Just Don’t Call It Moonshine
By TOBY CECCHINI
IN an aluminum shed among postcard orchards in Columbia County in New York, Derek Grout inspected a collecting tank of his state-of-the-art copper-pot still. A blocked vent had caused the tank to buckle. “I’m just kind of glad we didn’t kill ourselves,” he said with a laugh. “Got to bang that out.”
He has been working with it for only two years, but the products his Harvest Spirits distillery sells are accomplished. From the fruit of orchards that his grandfather bought from a descendant of Martin Van Buren, he has made one of the first serious new applejacks in decades, a beautifully soft pear brandy and what he calls a “silly labor of love,” a himbeergeist — apple vodka laced with his own wild black raspberries.
Mr. Grout left his family’s farm for Cornell and spent eight years as a graphic designer in Boston. His return runs a similar arc to that of many Northeast distillers. “This is my way to maximize my family’s agricultural heritage,” he said. “From the farmer’s perspective, the only way to increase the value of an apple is to make it into spirit and put that in oak.”
Stills once thrived in the Northeast, with rum in colonial Massachusetts, applejack that made Jersey Lightning an everyday term and Monongahela ryes from Pennsylvania and Delaware that were a staple before bourbon existed. Now distilling is proliferating again, not just with farmers like Mr. Grout adding value to their crops, but with disgruntled professionals abandoning desk duty to make gin and whiskey, craft brewers and small winemakers branching out into spirits, and young urbanites setting up stills the way their peers have set up apiaries and charcuteries.
After Prohibition, laws made production feasible for only a few huge distilleries. A craft distilling movement began on the West Coast about 20 years ago, but restrictive state regulations kept it from spreading. In the last few years, though, as states sought new forms of revenue, they cut astronomic licensing fees and gave incentives to producers who got the bulk of their raw materials in-state, as with New York State’s Farm Distillery Law in 2007.
Frank Coleman, senior vice president of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, a trade group, said the number of distilleries nationwide has grown to 220, from 24 in 2001, and is expanding.
Like Mr. Grout, virtually all craft distillers use small pot stills rather than the huge column stills used by the industry giants. Though more labor-intensive, these more faithfully capture the essence of fruit and grain, and let a distiller precisely select what part of the distilling run to use to create the most nuanced styles and flavors.
“These smaller products are necessarily more expensive, and they may lack some refinement,” said Chris Gerling, an associate of enology at the Cornell Extension in Geneva, N.Y., who runs its increasingly popular introductory seminars on distilling. “But people get that they’re all handmade, local, often organic. That’s the tradeoff. They can show some rough edges and be more appealing for it.”
Being small also confers one inestimable advantage: freedom.
“We have the ability to diversify wildly,” said Chris Weld, whose Berkshire Mountain Distillers, near Great Barrington, Mass., puts out eight different spirits. “We can make a fruit brandy one day and a whiskey the next.”
“For us, all the fun is in playing with the ingredients, getting to tweak the formula for a gin,” Mr. Weld added. “Conversely, that also becomes a necessity for us to differentiate ourselves.”
Mr. Weld, 45, spent 17 hectic years as an emergency room physician’s assistant in Oakland, Calif., before returning East, where he grew up crushing apples that his father grew in Westchester County.
Given the 80-hour weeks he puts in, the hospital might look like a sinecure.
His still is unlovely, a secondhand cousin of the African Queen he bought online and drove up from Kentucky. But its output is a thing of beauty. He makes a molasses-based rum, a number of fruit brandies from his own orchards and two gins, one of which, Ethereal, changes formula every six months. For his aged corn whiskies he puts spirit he distills from local white corn into oak and cherry barrels that he has cut, milled and charred on the farm.
On the more lavish side of the craft, Brian McKenzie, 33, has built the Finger Lakes Region’s first stand-alone distillery, Finger Lakes Distilling, in Burdett, N.Y., which juts like a sleek white liner among 100-year-old vineyards on a hillside above Seneca Lake. Mr. McKenzie spent years in finance in Washington before coming home to help at his father’s small savings and loan in Elmira, N.Y. After trips to Scotland and Kentucky, he was bitten by the concept of introducing distilling to a region where hundreds of local wineries have created a solid base of alco-tourism.
