Season of the Witch

All-natural witch hazel is on the rise and so is East Hampton’s American Distilling.

 

Ray Bendici

The legend goes, way back when, the local Native Americans noticed this vibrant yellow plant flowering throughout the forests in the dead of winter. Figuring that any shrub that could bloom while everything else was dead might have magical properties, they cut and boiled it, discovering that the resulting brew did, in fact, have medicinal qualities, and  subsequently used it to treat all manner of injuries, from abrasions and burns to sores and bruises. As they tended to do, the Native Americans shared this knowledge with the early colonists, who (as they tended to do) saw a business opportunity. By the 19th century, witch hazel—as the remedy was now being called—was being produced commercially by multiple enterprises across the state, the most prominent of which was run by the Rev. Thomas N. Dickinson.  

Over a century later, Dickinson’s is still the first name in witch hazel. Now based in East Hampton and operating under the American Distilling banner, it is the world’s largest manufacturer and distributor of witch hazel. In addition to providing the astringent to nearly every health- and beauty-care company imaginable—check the labels in your medicine cabinet if you don’t believe it—American Distilling packages its own brands of towelettes, cleansing pads and similar products as well as two main formulations: pure witch hazel, an FDA-approved, over-the-counter all-purpose pharmaceutical for treating skin irritations; and a pore perfecting toner, for daily skin care.

The man behind the rise of American Distilling’s star as it rides the green wave of all-natural, certified-organic hygiene products is Edward Jackowitz, who acquired the company in 1973 directly from the fourth generation of Dickinsons. Employing his skills as an engineer, he redesigned the East Hampton plant from top to bottom, fully automating the distillation process, which was still being done by hand at that point. American Distilling now churns out millions of gallons of witch hazel per year. 

“We’re a relatively small company, but we’re big in the business,” says Jackowitz as we stand in his modest office by large cabinets showcasing dozens of Dickinson’s products as well as all the other brands for which American Distilling supplies witch hazel. “The time is right for us,” he says, noting that the company’s growth over the past few decades, along with the push for all-natural products, has positioned them well in the marketplace. He picks up a bottle of facial cleanser and points to the label, which declares, “Made with witch hazel.” “Witch hazel has gone from being on the back label with the other ingredients to being on the front,” he says, beaming.

Edward Jackowitz is also clearly proud that both his sons are significantly involved in the business. Kevin is the creative director while Bryan handles the marketing, and both are enthusiastic about the product as well as the company itself.

“We are lean, mean and green,” laughs Bryan as he shows me around the freshly painted and spotlessly clean facility. As American Distilling has held more than steady throughout the economic downturn, they’ve been able to provide continual employment for about 75, many of whom have been with the company for years—the “lean” and “mean” of the equation. And he’s not really joking about the “green”—if there’s a product that is produced in a more eco-friendly manner, I have yet to see it.

Each year, from late October to April, American Distilling harvests witch hazel that grows in the wild on certified-organic croplands around the state and across the Northeast—the only region in the world where the shrub is indigenous. The harvest from these six months will supply the entire production year. When it arrives in East Hampton, it is fed into hoppers, pulped into carefully measured pieces, then stored in huge, blue-and-white ventilated silos.

To extract witch hazel, the branches (not leaves) have to be steamed to release the oils. Water is taken from wells beneath the property and extensively purified, then heated, and the resulting steam is pumped through large stills filled with witch hazel pulp. The steam draws out the witch hazel distillate as a vapor and sends it through condensers, where it becomes a liquid. The pure witch hazel is then mixed with 14 percent alcohol (as a preservative), and collected in holding tanks. Each batch, which can take six to eight hours to make, is repeatedly tested by on-site chemists before it is approved for processing. About 70 percent of American Distilling’s output gets shipped out in large containers or tanker trucks for commercial use. The remaining 30 percent is sent to the production lines for Dickinson’s brands. Bottles are filled with the clear liquid, sealed, labeled, and individually hand-inspected by line workers for leaks before being packed.

Oh, and the final “green” touches: Heat generated for steam is recycled back through the facility for heating and hot-water needs, while the processed witch hazel pulp is sold for use as landscaping mulch.

“People are sick of ‘miracles’ in a bottle,” says Bryan Jackowitz. “After wasting money on all sorts of different facial and cosmetic products, they’re getting back to basics and want more natural ingredients. They’re looking in the medicine cabinet at what has consistently worked and have discovered that we’ve been there all along, but now we’re even better.”

For more info, visit witchhazel.com.

Season of the Witch

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