Much has changed in the U.S. since the prohibition era of the 1920’s when Americans weren’t allowed to consume alcohol, let alone make their own liquor legally. States all over the country have seen a rise in local liquor distilleries due to relaxed laws over the past few years.
Dr. Renee Hernandez is proud to be the owner of the first distillery in the New York borough of the Bronx since prohibition.
A doctor with a private practice in internal medicine, Hernandez was inspired to create his own rum and whiskey distillery – named Tirado after his mother’s last name – after visiting the Bacardi factory in Puerto Rico in 2009.
“It hit me like a sledgehammer,” says Hernandez who still vividly remembers his eureka moment three years ago. “It was like ‘Wow! I could do this. It’s not too tricky, it’s something I’m very familiar with.’”
Hernandez received his pre-med degree in organic chemistry from Fordham University, and while tasting the Bacardi rum, his mind started converting complex flavors into something simpler, darker, and smoother.
“I did a concentration on distillation with polymers — heating it up, boiling and distilling it — I was very familiar with the do’s and don’ts,” says the 39-year-old doctor.
He says he started researching, and when he confirmed the law allowed him to make liquor legally, he didn’t hesitate to give it a try.
“New York state allows you to create distilleries if you use local New York products from New York state farms,” says Hernandez who uses corn and maple from local farms, and then gives the corn waste to a local garden next to his practice. “Rum comes from molasses, which comes from Florida or the Caribbean. I had to use other products that could simulate the same thing. You make whiskey from corn, and maple and molasses are similar.”
He says he came up with a way to age his liquor to get the same taste as aging for 15 years, but he only ages it for about 3 months in an oak barrel.
“I increase the surface area of the oak that’s interacting with the alcohol,” says Hernandez. “It’s more traditional, like Dominican Mamajuana — we put oak chips in the liquor, making it age faster with the same taste.”
After some tinkering, Hernandez received his permits and started producing a liquor he was satisfied with at his distillery, which sits 10 minutes away from his medical practice. Currently, he sells six products online and in nearly 40 NY bars and restaurants — from clear Tirado Corn Whiskey, to Tirado Maple Delight; he might also unveil Tirado Supreme in the near future.
“Quitting is not an option,” says Hernandez who has hired someone to distill for him while he works his day job. “I took out everything out of my 401k plan — about $350-400,000 of my own money — I could say a total of about $600,000,” says the doctor, who also says he started his medical practice with $12,000 dollars.
Though he only sold about 1,000 cases last year — enough for the business to sustain itself — this gives him the motivation to continue.
“When my wife gives me that look like I’m crazy, that’s what keeps me going — the motivation to succeed,” says the once-shy Hernandez, who says his business venture has launched him out there, marketing his passion to the world.