Onyx Spirits Company, East Hartford
Onyx closed this location in May 2018 with stated plans of reopening “somewhere.” That was likely never a realistic plan at all and Onyx has disappeared entirely.
This is one of those pages that I’ve been waffling on how to write it. I’m very conflicted about Onyx. This may surprise you, since Onyx seems to be one of the most beloved little start-ups in recent Connecticut memory. It’s not that I dislike Onyx… I think they are brilliant marketers and I applaud their community involvement and all that sort of stuff.
My problem is… eh, well get to that. I don’t want to bring you down off the bat.
But wait… even brilliant marketers do weird things. Who remembers when Onyx sent a bottle of spirits (with a silver platter and a rocks glass) up into space? No one? Well, that gimmick wasn’t their best.
Onyx began production in 2011 in Manchester in the Hilliard Mills. They quickly outgrew that space (which then became home to Top Shelf Brewing, before they outgrew the space and moved across town in early 2016… and then never actually opening… and then Parable Brewing moved in and closed and sold their equipment to Ericit Brewing, also in Manchester. Phew.) and moved to another industrial space in East Hartford.
But even before all of that, the guys behind Onyx founded a music label. They became fairly successful at that, recording members of Destiny’s Child and the Pussycat Dolls. Somehow, through that business, they decided to start up liquor brand. Yeah, I don’t really follow that logic either, but that’s what happened.
So they navigated the arcane and confusing Connecticut liquor laws, rolled up their sleeves and Onyx was born. And almost immediately they were on the “Cool in Connecticut” map. Before writing this and doing a little research, I always wondered how the heck Onyx Moonshine became the “Official Spirit of the 2012 GRAMMY Awards”. At least we now have an idea. (see preceding paragraph.)
Onyx worked social media and traditional media hard. They were everywhere I turned. They knew what they were doing in that arena, no doubt about it. All this for clear corn liquor. Pretty much flavorless distillate. They did a great job convincing Connecticut that this stuff was “artisanal” and even delicious.
Moonshine is not delicious at all. It’s ethanol and water. That’s it. But Onyx had created a brand and an identity around this product, and their name was everywhere at social events.
Over the years, Onyx has done a few flavored moonshine variants like cranberry and honey crisp apple. They offer a 111 proof ‘shine too. Oof. Then they got crazy and branched off into whisky. And that’s where things get a little interesting for me.
I am NOT a whisky guy. I’m not any sort of brown liquor guy, and I won’t pretend to be. It’s just not my thing. I’ve tried, but I can’t get into it at all. I’m interested in the process and the history of all the brown liquors, but I’m not really interested in the taste of them – despite the efforts of my “he just got married in Lexington, Kentucky and gave me a bottle of some fancy bourbon as a gift” brother.
But I support Connecticut business and I am attracted to the Onyx story. So I bought a bottle of their whisky.
For SIXTY freaking dollars.
And this is where I begin to have a problem with Onyx. The rollout of the whisky was again, brilliant. They created a buzz before anyone got a buzz from the stuff. But how in the world did they release a whisky so quickly? Decent whisky must age in barrels for a few years, right? Or at least blend aged juice with their own, right? It’s called “Secret Stash,” so what’s the “secret” here?
The distillery aged its moonshine in 33, five-gallon barrels sealed in organic beeswax, company co-founder Adam von Gootkin said. The moonshine is made from corn, malted grains and Connecticut spring water. Aging the liquor in charred-oak barrels will add color, smokiness and flavors that will morph the moonshine into a traditional, Connecticut whiskey, von Gootkin wrote in a news release.
“Six months in a five-gallon barrel is equivalent to approximately three years in a standard 53-gallon whiskey barrel, due to the increased surface value ratio,” he wrote.
I was fascinated by this. Could this really be true? Would a higher volume-to-barrel surface ratio yield what the big boys in Kentucky do in larger barrels over longer times? Since I have no palate for such things, I asked some more experienced friends. The answer was a unanimous “no.”
(Note, Onyx is certainly not alone with this idea. This is happening all over the world at similar “micro-distilleries.” After all, time is money.)
I opened my bottle (which happened to be the very last in the initial production run, If I’m to believe the label – bottle 33 from barrel 33. I guess that’s cool for you Chinese numerologist mystics out there) and it smelled like whisky … and to me, it tasted enough like whisky… but just not very good whisky.
And at $60 for a bottle, that is kind of lame.
I did some research on the Onyx aging process. Nothing really turned up until I read the wonderful Proof: The Science of Booze by Adam Rogers. (I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the science and history of alcohol.)
In the chapter titled “Aging,” Rogers wrote this:
Because small distilleries without stock on hand want to turn our product faster, they’ll often simply use smaller barrels, just 2 or 3 gallons, compared to the 52 gallons in a typical whisky cask. The smaller barrels are more expensive, but the increased surface-to-volume ratio means faster extraction from the oak – three to five months instead of years and years….
