Posted on | September 1, 2013
Written by | Lenn Thompson
Craft spirits are on the cusp of boom status, with both production and interest growing dynamically.
Empire State Cellars, a retail store on Long Island, sells only New York–made beer, wine and spirits. It’s a “drink local” guy’s dream. But it can also be overwhelming, with the state now home to 320 wineries and more than 100 breweries.
The wall of New York spirits is the store’s real surprise: I am flabbergasted by just how many small, truly artisanal producers there are. Dozens, from every agricultural region plus New York City. And you quickly run out of fingers trying to count the ones less than five years old.
Having focused personally more on the market for New York wine, seeing the wave of new spirits labels instantly made me wonder how New York distilleries can compete against large outfits with huge production, typically lower prices, established distribution channels and large sales forces behind them.
Turns out, small-batch distillers are connecting with restaurants, retailers and customers, building reputations at the highest level. Much like local breweries and wineries, New York distillers are capitalizing on buyers’ and consumers’ sense of adventure, local pride and desire for unique, delicious drink experiences.
If anyone would know about market obstacles, it would be Adam Ford, who recently launched Atsby Vermouth—an unknown brand in an under-appreciated category in a crowded market. Even more so than other craft distillers, Ford is up against some powerful preconceptions not just due to geography. “Some bartenders and beverage directors have it ingrained in their minds that vermouth is a commodity that should be purchased for the cheapest price possible,” says Ford.
And yet, Ford has found a market for his distinctive vermouths, primarily through the power of sampling buyers. “Many retailers are starting to create entire shelves dedicated solely to New York spirits, in part because they are made in New York,” he notes. “But retailers and consumers are really savvy and they’re not going to buy something just because it is from New York. The product has to be excellent.”
Taste of Adventure
Even though the NY craft distilling movement is still in its infancy, the sheer diversity is impressive. The focus isn’t on one specific type of spirit, says Nick Venditti, who now serves as wine and spirits supervisor for New York Wine and Spirits after working in retail for several years: “We’ve seen an explosion of various types of whiskies, gins, vodkas, and also the fruit brandies and liqueurs that have historically been a hallmark of New York distilling.” Also impressive: the high level of interest from within the trade. Some small distillers are earning spots in portfolios marketed nationally. Others are being welcomed by distributors oriented toward wine or beer; New York Wine and Spirits, for example, is a division of the distributor Manhattan Beer.
Industry City Distillery uses an elaborate home-rigged distilling lab in the old Bush Terminal in Brooklyn. Where commercial distillers divide vodka into heads, tails and hearts, ICD isolates 40 different parts for the final blend, taking a refresh-ing scientific approach to production. Rockaways native Bridget Firtle was formerly in finance, where she analyzed distillers and brewers for a hedge fund. Her business, The Noble Experiment NYC, plays off a euphemism for Prohibition—and her Owney’s Rum is named for a notorious Hell’s Kitchen bootlegger.
New York craft spirits are not necessarily “better” than large brands, but that’s OK “We may be competing with big brands for shelf space but we are intentionally developing spirits that are useful, profitable and have a slightly different vantage point,” says Allen Katz, co-founder of New York Distilling Company. Also based in Brooklyn—and conveniently connected to the Shanty, a full-service bar—NYDC currently has two gins in the market, each with NYC angles. Dorothy Parker American Gin is a mix-worthy blend of traditional and contemporary botanicals including juniper and elderberries, citrus, cinnamon, and hibiscus. Perry’s Tot (named for a Commandant of the Brooklyn Navy Yard from 1841-’43) is an original Navy Strength Gin at 57% ABV—ideal for the aficionado. Next on their radar: rye whiskey.
Differentiation is important when sell-ing any product. That sense of discovering something new and different can be a powerful driver. “I have been amazed with the extent to which people are seeking new tasting adventures,” says Atsby’s Ford.
It remains to be seen if the market can sustain the ever-increasing number of local distilleries, but for now, producers, restaurants, retailers and spirits enthusiasts should relish the notion that interest seems to be keep-ing pace, which paints a bright picture for the future.
Nobody knows this better than Jim Silver, general manager at Empire State Cellars. “Just two years ago [when Empire State Cellars opened] we were very concerned that we wouldn’t find enough products to make a decent selection. Now we can’t find enough room in the store for all of these wonderful emerging products,” says Silver.
NY Crafts Every Which Way
by W.R. Tish
New York is brimming with upstart craft spirits. What they lack in legacy they make up for in creativity, character and panache. Not only are they being cooked up in our veritable backyard, but also they are being formulated with compelling backstories and points of distinction. For the New York retailer, the combination of lo-cal appeal and artisanal quality provides potent sales leverage.
