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Distilling in the Hudson Valley

Kathleen Willcox

HUDSON VALLEY SPIRITS are swaggering back onto America’s stage as thirst-quenching juggernauts, and they’re stealing the spotlight from their traditional, more corporate brethren down South. “In the Hudson Valley, spirit-making is an agricultural craft, not an industrial product,” Ralph Erenzo, partner and distiller at Tuthilltown Spirits Distillery in Gardiner, told Hudson Valley Wine Magazine. From classic American whiskey to decidedly exotic buckwheat spiritus frumenti, imbibers are sure to find their brand of Hudson Valley heartthrob waiting in the wings.

The person to thank for this delirious, delicious renaissance is Ralph Erenzo, an unlikely conquistador in a dramatic showdown between struggling small-business owners and big government, with a few well-meaning but disruptive (and highly litigious) locals thrown in for good measure. Erenzo, almost singlehandedly – though he is too modest to admit as much – made Hudson Valley-distilled spirits safe and legal to guzzle again.

After years of legal wrangling, Erenzo’s laser-like obsession with creating a business-friendly distilling environment in New York produced the “2007 Farm Distillery License Law,” which freed up small-time spirit-makers to pursue their craft, while at the same time allowing them to possibly make a living at it as well.

But while the Hudson Valley’s cup overfloweth now, there was a distressingly dry period for several decades, thanks to Prohibition.

Distilling - The Rise of Temperance

In the pre-Prohibition era, the Hudson Valley was rife with fermented spirits; more than 1,000 legal distilleries existed in New York alone in the late 1800s, with the Empire State producing a significant share of the country’s whiskey, not to mention other alcohols and liqueurs, much of it from local grains and fruits. But leading into the early decade of the 20th century, the Federal and State regulations for distilleries focused more on revenue and taxation, and branding and labeling, respectively, while there were few, if any regulations, for wineries selling distilled liquor.

It was hardly a drinker’s paradise, however. Since the mid-1800s, the “dry” movement was steadily gaining traction with religious, womens and social groups, and with various states passing increasingly restrictive laws dealing with the consumption and manufacturing of alcohol. In 1896, as a concession to the Temperance movement, the New York State Legislature took their first step and passed the Raines Law, which attempted to regulate the consumption of alcohol, restricting Sunday alcohol sales only to hotels that served food with intoxicating liquor. It didn’t take long for canny saloon-keepers to get around the law by slapping together barely-furnished rooms above their bars, and while openly mocking the law, fulfilling their legal obligations by offering such gustatory delicacies as “brick sandwiches” (two slices of bread covering an actual brick).

Legislation like the Raines Law, created to limit tippling while lining the state’s pockets with additional revenue at the same time, was enacted in direct response to organizations like the powerful Anti-Saloon League and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, which were sweeping the country. The “dry” movement reached its pinnacle in 1919 with the highly controversial Eighteenth Amendment and regulated by the Volstead Act, that banned the “manufacture, transportation, importation and sale of intoxicating liquors” in the United States.

Ralph Erenzo Tuthilltown Spirits Distillery

Prohibition was finally overturned in 1933, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered on his campaign promise to legalize the consumption and manufacturing of alcohol. While many wineries and breweries were able to rebuild in the years after Repeal, the prohibitive cost of operating an industrial distillery effectively shut down the spirits market for decades. And believe it or not, it took nearly 70 years before Ralph Erenzo came along to change the state of distilling in New York.

Distilling - An Industry Emerges

Erenzo, dubbed “the face of the spirits industry” by many, is the knight-errant of micro-distilling, and his team at Tuthilltown Spirits Distillery slogged through a decade-long odyssey, suffering through endless trials, before the struggle final culminates in victory, not to mention countless awards, including silvers from the International Wines & Spirits Competition for their Hudson Baby Bourbon and their Hudson Four Grain Bourbon; silvers from the San Francisco World Spirits Competition for their Hudson New York Corn Whiskey, Hudson Manhattan Rye Whiskey, and Hudson New York Single Malt Whiskey, among many others.

The brand’s existence, not to mention those accolades, would never have been possible without the basic legislation Erenzo helped formulate and pass.

“We started the process in 2003 and managed to get the Farm Distillery License Act passed in 2007,” Erenzo recalls. “We had three governors in those four years and we had to amend it twice before it was passed. By the time everything was said and done, we ensured that once distillers acquired a Farm Distillery License, they could officially possess farm status. That’s important because farm status in New York comes with various rights, privileges and latitude.”