People trained to think of eighteen-year-old single malts as the definition of whisky tend not to like the resinous, piney notes that come from small-barrel aging. Younger whiskies get all the extraction of a long decade in oak, but little of the esterification or oxidation, and little of the reorganization of the liquid’s molecular structure. They’re imagure, spiky instead of mellow. The booze is brown, but tastes green. Kris Berglund, who runs the only academic distilling program in the US, at Michigan State University, has dedicated a chunk of his off-campus lab to small barrels and temperature control. “It turns out a lot of bad things happen when you use small barrels. Our conclusion is it’s not such a great idea,” Berglund says. “The haircut you take on the angels’ share is enormous.”
Of course this isn’t really an indictment of Onyx. I’m writing all of this because I find it interesting. Onyx whisky is… perhaps, different and not bad. I’m not whisky-fied enough to know. And now I’ll make everyone that hates me for this page feel better…
I taste-tested the Onyx Whisky (which has evaporated half away in my cabinet since I first opened it) and the Blanton’s from my brother’s wedding.
Sure, they tasted different, but one wasn’t any better than the other – to my Neanderthal palate. And remember, Blanton’s is said to be really quite good.
I wrote all of that to get to this point: You can go to Onyx’s “speakeasy” in East Hartford and taste all their stuff for yourselves. It is accessed at the back of some grim industrial area in East Hartford. The door is nondescript to say the least.
And as if to continue the ruse, the door to the tasting room itself is a bookshelf. Like a secret passage. Clever chaps, these Onyx boys.
I suppose I should quickly mention that the other “ruse” here is that Onyx has never distilled a drop of liquor. They are not and never have been a distillery at all. They truck in the ethanol and water it down – using “Connecticut spring water” of course. They are, again, clever marketers and I can’t fault them for that. More on this below.
The tasting room itself is really quite nice. Dimly lit and atmospheric to the hilt. There are a smattering of tables and the room is fairly large. The bar is well-appointed and the décor is well thought-out. As of April 2016, our distilleries can only give you something like half-ounce samples, which when poured in little glasses really doesn’t amount to much.
But that’s the law – and it’s better than it was before when no sampling was allowed. At other distilleries (Waypoint, Litchfield, Hickory Ledges to name three), samples are free. At the home of the $60 3-month aged Connecticut whisky, your tasting will run you ten bucks.
Which is absurd. But what the heck, during our visit, plenty of people were ponying up the sawbuck to sip the vapors. Good for Onyx.
Each thimble pour comes with a whole explanation of the product. Again, this is simply ethanol and water. You can make moonshine on your stove. (make some sugar water, let some yeast eat the sugar for a few weeks, slowly bring temp up on your liquid to boiling point of ethanol, capture the steam, cool it, save it, and voila: moonshine. Note: don’t actually do this because it’s illegal and you’ll probably screw it up and end up killing yourself with methanol or something. By the way, dying by methanol poisoning is a horrible, horrible way to die. You don’t really get “good drunk” with it, you get bad drunk. Then you sit around while your body converts the methanol to formic acid which is poison – and basically the same as formaldehyde. This eats your cells after about a day and essentially kills you from the inside out. Good times. Don’t make moonshine.)
Anyway, at the bar, you sip your ‘shine and pretend it tastes good. The cranberry and honey crisp apple variants at least have some flavor. Then you sip the whisky and are told about all the awards it has won, etc.
Then perhaps you purchase some bottles and go home.
They hold events at the “speakeasy” and it is a really cool space. If and when Connecticut law allows them to serve real drinks with this stuff, it might become East Hartford’s hippest (and drunkest) spot. Moonshine is dangerous, as it has no flavor and you can pound the stuff before you realize you no longer know your name.
It’s definitely worth a visit just to see the space. It’s cool. And if you’re into their whisky, that’s cool too. We do purchase the regular 80-proof ‘shine on occasion, because it mixes with juices better than vodka in our opinion.
But damn, this stuff is way more expensive than it should be.
2019: Well, the East Hartford spot is no more,
but Onyx insists they’re opening up bigger and better somewhere else in Connecticut as of the end of June. One of the owners has been quite busy away from Onyx though. Adam von Gootkin moved from Bristol to Essex and is involved with some castle in England. He’s started up a cigar company and a spirits company, with his “North American offices” in Essex. It’s called Highclere Castle Spirits and has a whole tie-in with Downton Abbey and it’s a whole thing with ascots and fancy product launches and typical von Gootkin marketing silliness. “VIP events,” and “lifestyle” suggestions, etc. (It seems like the cigar thing didn’t work out and he’s just into gin these days.)
I feel the need to mention that it has 27,000 followers after only 3 months of existence on Instagram. Oh, I see, it is merely a re-purposing of von Gootkin’s wife’s old account. With lots of premium English gin fans from… India and Afghanistan. Hucksters gotta huck I guess.
Anyway, in September 2019, von Gootkin admitted he was more or less all done with the Onyx nonsense – citing the valid concern over Connecticut’s distillery laws. He – and several other distillery (and fake distillery) owners – have been patiently waiting for the state to allow mixed drinks to be served. It hadn’t happened with von Gootkin gave up Onyx, but it did in 2020.
But that doesn’t matter, because Onyx is dead and buried.