Uncommon Pursuits: Dave Ortiz
By Julianna Rose Dow
Uncommon Pursuits is a series about alumni whose careers took them off the beaten path.
Dave Ortiz, Fine Arts, '91 insists running Manhattan’s first distillery since Prohibition isn’t as glamorous as it sounds. “Basically everything starts with ‘Is it going to be a fire hazard?’ and then I work backwards to get things done.” Ortiz, owner of Our/New York Vodka, a distillery and lounge a block from FIT, is the local partner of Our/Vodka, a global network of seven locally produced small-batch vodkas, based in Stockholm and owned by French spirits conglomerate Pernod Ricard.
exclusive Nike Air Max 90 “Bacon,” a pork belly–colored sneaker). After selling the company to Vans in 2010, he focused on his art, expanding into screen printing, and even receiving a commission from Goya Foods for a National Puerto Rican Day Parade float. Our/Vodka reached out to Ortiz in 2013 based on his New Yorker cred and marketing genius. “I thought they wanted me to design a label or a box, maybe throw a party, and if I was lucky, they would write me a check,” he says. Initially, he balked when asked if he’d run a distillery. “Why would I? I’m not in the alcohol business. I don’t even drink!” However, he was intrigued by the idea of using local ingredients, including corn from upstate and New York City tap water, to make the vodka distinctive. He said yes. But the New York City Fire Department said no. Vodka is made by fermenting a grain mash and distilling it, or boiling off the alcohol (also called ethanol) and collecting the condensation, to purify it. After multiple distillations, the "rectified" spirit is mixed with water in a two-to-three ratio. Even Our/New York’s 60-gallon copper still, to be used for the final distillation, would require storage of large quantities of the highly flammable liquid. “It wasn’t even that it was against code, it was that there was no code,” Ortiz recalls. “It was illegal to store ethanol on the island. Full stop.” The FDNY suggested the team find a location in Brooklyn; a handful of distilleries already operated there. “But we wanted to be the first—we wanted bragging rights,” Ortiz says. “We worked with the fire department to write a new code, because we knew other people were going to want to do this. We were persistent.” Three years and 288 meetings later (he counted!), construction began at 151 West 26th Street, the former site of a sculpture supply shop that Ortiz frequented as an FIT student. The build took another year and a half. “And then the inspections started—fire chiefs and all sorts of people coming in and making sure boxes were checked,” he says. “Safety is the highest priority.” Our/New York opened in spring 2018.