Interview: Great Jones Distilling’s Celina Perez Talks Her Place In Whiskey

About a hundred years after the last whiskey distillery in Manhattan closed its doors, Great Jones Distilling brought the spirit back.

Their whiskey home on Broadway is a monument to the rich culture of Prohibition-era New York, and a celebration of whiskey past and present.

Today, the distiller uses 100% New York-sourced ingredients in their craft whiskeys, and at the helm of all that whiskey making is Celina Perez, head distiller for Great Jones Distilling Co.

Originally from San Francisco, Perez has worked with big brands such as Widow Jane and Owney’s and received awards for her work from the American Distilling Institute. She’s a graduate from NYU with a Bachelor’s in Science and has years of experience working on all levels of distillation production, from planning to construction to implementation, and from grain to barrel to bottle.

Perez recently visited with The Whiskey Wash about women in the whiskey world, and how the “spirit” of New York drives everything they do at Great Jones.

Celina Perez

Distiller Celina Perez recently visited with The Whiskey Wash about women in the whiskey world, and how the “spirit” of New York drives everything they do at Great Jones. (image via Great Jones)

The Whiskey Wash: Tell us how you came to the whiskey industry.

Celina Perez: “I’ve always been interested in whiskey and spirits and got my start working behind the bar in NYC, after college. I would read about and research Scotch regions in my free time and wanted to learn as much as possible about the art of whiskey. Then I worked as a cheesemonger for a few years and learned how to make bread and then how to make beer. There’s a natural synergy between making beer and whiskey, so I set up a still in the kitchen of the cheese shop, and that was the first step that I took into the spirits industry. As they say, the rest is history.”

TWW: What were some of the challenges you faced being a woman in a male-dominated industry?

CP: “I’ve been in the spirits industry for 11 years, and people still don’t believe that it’s a woman making their whiskey. I’m doing the best that I can to change that … but, we’ll have men come into our distillery and look for the “man” who is in-charge. That said, the industry has grown more inclusive and diverse than ever before and we’re doing what we can to inspire the next generation of women to get into distilling and production.”

TWW: What was the watershed moment where you knew this was the career for you?

CP: “I’ve been fortunate enough to follow my heart and what makes me happy. Nothing brings me more joy than whiskey. The nuance. The science. The beauty. The people. And of course, a cocktail at the end of the day.

TWW: How do you apply your education and experience with science to the art of making whiskey?

CP: “When it comes to whiskey-making, I am self-taught. I have always had a hunger to learn and am proud to have educated myself in the art of whiskey … but with help from friends and mentors, like Dave Pickerel. I was an art major, who dabbled in sculpture and science, and I tend to think that I’m adaptable to doing different things, all at the same time.”

TWW: What’s it like to be the head distiller at Manhattan’s first whiskey distillery since Prohibition? And how were you greeted by the spirit of New York?

CP: “We are located at 686 Broadway in the NoHo neighborhood of Manhattan. Great Jones is inspired by and a microcosm of, the City. There’s a profound juxtaposition between the energy of NYC … the hustle and bustle right outside our doors. And the romantic notion of whiskey-making happening inside. We’re very proud to be the first whiskey distillery in Manhattan since Prohibition and pay homage to the rich culture of Prohibition-era New York.”

TWW: What sets Great Jones Distilling apart from others?

CP: “Everything! Our unique recipes, technological versatility, pioneering safety precautions, dedication to sustainability for the city and state, and our mutually beneficial relationship with New York state farmers and maltsters.”

TWW: What’s coming on the horizon for Great Jones?

CP: “Innovation. Great Jones Bourbon is inspired by New York City, its spirit of innovation, energy, and hustle. We are proud to push the boundaries of great whiskey making. New York City is always changing and evolving and we are so lucky to be able to develop new and exciting whiskey releases in the center of the greatest city in the world. We have an ambitious barrel aging program on the cusp of one and a half years, where we’re resting our bourbon and rye in unique, rare casks. We look forward to releasing these limited-edition products later this year.”

TWW: Where do you see the whiskey industry in five, ten years?

CP: “It’s really hard to tell. We are still in the middle of this huge boom in the industry especially with small producers. Bourbon isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. I think the industry as a whole is also becoming more environmentally conscious, which we see legislatively already on the West Coast. It won’t take long for the East Coast to be held to similar standards just like the plastic bag ban that started in California. I think we will also see a shift towards sustainability. Great Jones is already very sustainable due to our use of local grain in our whiskey and our robust spent grain program.”


Gary Carter

Gary Carter has been at the helm of metro newspapers, magazines, and television news programs as well as a radio host and marketing manager. He is a writer/editor/photographer/designer by trade, with more than 30 years experience in the publishing and marketing field. Gary enjoys working to build something great, whether...