After 25 years of commuting from Long Island to Wall Street, John Pawluk opened his own distillery and tasting room in East Northport. Newsday's Scott Vogel stopped by the distillery to see how the spirits are made.  Credit: Yvonne Albinowski; Newsday archive

Marketing campaigns by the liquor industry usually distill down to the same message — booze’s capacity for turning us into different people. Bacardi commands you to live like you mean it, Glenfiddich appeals to your independent spirit, Jameson champions an existence without fear. In the recent Belvedere spot, Daniel Craig sets himself free of James Bondage and becomes the real Daniel, a tank top-sporting party animal who shimmies like an aging Britney Spears backup dancer.

If John Pawluk’s life were a liquor commercial, it would no doubt begin in predawn darkness. When first we see him he’d be just another faceless type in a suit riding the 5:29 train from Huntington, or maybe we’d catch him on the 7:22 home, at the tail end of a five-hour mind-numbing daily commute, although one with compensations like Pawluk’s Wall Street accountant’s salary. But 25 years of that can really take a toll — close-up on the furrowed brow, the fatigue, the isolation, the never seeing his family. .

But one day he has an idea, an idea that just might let him live like he means it and be independent. It seems like a fantasy at first. He will ditch the commute, trade Wall Street for flannel shirts, be his own boss, grow out his beard and devote the balance of his years to making things he is proud of.

He will open a craft distillery, joining the ranks of a small but growing number of intrepid souls selling spirits made on Long Island.

TWISTED COW DISTILLERY

In November, Pawluk’s Twisted Cow Distillery burst to life out of a former five-and-dime in East Northport, an expansive facility that’s part-cocktail lounge and part-state-of-the-art spirits factory, each open to the other. There are no motivational taglines on display, no Daniel Craig gesticulating wildly over a colorless, tasteless spirit. There is only Pawluk, threatening to go on an endless tangent about extractors or centrifuges. And also his spirits, which are a revelation.

Consider Twisted Cow’s rye vodka. It’s creamy and complex, possessing flavors of malted grain that are delicate but linger, and a finish so soft and sweet it begs for poetry. It could claim a slogan like best-tasting if Grey Goose hadn’t ruined that one, it leaves you breathless in a way Smirnoff can only dream of, and it’s handcrafted in a way that Tito’s says it is but really isn’t. The price? $40 a bottle.

“When I told people that rye vodka would be my first spirit, they said that’s crazy,” laughed Pawluk, strolling past giant mash cookers and tanks. “Rye is a hard grain to work with. It’s very sticky and foamy, and foam is not what you want with a setup like mine.”

Twisted Cow Series 19 vodka.

Twisted Cow Series 19 vodka. Credit: Yvonne Albinowski

Judging from a taste of just the second batch he'd ever made of the stuff, it seems incomprehensible that a man who’d only been distilling spirits for months had already come up with something that Big Alcohol hadn’t in 150 years: a clear spirit that didn’t taste like hand sanitizer in a fancy bottle. And to think that he did it with rye.

But rye is grown locally, and from the beginning, Pawluk was adamant about only using Long Island grains in his spirits, which is how he ended up connecting with Foster Farm on the East End. It too produces its own spirits, and Matt Beamer, who oversees Sagaponack Farm Distillery there, has become a friend and mentor. “The smile on his face when we did the soft opening here meant so much to me,” Pawluk recalled. “I was like a little kid who’d grown up and was being kicked out of the nest.”

Twisted Cow sometimes feels like an act of penance for Pawluk, 51, who grew up in Smithtown but for decades spent most of his waking hours in Manhattan. Asked to describe his rye vodka, he said, “It’s unique, it’s Long Island, it’s got salt air involved. It’s us. It’s our soul.” (There’s that poetry.)

VISITING THE DISTILLERY

The handsome tasting room's bar area encourages good times both raucous and intimate. The large, square-shaped bar is surrounded by chocolate leather bar stools, deep black couches, windows for glimpsing the other room’s spirits-making, and wood, wood, everywhere, all of it lit by soft pendant lamps Pawluk hung himself. Some nights, an acoustic guitarist or jazz saxophonist might drop by to further set the mood, a nice complement to the dynamic bar staff, whose twin passions are, like Pawluk's, engaging the local community and relentless experimentation.

