New York's Small-Batch Distillery Boom | Culinary Adventures | Hudson Valley | Hudson Valley; Chronogram
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New York's Small-Batch Distillery Boom 

A Grain of Truth

click to enlarge Tuthilltown Spirits packaging manager Brendan O’Rourke taste testing Hudson Whiskey.
  • Mike Bloom
  • Tuthilltown Spirits packaging manager Brendan O’Rourke taste testing Hudson Whiskey.

In 2009, Peter Barrett wrote in these pages, "we're at the beginning of a full-blown renaissance of artisanal microdistilling in the Valley." Only three years later, the industry has entered into a new stratosphere of success. Since our last major coverage of the regional phenomenon, the number of distilleries in New York has almost doubled. A report by Michael Kinstlick, the CEO of West Park's new Coppersea Distilling, cites a rise in US craft distilleries from 24 in 2000 to 52 in 2005 to 234 by the end of 2011. New York, one of the pioneering states behind the industry boom, went from five craft distilleries in 2007 to over 20 in 2011. In addition to this explosive growth, existing distilleries have developed by adding new products and, in some cases, expanding into new spaces. One Hudson Valley spirit line is even crossing international borders. In terms of both growth and innovation, the region's microdistillery industry seems to have matured into its high renaissance.

Ralph Erenzo and the other trailblazers at Tuthilltown Spirits in Gardiner are largely to thank for such growth. Though he originally intended to build a climber's ranch near the cliffs of the world-renowned 'Gunks, Erenzo, along with his business partner Brian Lee, decided to use the Tuthilltown Gristmill for a distillery specializing in whiskey—a spirit that hadn't been commercially produced in the state since Prohibition. After acquiring permits in 2005, Erenzo was unsatisfied with the limits of the existing laws, which did not include permission to have a shop or conduct samplings or tours on premises. In an attempt to amend the license so that it would include the right to consumer sales, he prompted the Farm Distillery Act of 2007, which effectively opened the floodgates for craft distillers in the region.

click to enlarge Barley and malt rake in the Hillrock Estate Distillery Malthouse.
  • B Docktor
  • Barley and malt rake in the Hillrock Estate Distillery Malthouse.

The law is one of reciprocity and sustainability—70 percent of the materials used for distilling must come from New York raw agricultural material. In return, microdistilleries may sell their products on site and self-distribute. The deal wasn't only meant to help propel the distillery industry; it was a way to support farmers and the local economy as a whole. "All New York growers suddenly had a new market for their materials that hadn't even existed in New York since Prohibition," says Erenzo. "When the recession hit, states were desperate for cash, and they saw it as an opportunity." Erenzo's activism has effected much change in the industry, making it easier for small microdistilleries to open. "The governor really has expressed and taken extraordinary steps to help develop and promote the artisan beverage industry in New York," says Erenzo. This includes the recently passed legislation that will allow the sale of spirits at farmers' markets and state and county fairs starting this April. "We're very supportive of projects like Tuthilltown," says Ulster County Executive Mike Hein. "It's an important business on its own, generating revenue and jobs." Also, he adds, "it utilizes local agriculture and helps support the $500 million agricultural industry segment of our economy."

The economic value of the industry in the midst of a recession wasn't the only fuel for the microdistillery boom. "It fits perfectly with the rise of the locavore movement," says Erenzo. Being able to offer tastings and tours on premise tapped into a burgeoning tourist market of savvy culinary consumers who want to know where their food comes from and how it's made. According to Hein, recent numbers show that Ulster County's tourism industry is up by 12 percent since last year. "Instead of leaving the state, we're seeing a significant number of residents who are exploring the Catskills," Hein says, adding that the boutique distillery indudstry is a wonderful addition to the area's abundant attractions. The whole food ethos paired with a renewed interest in pre-Prohibition style cocktails has shifted drinking trends in the US back to classic spirits, especially whiskey and bourbon.

click to enlarge Coppersea Distilling’s wooden fermenter.
  • Christopher Williams
  • Coppersea Distilling’s wooden fermenter.

Newcomers
Coppersea Distilling in West Park is one of the newest additions to the Hudson Valley microdistillery landscape, having received their distilling license toward the end of last summer. "We're very primitive in our approach, our equipment, and in our whole philosophy of the craft of distilling," says Christopher Williams, distillery manager. Their hand-hammered copper pot still is heated by a fire underneath it. "[It] is the kind you'd see operating in this region in the late 1800s and back," Williams says. Coppersea's handcrafted approach is perhaps most evident in its on-site malting operation. Rather than buy grains from industrial malters, Coppersea uses traditional floor-malting methods. "It creates other flavors, many of which have not really been explored," Williams says.

According to Erenzo, malting facilities in New York would support the agricultural industry even further because it would encourage farmers to start growing grains, like rye and wheat. At Coppersea, reigniting the grain industry is a priority. "We're going from farm to farm throughout the Valley asking farmers if they grow or harvest grain. If the answer is no, then we're trying to work with them to redevelop those skills," Williams says. Though a grain like rye is often used as crop cover, it's rarely harvested. Williams and Coppersea's master distiller Angus MacDonald are seeking out this unused grain and looking for ways to harvest it for their products. "The spirit of the [farm distillery] license was to encourage farming and agriculture in New York," says Williams. "Going forward, it's important to keep focus on the farms."