His distillery is striking, housing a well-appointed tasting room and a custom-built 300-gallon German-made Holstein pot still, which vaults through the space like a burnished copper rocket. But his masterstroke was hiring Thomas Earl McKenzie, 34 (no relation), an experienced Alabaman stillman whose sly drawl is as surprising in these parts as is the accomplished breadth of his handiwork.
They have an astonishing 18 products, from fruit brandies and liqueurs to aged whiskies and musky grappa made from local grapes like gewürztraminer, muscat and Catawba. Their Seneca Drums is one of the better new London dry-style gins, but their double-distilled bourbon and rye are where Mr. McKenzie’s Southern pedigree shows up. The peppery rye is from fields one can see across the lake and aged in casks that held local fortified wine.
“See what you all think,” the stillman offered with breezy confidence. “I ain’t feeling too poetic today.”
In a more urban frame, Brooklyn now boasts two small distillers, with at least two more on the verge of being licensed.
It takes a rather squinty legal interpretation to see that Brad Estabrooke’s Breuckelen Distilling Company could hold a farm distillery license on a dicey commercial alley under the Gowanus Expressway. His roots in the business are long and extend far beyond the city; growing up in Maine, Mr. Estabrooke, 31, won the sixth grade science fair for distilling (water).
His route to his current profession also ran through finance. He was laid off in the downturn as a bond trader. Now, in an airy white industrial space that formerly housed a boiler to heat the block, he makes one product, gin. The process begins with his hauling sacks of winter wheat and ends with his delivering bottles to customers.
“It just never occurred to me to do it any other way than from scratch,” Mr. Estabrooke explained guilelessly. Most gins begin their life as rectified neutral grain spirit alcohol — or N.G.S. — bought in bulk. To watch the reed-thin Mr. Estabrooke and his young assistant, Gino Di Stefano, a Cobble Hill local, hauling pails of grain from a mill up a ladder to a small fermentation tank churned by a hand drill-powered concrete mixer, is to marvel at the blind audacity of the underdog.
“Bringing in N.G.S. and doctoring that and then calling yourself a craft distiller,” he said, “what’s that about?”
His gin is also an audacious animal, odd and thrilling. He infuses single-distilled spirit — a white whiskey — with botanicals, then redistills and blends those for a fuller-bodied, malty version of a gin, like a Dutch genever.
Small and plucky seems to define the borough’s distillers so far. One cannot help but root for two guys not too far from Breuckelen who met in an a cappella group at Yale, and now make moonshine in five tiny 8-gallon mail-order stills that look like stylized vacuum cleaners set on hotplates.
Working in a rented office in deepest Williamsburg, Colin Spoelman and David Haskell, both 31, of Kings County Distilling Company are the embodiment of flying-by-the-seat distilling. Shrugging off foibles — like subpar corn that led them to seek an organic grain from the Finger Lakes — they are content to gain their expertise as they go.
They both have day jobs, Mr. Haskell as an editor at New York magazine and Mr. Spoelman in an architecture firm. They distill at night and on weekends, with a staff of eager helpers and volunteers including local bartenders.
“It’s nothing like profitable at present,” Mr. Spoelman chuckled, adding hopes that that may change over time. They produce corn whiskey, flouting the traditional method of jump-starting cash flow by producing vodka or gin and then working up to aged whiskey, which ties up money and product in barrels for years. Until recently you could only have it as unaged moonshine in a glass pocket flask with a willfully plain, typed label. But the ironic wink comes to a halt with the whiskey, which is serious: vibrant with the evanescent slap of corn.
More impressive still are their fledgling releases of lightly barrel-aged whiskey, with the dill-like, almost piney tang of new American oak embracing the grain, rather than masking it. They sell only by hand to a very few accounts, mostly in Brooklyn, but have just opened a tasting and selling counter next door to their still room that they open “on selected weekends,” Mr. Spoelman said, “or whenever we can.”
Not making it easy to get, in certain circles, is the best marketing plan of all.