By Thomas Baldino
Last August I was working the JSJBF booth at the Long Branch Jazz and Blues Festival and Mark Elia, owner of the Long Branch Distillery, walked up and introduced himself. He complimented us on the day and said he was interested in booking Jazz acts at this new venue for handcrafted spirits. We had a short discussion, and I said we would talk closer to the opening.
The Distillery, located on Westwood Ave. is a century-old building that housed a cigar factory in the1920’s, manufactured parachutes in the 1940s, and was known as the Servall building, a wholesale cleaning products company, for many years during the second half of the twentieth century. Mark, who has been an entrepreneur for most of his adult life and a winemaker for the last fifteen years, realized he wouldn’t be able find a location in the city with three acres for a vineyard as required by state law. He then turned his sights on the Distillery, which would only require a building, albeit a large one. Mark had to travel to Colorado and then Utah in order to get certified as a distiller and installed state of the art equipment while making over the space which now has the feel of being in a well-appointed living room. For those wondering how the Big Door Spirits got its name, look no further than the impressive door leading to the lower level which houses the tasting room with a comfortable bar and a glassed-in view of the distillery. https://lbdistillery.com
Mark and I spoke again in September but the opening which was supposed to happen in October was pushed to 2020 due to the complexity of getting the proper approvals from the state’s Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control. Fast forward to March and Mark and I discussed acts for the grand opening slated for later that month. We all know what happened shortly after that. The Distillery had to severely limit their operations but the story takes an interesting turn from here:
In Marks own words “If you asked me just one month before what we would be doing, I would have looked at you cross-eyed…but when life gives you lemons, make Limoncello, or in this case, ‘hand sanitizer’. Governor Murphy required all non-essential businesses to close by Executive Order 104 on March 16th, 2020, but liquor license holders (distilleries included) were deemed essential and allowed to remain open. For distilleries, the Executive Order was bittersweet because the majority of our sales are derived from on-site bottle sales and our tasting room – which had to be closed to the public. So while we were still allowed to remain open, we could only offer bottle sales for curbside pickup at our distillery through a website we created at lbdistillery.square.site.
As it turns out, ethanol (ethyl alcohol – what we distill to make our spirits) is a key ingredient in hand sanitizer. We had a good amount of ethanol in stock from a recent distillation. When we learned there was a shortage of hand sanitizer that many of our first responders needed out in the field, it was time to get to work. Little did we know that many distillers around the country were doing the same and there was a mad rush to get other ingredients and supplies to make hand sanitizer, namely…bottles. That’s right, as it turns out, because of the alcohol content of hand sanitizer (70-80%) you are required to use a specific type of plastic bottle (LDPE or HDPE) so the alcohol doesn’t deteriorate the plastic. We spent countless hours online and on the phone to track down the necessary supplies, but persist we did. With the help of John Koutouzakis, our manager and owner Mark Elia, we are blessed to have been able to supply over 2,000 bottles of hand sanitizer to our local community and beyond. The gratitude we have received from our local first responders, hospital workers, postal workers, public works department, grocery store clerks, State police, and many, many others has been overwhelming. As of this writing, we’ve received over 2,000 likes on a Facebook post we published about our efforts. The amount of joy and satisfaction we have gained from providing a simple thing like hand sanitizer to help out those in need in a time of crisis has given us a purpose. We couldn’t be any prouder of those who are putting their own health at risk to protect all of us during this crisis.”
As we moved into June, Mark was selling package goods and the State inched closer to allowing eating and drinking establishments to serve outdoors with social distancing and masks, Mark again reached out and our discussion centered on how best to present live music in a more limited outside space while adhering to the established phase two guidelines provided by the State.
We settled on solo/duo acts initially and JSJBF member act singer Audra Mariel along with her guitarist Tom Monda from her group “A Real Human Jazz Band”, audramariel.com, would kick off things on Saturday, June 20th. Guitarist Charlie Apicella, charlieapicella.com, sans his band Iron City Jazz would do a Sunday afternoon set on Father’s Day and the following Friday. For both, it was the first time they had played in front of a live audience since before the Pandemic restrictions began.
On the following Saturday JSJBF member Ron Rauso’s organ-based Soul Jazz trio “The Mighty Burners” lbdistillery.com/events/the-mighty-burners played to the enjoyment of all in attendance. The shows went well and we are looking forward to July 2nd when these establishments will be allowed a limited return indoors. My wife Joanne and I were in attendance for Audra’s show along with Barry and Laurel Stein while Gene Iadanza and I attended Charlie’s Friday night gig. We enjoyed the hand-crafted drinks and music. Currently, the menu consists of a wide array of vodka and gin-based drinks but bourbon and rye will soon be added to the selections. They are also working on a wheat-based vodka as well.