In addition to substantially lowering the license fee for distillers, the new rules allowed distilleries to operate a tasting area and sell their product on-site (à la local wineries), absolutely essential clauses that would help attract foot-traffic and buyers as distilleries first got started, and before they were able to establish distributing partnerships.

And while unwittingly launching a small-batch distillery movement, Erenzo also ensured the quality and environmental sustainability of the process and final product. “The law required that everything future distillers produced would be actual farm products,” Erenzo explained. “We couldn’t bring in grains or grapes from other states – it all had to be produced using New York farm produce.”

While his finished product is impressive, Erenzo’s accidental foray into the spirit world was inauspicious. His original plan, when he purchased the current Tuthilltown Spirits’ property in 2001, was to create a “climber’s ranch” for Shawangunk Ridge rock climbers to unwind at. When locals got wind of his rugged retreat, they responded in force.

Townspeople soon shut down his nascent getaway, and Erenzo was left grasping at straws after a lengthy, bitter and costly court battle with his neighbors. Possibly inspired by their own amateur legal sleuthing, he stumbled upon a 2002 law that encouraged the establishment of micro-distilleries that slashed the cost of licensing an industrial operation (one that produces up to 35,000 gallons of any aged grain spirit) from more than $50,000 to just $1,450. Erenzo soon became swept up in the fight for the new company he decided, practically on a whim, to forge from the land that had been so dearly bought.

Serendipity was on his side. Brian Lee, a broadcast engineer, happened by his Gardiner parcel around the same time, and the two got to talking about the old Tuthilltown Gristmill (listed on the National Register of Historic Landmarks) on Erenzo’s land. They hit it off immediately and launched a partnership with Lee as the primary investor, not to mention engineering mastermind, and Erenzo as the driving personality/head hooch guru; building the distillery themselves, they figured out how to construct a distillery as they went, not to mention how to actually prepare, cook and distill liquor that people would actually want to drink. A decade later, thanks to the efforts of Erenzo and Lee, the craft small-scale distilling industry is reinvented, and the results more than speak for themselves.

Tuthilltown Spirits Distillery

Distilling -Laying the Groundwork

With the Farm Distillery License Law officially on the books, Erenzo and Lee helped lay the groundwork for other distilleries that wanted to step up to the bar and shake up the cocktail scene. But the process of landing on delicious recipes and fine-tuning techniques can be daunting. When one decides to open a distillery, it’s not as if the unseasoned spirit maker can merely Google “how to make bourbon,” print out a step-by-step guide, and hop to it.

At the Catskill Distilling Company, the process required an engineer, scientist, chef and artist, all rolled into one, as exemplified by Dr. Monte Sachs, the man behind the curtain. In many ways, the distillery epitomizes the carefree, artisanal, whip-smart spirit of the current alcohol scene; located in Bethel, it is a stone’s throw from the field that once housed the ultimate hipster love-in, Woodstock.

Dr. Sachs comes by at least one of those traits by training; the others, by interest, sheer force of will, and hard-won experience. The practicing veterinarian opened shop with his wife Stacy Cohen, in 2009. Their inaugural spirit was Peace Vodka, produced in 2011, but they have also gone on to produce gin, white whiskey, and bourbon, among other spirits. Though Catskill Distilling Company is quite playful, as is the visual aesthetic of the space and its products, the process that gets them there is anything but. Creating the space for the distillery was a project worthy of the Army Corps of Engineers. “The location of property was perfect,” Dr. Sachs notes. “It’s cool that it’s right near the old Woodstock site. But the property itself was problematic.”

Not only was the land incredibly wet, but it needed contouring. Sachs and his crew prevailed however, reconstructing a Victorian space and turning it into a restaurant/saloon, and a soon-to-debut antique store and art gallery, carving out new spaces for a tasting area and bar. The distillery features hand-forged copper-pot German stills that look like they were beamed in from the set of Woody Allen’s futuristic vision Sleeper.

Once the construction dust cleared, Dr. Sachs had to face down the grueling task of distilling something to wet his parched whistle. “We picked vodka as our first product because it doesn’t need to age and it is relatively simple to produce,” Sachs said. “Whiskey needs aging, and it’s a lot more complicated to perfect.”