It’s all about being hands-on—even the labeling. They use only New York grown grains to make two whiskies (one from wheat, the other from rye and corn) and Glorious Gin, which starts with a base distilled from upstate wheat, which is then “redistilled” with juniper, lemon, rosemary, ginger and grapefruit. brkdistilling.com
STILL THE ONE (COMB)
This bare-bones warehouse distillery in Westchester County was founded by former Marine and finance pro Ed Tiedge, who sold a 911 Porsche for start-up funds. The Comb (as in honeycomb) spirits—Comb Vodka, Comb 9 Gin, Comb White Spirit and Comb Blossom brandy—are distilled from “honey wine” (mead) rather than from grains and fruits. Rapid local success led to the brand to be picked up for distribution by Vias Imports. combvodka.com
ANCRAM (HUDSON VALLEY)
The folks at Hillrock pride themselves on being “field to glass” (they grow their own barley and rye and have their own malthouse). Master Distiller Dave Pick-erell, formerly with Maker’s Mark, oversees production and firmly believes in advancing the concept of American whiskey terroir. The inaugural Hillrock release—the world’s first “solera aged bourbon,” finished in Olo-roso Sherry casks—way back in 2012, has been followed by an Estate Single Malt and George Washington Rye. A Double Cask Rye release is due in September. hillrockdistillery.com
BURDETT (FINGER LAKES)
Deriving from the “Alabama school of fast whiskey,” White Pike is a white whiskey—“aged for 18 minutes”—made from corn, spelt and malted wheat, with all the farming, distillation and bottling done at Finger Lakes Distilling. Especially smooth for white dog; perhaps because at 80 proof White Pike is not all about impact. Extra-chic packaging is echoed via the website and social media. whitepike.com
LONG ISLAND SPIRITS
BAITING HOLLOW (LONG ISLAND)
Waving the flag as “Long Island’s first craft distillery,” Long Island Spirits does a lot of things well: LiV Vodka, appropriately distilled from potatoes; lipsmacking micro-batched citrus and berry Sorbetta liqueurs; Pine Barrens single malt whiskey, which earns street cred in the beer realm thanks to its base of barley-wine-styled ale; and Rough Rider Straight Bourbon (high rye, finished in brandy-washed casks) and Rough Rider “Bull Moose” Three Barrel Rye. It’s all small-batch, naturally, and distributed by Winebow. lispirits.com | winebow.com
VAN BRUNT STILLHOUSE
Van Brunt makes grappa from grape skins supplied by Red Hook Winery and Lieb Cellars; and Due North Rum from sun-dried organic, unprocessed sugar. But the distillery saves its flagship label for two stylistically distinct whiskies. Van Brunt Stillhouse American Whiskey is made primarily from malted barley and wheat, with a little corn and rye; it’s floral with a hint of sweetness. The VBS Malt Whiskey, like its Scottish cousin, is made with 100% malted barley and sports more wood. vanbruntstillhouse.com
DH KRAHN GIN AVERELL DAMSON GIN LIQUEUR
Founded by Cornell classmates David Hughes and Scott Krahn, DH Krahn Gin made their first splash in 2006. The “new ginera-tion” spirit is made via a single-pass distillation followed by a three-month resting period during which the botanicals and gin hang out in steel barrels. More recently the distillery crafted Averell Damson Gin Liqueur—a sort of cousin to sloe gin (sloe berries are re-ally small plums), but with a lively kick thanks to famously tart Damson plums;now distributed through liquid exotica specialist Haus Alpenz. dhkrahn.com | averelldamsongin.com
GARDINER (HUDSON VALLEY)
Tuthilltown qualifies as the grandpappy of New York craft spirits. Partners Brian Lee and Ralph Erenzo set up in an old, historic-site gristmill in 2003 and released the first whiskey made in the state since Prohibition in 2006. Their Hudson line (Single Malt, Baby Bourbon, Manhattan Rye, Four Grain Bourbon and unaged Corn Whiskey) in hip squat bottles caught the eyes and palates of connoisseurs—and then the interest of William Grant & Sons, who acquired the brand in 2010. tuthilltown.com | williamgrantusa.com
At KyMar Farm, both a winery and distillery in the Catskills, all of their products’ principal ingredients are grown on site or within a 35 mile radius. Their Scho-harie Mapple Jack starts with apple cider, which is cool-fermented and distilled, then diluted to 65 proof and finished with a touch of local maple syrup. Schoharie Shine is a triple-distilled unaged whiskey made from sorghum (often used in the south by moonshiners when cheaper cane sugar was unavailable). ky-mar.com | berkshirebrewingcompany.com