The old Pfizer headquarters sits between the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Williamsburg and Bushwick, both known more for chic bars than bioscience manufacturing. Pfizer must have noticed the tailwind of change, abandoning its longtime base in 2008 for Manhattan. The building quickly adapted to its surroundings, with the offices converted into kimchi fermenters, coffee roasters, and chocolate labs. By 2013, the blog Edible Brooklyn had referred to it as the “creative epicenter of Brooklyn’s food scene.”
I visited the block on a windy Thursday in April, a few days after New York had opened up vaccine eligibility. The Pfizer building was no longer producing medical drugs. Instead, I was meeting with two mad scientists who poured over Renaissance apothecary texts to recreate a different kind of salve: Amaro.
Aaron Sing Fox and Daniel de la Nuez are the founders of Forthave Spirits, a distillery that makes different botanical liquors, from gin to coffee liqueur to amaro, the Italian digestif. The name comes from Richard Forthave, a botanist who lived in 15th century Europe in the time of the second plague. He created a special herbal tonic, known as “Forthave’s vinegar,” that was believed to protect drinkers from the sickness.
Forthave lived in Southern France. Aaron and Daniel paid homage to his hometown in their version of amaro, which they named Marseille. It is a potent concoction, deep in color and flavor and strong enough to, at the very least, clear your head. “We can’t legally say that our products are good for you,” Daniel told me. “But they’re good for you.” Of course, those benefits are different than the original Forthave might have believed. Amaro may not cure diseases, but true to its description, it certainly aids with digestion after a big meal.
Out of some strange twist of fate, Aaron and Daniel became fascinated by the history of herbal distilling — and moved into the Pfizer building — well before the pandemic. Daniel was a producer; Aaron was a painter. What they both had in common was a deep background in the restaurant industry, mostly behind bars and beverage programs.
Aaron and Daniel met about a decade ago through mutual friends and hit it off right away. They talked about wine, art, and literature. Over a marathon dinner at the Brooklyn restaurant Roman, Aaron mentioned that he was dabbling in his own amari (the plural of amaro, for all Romance language lovers). Daniel wanted in. Forthave was born.
Amaro is more of a category than a single drink. Meaning “bitter” in Italian, amari are a sweetened liquor, or liqueur, flavored with botanicals. They have a long lineage after Richard Forthave, evolving from herbal medicines to bar carts over centuries of experimentation and changing sensibilities.
starting a spirits company
Aaron and Daniel had the idea of starting a spirits company that would create modern iterations of liquors with storied histories, such as gin and génépi. They moved the early operation from Aaron’s kitchen to Daniel’s, which was slightly larger, and began concocting. The focus would be herbs, which are the heart of the recipes and offered the most opportunity for their own original spin. They collected about 300 different types of herbs and started doing experiments in tiny tincture bottles, such as macerating lavender in different types of alcohols.
The footprint quickly grew, spilling into Daniel’s dining room. They bought a little tabletop still and set it up in his backyard. They were running out of space. Aaron’s lease was up in his painting studio, and Daniel was freelancing. They decided to find a space that could serve as both a home for their project and a co-working space; a kind of creative hub. They found a small 400 square foot space in the Pfizer building and moved in.
This was in 2016; by the time I visited, Forthave had moved into a larger space that is crowded with various labeled beakers, vats, and glassware. Their first product was the Marseilles amaro, which launched in late December of 2016. Beyond their flagship digestif, Forthave expanded into what Aaron and Daniel call the color line — their take on classic botanical spirits.
There is Red, an aperitivo infused with 13 botanicals that is similar to a campari, aperol, or cappelletti. There is Black, a dark Italian liqueur made from unripe walnuts (theirs are from trees along the Hudson River in Dutchess county). There is yellow, the génépi, which is a fortified and aromatized wine made in collaboration with a local vineyard.
My personal favorites are the Blue, which is a gin that makes you question every previous iteration you have tried, and the Brown, which is a coffee liqueur. I lived for a year in northern Spain, which has its own version called licor cafe, made out of espresso and aguardiente. We would drink shots of it when the long nights were winding down as a fuel to stay out — the taste was not dissimilar to sweetened petrol. Forthave’s spin is a welcome departure. Aaron and Daniel worked with a roaster in the building to hone in on the perfect bean, carefully calibrating the combination of alcohol and coffee to create a silky, smooth, and perfectly sweet blend.
Aaron and Daniel walked me through their laboratory, where two workers were hand-grinding juniper berries. They had upgraded their still from the backyard days, and it was ejecting a steady stream of clear liquid that would eventually be bottled into gin.
Aaron showed me a massive cabinet of liquors in one corner, ranging from obscure early 20th century bottles to contemporary competitors. This is where they draw inspiration while somehow staying sober enough to remember their insights — occupational hazards.
Sourcing local agriculture
The care and consideration they put into each step in the process was evident from the sheer volume of iteration packing every shelf. A product can take years to develop, from tasting to ingredient sourcing to recipe development. They carefully catalog the procedures, with scrawl-covered bottles littered across every spare surface.
On their website, Aaron and Daniel boast that they now use over 200 different types of herbs — roots and barks, leaves and flowers, fruits and stems. With their deep respect for the thriving agricultural scene in New York, every competent is as local as they can manage. One new spirit they are hoping to make is a carciofo liqueur, which is the larger category that houses cynar.
They have a friend in Upstate New York with an organic flower farm who they are working with to grow the plant carciofo, similar to artichoke. In their initial run together, they managed to harvest 50 pounds of the stalks. They will keep working with her on how much she can farm and how much they need, with the goal of having something ready for market in a couple years.
In an American era dominated by craft beer and whiskey, Forthave is doing something radically different. Most people do not interact with these types of spirits outside of the rare $15 cocktail, where most of the ingredients on the menu are indecipherable. By simplifying their line of products, Aaron and Daniel are making an often erudite discipline into something accessible and much more affordable.
Beyond the eerie serendipity of running a business with plague branding during Covid, their timing was impeccable. With limited access to restaurants for over a year, we have been forced to fend for ourselves, learning what exactly goes into that $15 cocktail and how to make it ourselves. This is how I first stumbled upon Forthave’s Red, which I bought at my favorite wine store and used to make negronis and boulevardiers throughout the winter.
Clearly, other people had the same idea — it is nearly impossible to find Forthave bottles these days, even in Aaron and Daniel’s home turf of Brooklyn. From their rumbling operation in the Pfizer building, it seems like stores will have plenty of bottles to stock, at least as long as they can stay on the shelves.
For now, all Aaron and Daniel ask is for aspiring spirit gourmands to look beyond the big brands the next time you are at the liquor store. You would be surprised by how many intriguing types of aperitifs and digestifs are available, each with their own complex history and blend of botanicals. As Aaron put it, “There is just such an amazing, giant world of taste.”