While Peace Vodka certainly made some friends, winning a gold medal at the New York Food and Wine Classic, Sachs knew he’d have to load up the big guns if he wanted to really produce a serious whiskey. Sachs got his first real taste of booze cookery abroad as a student, laying the intellectual groundwork for his as-yet-undreamed-of distillery.

Ralph Erenzo Tuthilltown Spirits Distillery

When he was training to become a vet at the University of Pisa in Italy, Dr. Sachs became friendly with local vintners and jumped at their offer to learn to make grappa. A few decades later, he was able to put his “Spirits 101” to good use – with the help of Lincoln Henderson, creator of Woodford Reserve, Gentleman Jack, and Angel’s Envy, among many others, not to mention being one of the inaugural members of the Bourbon Hall of Fame. Guns in the whiskey world don’t get much bigger than Henderson.

“We hit it off immediately because we’re both science geeks,” Sachs points out. After a great deal of cooking, tweaking, and tasting, Sachs’ first whiskey was ready to age.

Most area distilleries use charred oak barrels to age their whiskies, but many add a few surprise dashes of technical whimsy that they claim inherently change the texture and taste of their finished products. And it’s no wonder they do – by U.S. law anything called straight bourbon has to be in a barrel for at least two years. In Scotland, ten years is the generally accepted minimum. In other words, the longer aged, usually the better.

Sachs, being the consummate forward-thinker, techno-hooch maker that he is, invented a method of aging his spirits that maintained the artisanal chem-free environment his heart is fond of, while employing a few doses of wizardry that, in theory at least, put his spirits in a virtual time machine.

“The accelerated maturation house was designed by Lincoln and it has transformed my spirits,” Sachs explains. “We cycle our barrels in a room that shifts temperature from ambient to 140 degrees. Even after just a few months of accelerated aging, the product tastes good, not that we’d sell it like that; left to its own devices, two-month old whiskey is worthless.” He estimates that the acceleration rate is about 2.5 – so his two-year bourbon tastes like it’s five years old.

Back at Tuthilltown, Erenzo also hits the fast-forward button. At his aging facility, Erenzo uses smaller barrels to age whiskey faster: more surface area equals more exposure to the flavors of the charred wood. He also uses hot water from condensers to heat up the room during the day and cool it off at night, forcing the wood in the barrel to expand and contract, thereby increasing the number of interactions between the wood and liquid, imparting deeper and more complex caramel notes more quickly. Most eccentrically, Erenzo purportedly uses bass-heavy music to vibrate his barrels at night and agitate the liquid, turning spirit and wood interaction into a virtual dance party.

Distilling -Spirited Times

Another recent entry into the spirits world is Hillrock Estate Distillery, which released its first bourbon in 2012, having hit the ground sprinting with a team of experts, including Dave Pickerell, formerly Master Distiller at Maker’s Mark®, and owner Jeffrey Baker, a former Hudson Valley farmer and restaurateur. Armed with an aggressive vision for their genuinely revolutionary company, they chose instead to hit the pause button on the aging process.

Baker is no stranger to innovation, as one of the first farmers in the country to rotationally graze dairy cattle. When formulating his concept for Hillrock, he committed to a number of anomalies that have managed to push his operation to the outer fringe of the distilling universe. Not only is Hillrock Estate the only “fieldto- glass” distillery in America and one of only a few in the world, it produces the first U.S.-based solera-aged bourbon – the Hillrock Estate Distillery Solera Aged Bourbon.

Solera aging is a centuries-old system historically used to create sherries, ports, madeiras, cognacs and even olive oils. A small portion of whiskey is removed from the bottom tier of barrels periodically and an equal measure of new whiskey is added to the upper tier, increasing the average age and complexity of the whiskey over time.

The solera process is used to blend young Hillrock Estate bourbon, aged in small barrels, with mature seed bourbon handpicked by Pickerell (Hillrock cannot disclose the source of the seed, but says it is a “fine, high rye content bourbon made by a well-known American distillery”). The Hillrock Estate Distillery Solera Aged Bourbon is finished in 20-year-old Oloroso Sherry casks; the average age of the 2012 release is more than seven years old. Not bad for a newbie.

At Harvest Spirits, Derek Grout keeps his process simple and basic, aging his whiskey for a minimum of “two years in charred American oak 50-gallon casks.” Grout also notes that, “We also have a number of special 15-gallon barrels that have been carefully aged with various concoctions.”

