You came at a good time, actually,” says Stephen Osborn as he lifted the lid off of a giant wooden fermenter filled with hundreds of pounds of cherries that are in the process of fermenting into a deep, rich slurry. Waves of intense cherry aroma waft into the air followed by a surprisingly Worcestershire sauce–like bottom note, rich in umami, and a hint of almond. Osborn, who can speak with relentless enthusiasm and insight for hours at a time, is momentarily speechless.
“I can never get over fermentation,” he finally says a minute later. “As soon as I found fermentation, I was done.”
Eleven years ago, Osborn and his wife Kimberly Wagner, both of whom come from a scientific background, founded Stoutridge Vineyard. The couple concentrated on what they refer to as “actually making wine the way that the industry claims to make wine.” “They can’t make wine the ideal way they say they do, because it’s too expensive, too unstable in unrefrigerated trucks and restaurant basements, and it takes too long,” Osborn says. “In a normal situation you’d never go to the lengths we go to because all you care about is doing this for 25 years and then getting your money back out of it. But our goals are different.”
Stoutridge is possibly the only winery in the country that makes their wines without any chemical processing. Ninety percent of the grapes they use are local, and thanks to building the winery on the side of a hill, the couple designed an ingenious gravity flow system that allows the wine to be moved around without pumping or filtering it. Solar panels provide 100% of their electricity, and a heat exchange system allows them to efficiently recycle heat. “My father is a fluid dynamic physicist,” says Osborn. “Using heat exchangers to move heat around and using fluids for cooling turbine engines is what we talked about on the basketball court when I was six.”
When Stoutridge opened, the couple also installed a few stills to make vodka and fruit brandies, in order to take advantage of the high-quality fruits being grown by farmers in and around Marlborough. But it wasn’t the couple’s focus, as they were also Stoutridge’s sole employees for the first ten years, and they were too busy making wine. “We just figured, let’s make some vodka, let’s make some fruit brandy, we’ll figure out how it can help us pay for this insane winery we just built,” says Osborn. “But we mothballed the distillery because the winery was working well enough to stand on its own. The distillery was there to give us the courage to stick to our guns with the naturally-made wine, because if the winery failed, Plan B, distilling, was potentially more popular and more profitable.”
The winery, of course, didn’t fail, and became profitable enough that the couple could continue to run it themselves. Then last year, as Stoutridge turned ten years old, Wagner and Osborn reassessed the company, their life goals, and then Wagner asked Osborn the big question: “Are we having fun?”
They decided that not only were they still having fun, but that they could expand and relaunch the distillery thanks to the efficiencies they had already designed for the winery, savings of efficiency that would allow them to do with spirits what they had been doing with wines: Take the extra steps that larger, commercial operations couldn’t afford to take in order to create spirits unlike any others on the market, ones that captured the flavor of the local terroir, a goal that usually doesn’t come to mind with spirits.
“We’re trying to create a vastly superior product without going broke,” Osborn says. “We do that by aspiring to be the most energyefficient distillery in the United States. Without these efficiencies, we’d have to make more normal stuff.”
Strategic capturing and re-use of heat, water recycling, and solar power is what allows them to distill their vodka 30 times through a 30-foot-tall pot and plate still, as opposed to the two or three times that most vodkas are distilled. The result is an uncommonly smooth vodka, so free of impurities, that it goes down with a butterscotch finish, and without the requisite shudder that comes after drinking most other vodkas. The couple also use the same still to make a 190-proof alcohol called AZ, short for azeotrope, the chemical term for the highest amount a water-ethanol mixture can be distilled without adding another solvent. Like their vodka, AZ can also be drunk straight without bracing for the impurities that other alcohols contain, although there is a small bite at the back of the throat that accompanies the finish. Appropriate, since Osborn and Wagner often say that their goal is to distill spirits with flavors that are more akin to food than to spirits.
“We’re trying to create a vastly superior product without going broke . . . We do that by aspiring to be the most energy-efficient distillery in the United States. Without these efficiencies, we’d have to make more normal stuff.”
“If you take the AZ and put it in a fruit salad, you’ll get an adult fruit salad pretty quickly without getting the fruit mushy,” said Wagner. “Or you can pour that in a mason jar and put whatever flavorings you want in there. Lemon, dill, spices, a vanilla bean, create your own aquavit.” Osborn recommends putting a vanilla bean in the bottle and letting it sit for a month.
The two five-plate stills can make excellent rye whiskey and a nice lighter whiskey from corn and rye that’s almost sweet to the taste, but they cannot produce a ‘serious’ deep intense whiskey like Bourbon or Single Malt Barley whiskies. So in order to make these spirits that celebrate the grains from local growers they prefer to use, they’d have to expand the distillery. They’d have to get a few employees. They’d have to get one of those direct fire stills prized in Scotland. And they’d definitely need to do some malting.