Twisted Cow Distillery in East Northport.

Twisted Cow Distillery in East Northport. Credit: Yvonne Albinowski

Bottoms Up, one of Twisted Cow’s most popular cocktails ($16), is made with a potato-based spirit by Sagaponack that is aged in barrels like whiskey, and which somehow contributes notes of honeydew and cantaloupe to a drink that seems determined to redefine whiskey sours forever. Sagaponack’s rye whiskey, meanwhile, makes its appearance in Twisted Cow’s old fashioned ($16), as does one of Blondie’s Not So Simple Syrups, a line of mixers created by Christine Eifert during the pandemic. As it happens, she is one of the mixologists Pawluk hired to bartend and develop cocktails out of his spirits. The winter margarita includes a splash of red wine from Northport’s Del Vino Vineyards. They had already concocted a lemon drop popular enough for Pawluk to start bottling as Lemontude, using a neutral grain spirit he distills and hundreds of pounds of lemons hand-squeezed on the premises.

The Cold Fashioned with Sagaponack Farm Distillery Rye Whiskey, Blondie's...

The Cold Fashioned with Sagaponack Farm Distillery Rye Whiskey, Blondie's Winter Spiced Syrup, and bitters at Twisted Cow Distillery in East Northport. Credit: Yvonne Albinowski

In the quest for ever more interesting beverages, it seems that no local business is safe, not the chocolatier across the parking lot, and not the apples at 120-year-old Richters Orchard just up the road. Pawluk recently bought 250 gallons of cider there, mulled it and added some house-distilled rum. The result was Twisted Richters Cider Pie ($35), which tastes like something straight out of grandma’s kitchen, if considerably more potent at 50 proof.

Pawluk was already intent on bottling that too, the just-finished label featuring a sepia-toned photo of the orchard at sunrise. “I wanted that history,” he said. “People don’t realize what we have here, that this is one of the most successful farming sections in the state. It’s incredibly good.”

By his own admission, he is not a cocktail person ( “I like my coffee black and my bourbon neat”), but thanks to his mixologists, Pawluk has come to appreciate them. “They’ve opened my eyes to flavor development, to the way cocktails are built out of layers of flavor.”

Indeed, he is perpetually in search of more layers, more richness, which makes Pawluk something of a paradox — a man whose idea of the simple life is to seek complexity everywhere. You see it in his vodkas, his cocktails, his wanting to be a distiller and barman at once. The goal seems to be a community that demands more out of its cocktails, more out of its spirits, more out of life. No matter how long you’ve settled for the two-dimensional, Pawluk seems to say, it’s always possible to have three, or maybe more.

There is a price to be paid for all that is richer, more layered and dimensional in this world, but isn’t the satisfaction such things bring often worth the expense? Why, just look at my life, Pawluk might say in voice-over as the music in his commercial swells. Just a few years ago I was another colorless, interchangeable suit on the train, making money but nothing else. “My wife took care of everything, I was just there. Now I’m part of my family, and part of something more than just my family. I’m part of a community.”

Cut to a shot of the sun rising over Richters orchard, zoom out to show Pawluk’s label, fade to black.

Twisted Cow Distillery, 14 Hewitt Sq., East Northport; open 4-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 2-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday and 1-7 p.m. Sunday; twistedcowdistillery.net

OTHER LONG ISLAND DISTILLERIES

Better Man Distilling Co.: 161 River Ave., Patchogue; 631-708-7405, thebettermandistillingco.com

Black Momma Vodka: 12 Colonial Springs Rd., Wyandanch; blackmommavodka.com

Greenport Distilling: 5195 Old North Rd.; Southold, greenportdistillery.com

Long Island Spirits: 2182 Sound Ave., Baiting Hollow; 631-630-9322, lispirits.com

Montauk Distilling Co.: 24 East 2nd St., Riverhead; montaukdistillingco.com

Old Spirit Distillery: 3670 Oceanside Rd. W., Oceanside; oldspiritdistillery.com

Sagaponack Farm Distillery: 369 Sagg Rd., Sagaponack; 631-537-7300, sagaponackfarmdistillery.com

Twin Stills Moonshine: 5506 Sound Ave., Riverhead; 631-779-3199, liooldtymer.com

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