Grout and his crew have become adept whiskey-makers over the past few years, but they are probably best known for their Core Vodka, Cornelius Applejack and brandy, all harvested from local fruit, Grout’s trade by birth. His grandparents moved to Valatie from Queens to become apple growers. Grout landed on fruity spirits as a business model when considering the thousands of apples his family’s farm can’t manage to sell fresh off the tree, not to mention their black raspberries and peaches.

Black Dirt Distillery, an offshoot of the Warwick Valley Winery and Distillery – a 19-year-old highly successful hard cider and wine producer – is one of the few Hudson Valley spirits-crafters able to toddle out with a genuinely old-school product. Jeremy Kidde, a co-owner, acknowledged that the built-in backup of another business allowed them to take their time.

“Most new craft producers can’t afford to let a product age for several years right away,” Kidde said. “But our new applejack, set to be released in May, is aged in new charred American Oak barrels for at least six years. Black Dirt AppleJack will have a richness and depth of flavor that will please any aged spirit enthusiast.”

While the applejack, like Black Dirt’s other limited-release bottlings of Black Dirt Bourbon and Rustic American Dry Warwick Gin, will likely sell out before most thirsty customers can say “cheers”, their woes will end soon. Kidde explained that Black Dirt will soon be ramping up production “twenty-fold” in July, with a new stand-alone production facility featuring continuous column stills, instead of the pot stills they currently employ. Black Dirt will be one of the few craft distilleries using these prohibitively expensive continuous column stills, which are generally found in bourbon country, down South.

Distilling -Tasting Terroir

The fingerprint of terroir, essentially the manner in which the geology and climate of a particular place interacts with an agricultural product’s final expression, can be found in most drinkable and edible objects, and is discussed frequently in regards to wine, coffee, tomatoes, chocolate and wheat. Increasingly, terroir talk has been heard in the world of spirits.

“Terroir comes into play in a few ways with our whiskeys and vodkas,” Tuthilltown’s Erenzo explains. “It is especially true with vodka, where the prevailing flavor is going to be water. All vodka makers start with the same exact material, the only material difference at the end being the taste of the water. Ours [at Tuthilltown] is a hard water. Also, the ambient temperature of the region where the barrels are aged has a lot to do with how the alcohol reacts to the wood. Warm temperatures make wood expand, cold weather makes it contract. Every time material is exchanged between the wood and the alcohol, the taste changes. Southern rick-houses are going to produce a much different tasting product.”

Hillrock, too, is focused on terroir, pointing out that their location overlooking the Berkshire Mountains, and ensconced in prime Hudson Valley farmland, helps to create a unique and favorable climate that expresses itself in its artisanal whiskeys, according to Danielle Eddy, director of marketing and sales for the distillery. “By controlling every aspect of production from planting and harvesting heirlooms grains, to crafting whiskies in our 250-gallon copper pot still, to aging in small oak barrels and hand-bottling, we are able to create whiskies unique to the Hillrock Estate,” Eddy explains. “Currently, we have about 150 acres of planted rye and barley and we are starting to experiment with using certain fields to pull particular nuances and flavor profiles of particular grains out. We are also experimenting with smoking different peats and woods. Eventually, we plan to bottle certain whiskeys and bourbons from certain fields.”

At Black Dirt Distillery, commitment to time and place couldn’t be plainer. As winemakers, Kidde and his team’s first trade, they are probably the beverage industry’s most vaunted connoisseurs of terroir. “Black dirt is the richest, most complex soil vegetables can be grown in,” Kidde explains. The distillery was named for the dark, fertile soil left by ancient glacial lakes that covered thousands of acres of upstate New York. Delicious greenmarket darlings (especially onions and corn) sprout from the soil, and now, for the first time, a distillery is devoted to harvesting the extraordinary depth of flavor expressed in the corn kernels it uses for its mash.

“Our mash is super heavy on the corn side,” Kidde notes. “By law, bourbon has to be 51% corn, but ours is 80% corn. We experimented with different mashes until we found the perfect balance between the fresh, sweet grain nose the corn imparts, and the classic dark cocoa whiskey flavors imparted from the rye and malted barley, and of course, the charred oak barrels.”

The final mashbill is 80% corn, 12% malted barley and 8% rye. The taste? Hudson Valley bounty at its finest.

