Imbibe 75 People to Watch: Celina Perez and Jelani Johnson - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

Imbibe 75 People to Watch: Celina Perez and Jelani Johnson

Celina Perez and Jelani Johnson, the head distiller and assistant distiller at Great Jones Distilling Company, have their work cut out for them. Distilling is a challenge wherever you do it. But drawing spirits from the first legal whiskey distillery in Manhattan since Prohibition—and one that finally opened last August, after many delays, while the city was still in the grips of a pandemic—has presented its own unique daily obstacles to the two, who can now call themselves the first legal whiskey distillers in Manhattan since Prohibition. “This year is focusing on bourbon production,” Perez says. “If we can make the actual bourbon consistently, then we can make other things.”

Great Jones is the dream project of Juan Domingo Beckmann, the scion of the Jose Cuervo tequila empire. The distillery uses New York State grain from Black Dirt Distillery—which was purchased by Proximo Spirits, and where both Perez and Johnson have worked—for its bourbon and rye. Though Black Dirt is only 60 miles north, in Warwick, New York, pandemic-born supply chain problems haven’t made it easy to truck grain or barrels of finished spirit back and forth between the locations. The trucking company Great Jones contracted to do the work disappeared on day one; when it rematerialized, its prices had doubled.

By October, Perez and Johnson had laid down 15 barrels of whiskey, which is sent to age in Warwick. “There’ve been challenges, but we’re working to make the process smoother,” Johnson says. But when you make whiskey next to 8 million neighbors, you become accustomed to coming up with creative fixes. “We’re looking into getting our own truck,” Johnson says.

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