Push back the "secret bookcase" and a door opens to Onyx Moonshine's tasting room, the newest addition to the East Hartford distillery.
The 3,000-square-foot "speakeasy," as co-founders Adam von Gootkin and Peter Kowalczyk call it, opened softly the weekend before Thanksgiving and offers tastings of the company's various moonshines and whiskeys, along with retail sales of bottles and merchandise.
Though Onyx has been a prominent distillery in Connecticut for four years, state law previously hadn't allowed spirits producers to provide tastings of liquor on the premises. That changed in 2013 when Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signed House Bill 6211, clearing the way for distilleries to welcome visitors with samples. von Gootkin, the president of the Connecticut Small Brand Council, had testified in favor of the bill.
"We did initiate that on behalf of any future distilleries in this state," he said. "We want to make it more attractive for people to make those kinds of investments here." (Two other local spirits producers, Hartford Flavor Company in Hartford and Waypoint Spirits in Bloomfield, have also opened tasting rooms in the past several months.)
With the introduction of the new tasting room space, visitors can taste a variety of Onyx's products, including its award-winning 80-proof moonshine (made from corn, malted barley and Connecticut spring water), its infused spirits flavored with Cape Cod cranberries and Connecticut Honeycrisp apples and the "Secret Stash" whiskey aged in new American oak barrels. Customers also have the opportunity to taste more premium offerings, like a small batch of unreleased reserve whiskey that von Gootkin had decided to save for special occasions.
Von Gootkin said whiskeymaker Kent Harrigan is looking to age some of Onyx's product in previously-used wine barrels, projects that will become tasting room exclusives. "That's what’s going to make it fun," he said. "People will be able to come here and try smooth, exceptional whiskeys that we don't make enough of to release commercially."
The tasting room, which holds 40 guests, is spacious and equal parts modern and rustic, with reclaimed wood lining the walls. Barrels and objects from Kowalczyk's family farm in Wethersfield factor prominently into the decor. Von Gootkin said he's thrilled to welcome fans of the product to Onyx's home base.
"We've got so many loyal customers who've supported us from day one, and we've never been able to host them," he said. "It's a big deal for us that we can have them in our house, take care of them, educate them, talk them through the product, have a little fun." The space is also available for private parties and corporate events.
Since its launch in the fall of 2011, Onyx has expanded its distribution beyond Connecticut into Massachusetts, Rhode Island and upstate New York, and will soon enter markets in Georgia. The operation quickly outgrew its original production space on Manchester's Hilliard Street and moved to the Oakland Avenue distillery nearly three years ago.
Von Gootkin said he and Kowalczyk are proud that Connecticut has embraced their product, but that they "have a lot of work to do still" to grow the brand. "We've all worked so incredibly hard to make this happen, but we're just at the foot of a very big mountain," he said.
Onyx Moonshine's tasting room will be open Fridays from 5 to 8 p.m.; Saturday from noon to 6 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. Admission is $10. 64D Oakland Ave., East Hartford, 860-550-1939, onyxmoonshine.com.