Localism is also what drives the Catskill Distilling Company – the grains Sachs uses aren’t just regional – they’re neighborhoodlocal. Sachs’ focus on the source of his grains undoubtedly adds another important layer of authenticity and complexity to his brand’s unintentional commitment to terroir, but more importantly to him, it reflects his ideological paradigm.

“I’m actually not as interested in terroir,” Sachs said, laughing. “I am more focused on producing whiskeys and vodkas with 100% local grains; the more local the better. The goal is to use all Sullivan County produce.”

In the meantime, Sachs is growing herbs and botanicals on his 25-acre plot for a few as-yet-unreleased bitters and absinthes, in addition to featuring many locally-grown sprigs of herbs in his cocktails. The distillery’s Curious Gin features home-grown botanicals and juniper berries, its One and Only Buckwheat spirit (not technically a whiskey because it’s 80% buckwheat, with the remainder corn and malt), grappas (including one soon-to-debut made from Riesling grapes grown at Brotherhood Winery), and rye whiskies are just a few examples of this commitment.

In fact, Sachs’ responsible locavorism can be traced down the food chain and directly onto some of the most beautifully crafted plates of food in the country. “Our residual mash feeds the red stag deer at the Halloran Family Farm,” Sachs proudly exclaims. “They raise deer for venison that ends up at Blue Hill at Stone Barns restaurant.” A fine pairing for any of the Catskill Distilling Company’s offerings.

Distilling - The Future of local Distilling

The array of offerings from the Hudson Valley’s distillers is an embarrassment of riches that support and boost area farmers, orchards and livestock. It seems greedy to want more.

And yet, leave it to Erenzo to find one more stray hobbyhorse to ride to Albany, in a bid to complete the circle and make Hudson Valley spirits 100% local.

“No one is malting barley on a large scale in New York State yet,” Erenzo declares. “You need 100% malted barley to make whiskey, so our producers are forced to get their malt from Canada, Ireland and Scotland. But I want to buy mine from New York farmers.”

The problem, Erenzo said, is that a malting facility that would produce enough to satisfy the local market would have to be huge, and private investors are reluctant to sink capital into such a large-scale investment in the current market.

“Without a demonstrated market, it’s next to impossible to get capital,” Erenzo notes. Barring yet another stroke of fairy godmother luck, Erenzo is focused on garnering funding from New York State. “I’d like to see the State finance one in the Hudson Valley and one in the Finger Lakes region. New York farmers from all over the state could then bring their barley to one depot. As it is now, there isn’t a central marketplace – I get some grains from one farmer, some from another, and I know I’m not the only distiller in that situation.”

In the meantime, for a completely Hudson Valley experience, there is one solitary distillery that has managed to go 100% local: Hillrock. “We are the only place in the U.S. that malts our own grain for whiskey,” Eddy reiterates. “Most malt is produced by a few large conglomerates, which creates a homogenous grain. We floor malt our organic, estate-grown barley in small batches, and you can taste it on our whiskey. Eventually, we also want to start malting our own rye.”

With such visionaries, the future of distilling in the Hudson Valley undoubtedly holds even more surprises for spirit-makers and consumers alike. But none of this would be possible without Erenzo’s heroic efforts and the eventual success of the 2007 Farm Distillery License Act.

The implications of the law are sweeping; not only did it touch the lives of the distilleries that were created as a direct result of the legislation, but it led to more business for Hudson Valley farmers, restaurants and other commercial establishments close to the distilleries (both for their grains and fruits, and for the foot traffic) and dozens of local workers who have been able to cash in on the newly created jobs have also benefitted.

There are now 28 distilleries in New York – 28 more than there were in 2007! While some may fret about a market glut, Jeremy Kidde of Black Dirt notes he would welcome even more distillers.

“As of today, all of the producers in New York State couldn’t make as much as Maker’s Mark produces every year,” Kidde points out. “They make about one million cases a year – and that’s nothing compared to a real giant like Jim Beam®. If any one distillery managed to make 50,000 cases, just 5% of the Maker’s Mark output, they would be ecstatic. There’s plenty of room for competition.”

Our palates, of course, may get the biggest windfall since our taste buds can rejoice as frequently as we choose to exercise them.

“The taste of the final product is completely different when you compare artisanally-produced, local spirits to the major industrial efforts,” Erenzo summarizes. “It’s like the difference between the Wonder Bread factory and the bakery down the street. Both are technically bread, but they are completely different products and tastes.”


Hudson Valley Wine magazine Summer 2014 issue

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