KEYPORT, NJ – When you step into 3BR Distillery, you are immediately immersed in culture. Surrounded by a gigantic Persian rug, antique trinkets and the bar’s original mural inspired by the Berlin Wall, it feels like you have just traveled back in time to the Soviet Union in 1986. The distillery, which has a tasting room, is located at 7 Main St. in Keyport and was founded by twin brothers Aleksandr and Maksim Zhdanov. Although 2021 is the year the distillery will open, its history goes farther back in time.
3BR Distillery’s origin begins with Aleksandr’s and Maksim’s grandfather, Oleg Pichenikin. After General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev ordered a soft prohibition on alcohol, Pichenikin decided to take matters into his own hands. He began illegally distilling and started supplying neighbors, friends and family members with his homemade, original spirit.
“He was this force of nature kind of guy,” Aleksandr said. “He was always building crazy things and even became the head engineer of elevators for the whole country. He was a super top secret and classified guy, and he did all of this without even finishing middle school.”
What makes Pichenikin’s story unique is not just his rebellious nature, but his creativity. During the prohibition, he concocted an entirely different spirit by using an untraditional ingredient: split peas.
“There’s really no term that describes this spirit,” Aleksandr said. “There’s no category it fits into.”
The Zhdanov brothers are now using a similar recipe based on their grandfather’s original one. In their 2,000-square-foot production area, they will be producing several spirits. Since their grandfather’s homemade spirit does not fit into any categories, they have given it a name of its own: gorovka. Aleksandr said the name is inspired by the Russian root word for pea, which is gorokh. 3BR Distillery’s main spirits, vodka and gorovka, will be split pea-based.
Although they never got the chance to meet their grandfather, the two brothers inherited his passion for innovation.
Besides using split peas to make their grandfather’s spirit, they also want to try replacing barley with split peas as the malting source for other spirits. Maksim said they are also trying to grow most of their own botanicals and garnishes for the drinks they serve.
“We’ll be trying our hand at everything,” Maksim said. “We love the model of creativity and making our own take on things.”
In an effort to be environmentally conscious, Maksim said they are also interested in working with local food labs to transform their waste into products.
“We’re taking all the starch from peas and producing pea protein essentially as our waste,” Aleksandr said. “Our waste is pretty valuable.”
Pea protein is usually added to meals, snacks and drinks as an extra source of protein.
Aleksandr and Maksim didn’t always plan to open a distillery. They didn’t even know about their grandfather’s recipe until after they had attempted home brewing. After hearing about their efforts, their mother then informed them of Pichenikin’s legacy.
With their passion and newfound connection to their grandfather, the two brothers were inspired to establish a business in honor of him. They reached out to friends they had met at Rutgers University’s Russian Club, and now all of them are launching 3BR Distillery together.
Besides being co-founders, Aleksandr is the head distiller and Maksim is the financial analyst. William Proulx is the chief production officer, Yulia Kravchin is the chief marketing officer and Robert Mattera is the chief botanicalist and mixologist. Mattera was Aleksandr’s and Maksim’s roommate in college and was there when they first attempted brewing ginger beer.
Besides honoring Pichenikin, the Zhdanov brothers also want to honor their heritage.
“We didn’t grow up in Russia, but essentially grew up in its shadow because our parents were always talking about it,” Aleksandr said.