“Oh yeah, you need to malt,” says Osborn. “Malting is where you germinate the grain. And when you germinate the grain you’re softening it just like you do in cooking, but instead of destroying flavor, you’re adding the flavor of germination. So you add a life process. My wife and I are biochemists. We’re adding a life process that’s creating a flavorful chemistry through germination. But to do that, you have to create a room to germinate it in.”
That led to the couple building what they refer to as a second distillery within the first distillery, using the same efficiencies and systems that they’ve developed in the past ten years while adding new ones. Like that direct fire still, which is in the process of being built. Like a malting floor, a temperature controlled floor that allows them to germinate their own grain, one of the only distilleries in the country that takes this step. And a traditional Scottish kiln to dry the grain out after germination, making them the only distillery in the U.S. to have one.
The Glen of the Celebration with Spirits
“We call this the Angus MacDonald Memorial Furnace,” says Osborn as he shows off the furnace and grill underneath their kiln. “He was the man who got me in touch with the local stone masons who built the kiln, and the local barrel makers who built our barrels.” In a traditional Scottish kiln, peat would be burned to flavor the grain. Since peat is not a Hudson Valley product, the couple uses cuttings from their grape vines and scraps from their barrel makers, using the grill to adjust the intensity and flavor of the smoke.
Stoutridge is already making a West Wind whiskey, named after West Wind farm in Saratoga, from whom they buy much of their grain. Both the whiskey and the gins they make now manage to have a clean, grain flavor, and the couple is already planning on making bourbons that it will age for two years, and other richly flavored spirits. A new building for barrel aging has been constructed with the racks spaced in such a way as to take advantage of new automated forklift technology that’s becoming available. Unmanned forklifts will be able to zip around the rows of barrels and easily pull out whichever barrel the staff needs. Vermouths and Amaros are on the way, under a new line that will encompass the barrel-aged beverages called Glenkaley, named in honor of the street Stoutridge is on, Ann Kaley Lane. “We just found out that Kaley in Celtic means ‘a celebration with spirits,’” Osborn says.
The extraordinary steps the couple has taken throughout the process — the heat recycling, the malting floor, the kiln, the 30-foot still, the solar panels, they even cover their outdoor chiller with a patio umbrella to keep its motor cooler during the day so that it doesn’t have to work as hard — leads to the question: Do they think that eventually other distilleries will come around to making spirits the Stoutridge way? Wagner doesn’t hesitate to answer:
“Not if they are making a business investment,” she says. “It’s not commercially scalable.”
Stoutridge’s products force one to reconsider the idea of how terroir affects how wine and spirits are made. True, they use almost exclusively local products, including many grapes they grow themselves. They’re practicing floor malting to introduce naturally-derived enzymes, and open-top fermenting in wooden tanks to capture the building’s unique fermentation biome. And the products themselves couldn’t exist without the umpteen steps they’ve taken throughout the facility to wring maximum efficiency out of minimal energy.
“Terroir isn’t just about soil and sunshine. It’s also about people and economies.
But without the Hudson Valley’s proximity to New York City, Stoutridge, and many of the finer culinary products made throughout the Hudson Valley, couldn’t exist. The Valley may be the perfect environment for growing and making an ever-growing array of remarkable products, but without the educated, worldly consumers and restaurateurs coming up from the city to buy them, as well as the New York City expats who move up to the Valley, there wouldn’t be a market for it. As Wagner points out, this is why the Hudson Valley is one of the best places in the world, if not the best, for anyone making any culinary product who wants to create premium products. Terroir isn’t just about soil and sunshine. It’s also about people and economies.
Are We Having Fun?
Which leads back to the fermenting cherries that the couple will be making into cherry brandies at the end of the summer. In a year in which the conditions were perfect for growing cherries, Stoutridge can inexpensively buy crates and crates of damaged ‘seconds’ grown less than a mile away by a farmer they know. The farmer gets to sell cherries he might not have been able to sell otherwise, to someone down the road from him, keeping the money in the local economy and allowing Stoutridge to make a brandy that’s as local as possible, using the same equipment they’re already using to make wine. Osborn and Wagner wouldn’t be able to do this anywhere else.
“I can’t think of a better place to be making wine or spirits in the whole world than the Hudson Valley,” notes Osborn. “If you’re going to try and grab the brass ring, you’d be smart to be here.”
“I don’t know what this cherry brandy is going to taste like yet, because it’s going to be the first time we’ve made it,” says Osborn. “But I can tell you this: Considering how good the crop was this year, it’s probably going to be the best cherry brandy we ever make. Which is sad, in a way,” he says, although he laughs when he says it. Next year will be a boom year for something else that Stoutridge can tinker and play around with to see what happens. To answer Wagner’s question posed to Osborn last year: Yes, they’re still having fun.
Photos: Carolyn Karsten