Hillrock Estate, an organic distillery in Ancram that opened last October, has integrated the farm into its operation. "From the time the seed comes in to the time the bottle goes out the door, it never leaves our site," says Dave Pickerell, Hillrock's master distiller. "The distillery is literally in the middle of the grain field—one side barley, one side rye. We even have our own malt house." Pickerell, who worked as the master distiller at Maker's Mark before Hillrock, recognizes the potential of such a hands-on approach. "We get to experiment more," he says. "If you're a big distillery and you have a cool idea for a product, if [it] is not going to start with 25 to 50 thousand cases a year, you won't get funds to research it let alone bring it to market. At the craft level, you can make 100 cases of something, so the barrier to innovation is much, much lower." Hillrock's experimental endeavors include the world's first solera-aged bourbon, which is made by a historic European method of aging, often used for sherry and cognac, that involves fractional blending for a mix of ages in the finished product.

click to enlarge Delaware Phoenix Distillery’s Meadow of Love absinthe on the bottling line.
  • Delaware Phoenix Distillery
  • Delaware Phoenix Distillery’s Meadow of Love absinthe on the bottling line.

Other newcomers that will add to this tableau of innovation are Dutch's Spirits, which plans to open this spring on the site of the Prohibition-era mobster Dutch Schultz's former Catskills getaway in Pine Plains, and the Dancing Cat Saloon and Catskill Distilling Company, located minutes from the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts.

New Visions
The newcomers aren't the only innovators in the Hudson Valley distillery circuit. Tuthilltown, one of the pioneers of the regional industry, is reinventing their operation on multiple fronts. Partnering with William Grant & Sons (which also boasts Hendrick's Gin, Milagro Tequila, Sailor Jerry Rum, and Stolichnaya vodka in their roster of labels) will expand the horizon of their Hudson Whiskey line to include worldwide distribution. Though Tuthilltown will still make the whiskey, they are broadening their product line to include other spirits, like their new Half Moon Orchard Gin, which is made of an apple-based spirit that they distill. Tuthilltown hopes to find more uses for the region's most prolific bounty, including working with local orchards to grow cider apples, which are heartier and require less spraying than table apples. Tuthilltown is in the process of creating an on-site apple orchard, with trees grafted from the Jenkins and Lueken orchard. "We're looking to create a fully estate-made Hudson Valley apple brandy," says Erenzo. While whiskey-centric Tuthilltown experiments with apple-based products, apple-centric Harvest Spirits in Valatie is collaborating with Adirondack Brewery in Lake George to make a New York single-malt whiskey.

click to enlarge Jeremy Kidde and Jason Grizzanti stand in front of the newly installed Vendome continuous column still, about 50 feet tall and 18 feet in diameter, at Black Dirt Distillery in Pine Island.
  • Robert Breese
  • Jeremy Kidde and Jason Grizzanti stand in front of the newly installed Vendome continuous column still, about 50 feet tall and 18 feet in diameter, at Black Dirt Distillery in Pine Island.

In addition to experimenting with new products, there have also been shifts into new spaces. After the fire that destroyed their distilling room this past September, Tuthilltown moved their stills to what is now the most fire-safe distilling room in the country. With a newfound focus on safety precaution, they are offering an OSHA certification course at their facility. "We were reminded by the incident that distillation is not a safe undertaking," Erenzo says. "We came away from this in much better shape, and much more conscious than we were before." Warwick Valley Winery and Distillery, the first fruit microdistillery to open in New York since prohibition (receiving their license in 2001), is building a second distillery location estimated to open this July. The Black Dirt Distillery, down the road from their existing location, is surrounded by the area's renowned black dirt fields. "It's perfectly suited soil for crops such as corn," says co-owner Jeremy Kidde. "That's one of the main reasons why bourbon is going to be a focus out there." Their newly installed Vendome continuous column still, about 50 feet tall and 18 feet in diameter, will allow for 20 times their current volume.

Looking Ahead
Though microdistilleries in the Hudson Valley have made great progress, the leaders in the industry don't measure success by getting ahead. "The craft distillers [group] is like a brotherhood rather than a competition," Pickerell says. "In New York, the craft distillers get together to meet on anything from safety and health to production and legislative issues. It's not about cutting up the pie, it's about working collaboratively to make more pie." Despite the rapid growth in recent years—even extending into international borders—the spirit of the Farm Distillery Act keeps the industry grounded, with a focus on the region's resources. An increasingly sophisticated culinary market encourages craft distillers to create surprising new combinations with the materials at hand, like Harvest Spirits' new peach-flavored apple jack and black raspberry-flavored apple vodka. "People are really excited to try different things," says Kidde. This doesn't mean compromising quality for shock-value. It means crafting original products with an attention to the process as a whole, from the ground up. Kinstlick has high hopes for the continued growth of microdistilleries in the region. "The train has not only left the station," he says, "but it's picked up speed on the track."

Resources
Berkshire Mountain Distillers
Coppersea Distilling
Catskill Distilling Company
Delaware Phoenix Distillery
Dutch's Spirits
Harvest Spirits Farm Distillery
Hillrock Estate Distillery
Tuthilltown Spirits
Warwick Valley Winery and Distillery

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