone Ridge Wines and Spirits.
“It’s far and away superior to other new whiskeys,” said Paul Vernet, a staffer at Stone Ridge Wines and Spirits. “It has a special spirit – all kinds of complexity.”
In addition, the tavern at The 1850 House in Rosendale stocks it and sells it by the glass.
Owner Mike Ruger first met Preston when he stayed at the inn amid construction difficulties at his house in Rosendale.
“Daniel thanked me for his stay and gave me a bag of his chocolates and a bottle of the 5-year bourbon,” said Ruger. “I looked at the bottle and it said ‘Barrel #1, Bottle #1.’ I couldn’t believe he gave me his very first bottle. When I asked if it was a mistake, he said, ‘No, I just didn’t want to go down to the city to get another bottle.’ I thought that was very cool! I haven’t opened it – it’s still in my wine cellar.”
Ruger said the reaction to the bourbon from local customers has been great.
“As soon as people find out it’s local, they’re amazed,” he said. “And they’re impressed with how good it is. It’s a very smooth bourbon.”