by Kate Berube
Halfway through lockdown last Spring, a writer friend of mine optimistically mused that when the measures from the pandemic were lifted it would result in a revival of exuberant, freewheeling socialization, our own version of the Roaring 20’s. It wasn't long after, that I started hearing rumors of a gin joint popping up on the Patchogue River. Could it be true? I came to discover that when it comes to The Better Man Distilling Company, people fall into one of two categories: those who passionately believe in the mission and are fiercely loyal to the brand and those who have not yet been. Up until recently, I had fallen into the latter and so as the world opened up, I went in search of the speakeasy I was promised.
Billed as Long Island’s first urban craft distillery, Better Man comes at a revolutionary period of enthusiasm for micro-beverage outfits. The 2007 passage of the Farm Distillery Act opened up small batch distilling in New York for the first time since Prohibition. The legislation was an effort to revive a dying agriculture industry, cleverly slashing distillery licensing fees in exchange for anyone producing liquor under the new license to source at least 75 percent of their ingredients exclusively from New York farms. It was a boon for local farmers and opened up vast opportunities for those looking to get into the hooch game.
It was at this point that Bayport resident Anthony Gruppuso, a collector of interests who was already a successful business owner and former professional sports photographer, dreamed of crafting his own spirits. He immersed himself in the subject and set out to establish his own brand, dragging his two children and his unwitting wife of 30 years along for the ride. He enlisted his daughter Abby Gruppuso as Head of Operations and his son Stephen as the main Mixologist. Peter Cornillie, a college friend of Abby’s from Wesleyan, moved from the Midwest to sign on as Head Distiller to round out the Better Man Distilling Co.
Before COVID-19 brought society to a halt, the Better Man team was in contract to purchase a building east of Patchogue River. An unexpected death of the property owner threw the sale into disarray and ultimately cost the family over $100,000 in legal fees, permits, and architectural plans. Suddenly in debt and back at the drawing board, it became imperative that the brand not only succeed but thrive. From there, they found a new spot in the former home of the Blue Point Brewing Company, a hallowed ground in local craft beverage lore. The Better Man team has a funny way of turning misfortunes into triumphs. When they accidentally burnt their grain while adjusting to a new still, they turned it
into an award winning Rye hailed for its smoky flavor. When COVID forced bars to close, Abby invented the wildly successful Patchogue Virtual Bar Crawl that turned into a national model of innovation and rallied an entire industry. The pattern shows it’s more than luck. It’s a strength of character that when life gives them lemons, they make delicious locally sourced, eco friendly, socially conscious lemon infused cocktails. And have fun together while doing it.
I suspect a great deal of that has to do with Abby’s mom. It’s a running gag that Laurie Gruppuso was opposed to starting a distillery from day one, and when arriving to give us a tour deadpans, “They told you I didn’t want to do this, right?” You’d never know by the sheer amount of knowledge she has of the distilling process, expertly breaking down what each piece of equipment does. Laurie is a lovely woman, animated and warm, but it’s when the conversation shifts to her children that she literally shines. In spite of her almost comical reluctance, every comment is filled with love and admiration for what they have banded together to accomplish. It’s simply beautiful to witness.
Better Man is no tree stump moonshine, but massive gleaming stills that are reminiscent of Willy Wonka whimsy. The process is involved and urban distilling often meets space restrictions that require creative solutions. You won’t find silos in downtown Patchogue, so grain is bought in ton bags. That spent grain and yeast byproduct is donated to Brew-To-Moo, which uses it to feed local cattle. Despite the financial losses that resulted from their earlier cancelled real estate deal, they were still committed to using a water cooling system that allowed them to operate with a bare minimum of waste water a day despite the fact that it took longer to build and was significantly more expensive. Every decision says they’re here for the long haul and are committed to doing this right.
The same could be said of the tasting room, done in classic mid-century American décor. Everything invites you to come in and make yourself at home, including the aroma coming from the new occupants of the kitchen.
Rolling Ghost, a mobile kitchen mash up with multiple food themes, is the creation of culinary artist Jay Tepper, a Blue Point native who’s returned home after years of developing his fusion style on the west coast. He’s currently dishing out Bite This, a concept that originated from date nights with his wife, where they would inevitably want to sneak tastes of other orders. It’s ingenious for the location, as the easy mess free sharing invites you to taste everything the menu has to offer. You’ll be glad you did. The Korean chicken and waffles, something I wouldn’t have thought to order, is nothing short of a gift to your taste buds.
The partnership was serendipitous; Tepper leases the kitchen and operates as an independent entity within the distillery. It gave Rolling Ghost a physical home while allowing it to maintain food truck prices in a sit-down atmosphere. It was a perfect fit. There’s certainly an aesthetic symmetry between the brands, but under that there was something more. A shared community vision built on the premise that when one succeeds, everyone thrives. Each purchase you make in the tasting room supports dozens of other local businesses.
Tepper buys his meat from Off the Block in Sayville and his lobster from Bayport’s Fish Store, who coincidentally also supplies Breaking Bread Bakery with the squid ink used to create their striking black rolls that Tepper successfully pairs with some of his best dishes. The lavender in the gin is grown on the north shore and the honey is farmed on the south. The corn is 100 percent from New York State, the whiskey aged in barrels made in the Adirondacks, and the Rye infused with apples found right here. Buying local translates to food that’s fresh, delicious, and essential to the health of our economy. I was surprised to find that the more I knew about where the ingredients were sourced from and how they came to be here, the greater connection I felt to what I was consuming, an emotion increasingly absent from life in the Amazon era. It helped me key in to the loyalty expressed by regulars I had spoken to before coming myself. After a year of isolation, Better Man allows you to feel like a part of something more.
The magic is in the small, seemingly inconsequential touches that expand the experience. The decorative phone booth that plays a message when you insert a nickel, or the interactive drink menu that shows you silly snapshots of the staff member who invented the bespoke booze when clicked. These subtle details bear Abby’s finger prints, down to the evocative poems she penned on the backs of each bottle of spirits. Nonetheless, it forges a bond between the brand and it’s patrons. When you’re here, everything inspires you to simply be better.