Finger Lakes Whiskey RambleMarch 28th, 2014
I’ve been a fan of New York’s Finger Lakes region for years. The unique views afforded by these long lakes and the bluffs above their shores, the startling white deer in the woods of the Seneca Army Depot, the wineries that cling to the frost-free microclimate of the lakeside hills…it’s a great place to spend an afternoon, a weekend, a whole vacation.
Recently it’s become an area for whiskey distilling as well. As New York loosened regulations on distilling, including the creation of a “farm distillery” license, the agricultural bounty of the area and the hordes of tourists that travel the wine trails around the lakes proved to be a draw to people who saw an opportunity. I visited two of them recently—Myer Farm and Finger Lakes—and a micromaltings that is helping to supply locally-grown malts to sustain these new distillers.
Farmhouse Malt is in Newark Valley, N.Y., south of Ithaca. Natalie and Marty Mattrazzo got a farm brewing license, which the state first made available in spring of 2013. Most brewers using such a license just grow their own grain and hops; very few malt. Marty’s been malting since 2008, when he was getting serious about his homebrewing. He asked other homebrewers about it, and they were perplexed. “They said, ‘You can buy malt so cheap; why bother?’” Marty told me. He went ahead anyway, to learn more about how beer was made.
Fast-forward to 2012, when he and Natalie were getting serious about the brewery. They saw the farm brewery license coming, and decided they would malt grain as part of their operation. Once again, other brewers said, ‘Why bother?’ They were right, to some extent; malting doesn’t make sense for a brewery on the small scale the Mattrazzos were planning. But they realized that they could malt for other small brewers and distillers who were growing their own grain, and that did make sense.
They had to learn the difference between distillers malt and brewers malt (“Distillers malt is just converted and then dried, not roasted,” Marty said), and find customers, but once the word got out, customers found them. The size adds a personal touch that appeals to distillers (they were steeping a batch of malt for Five and 20 Spirits when I stopped by); “After a week of turning over a bed of malt by hand,” Marty said, “I know each grain by name!” They can also do custom malting of non-barley grains like rye, corn, wheat, and triticale in small batches. (They’re pretty good brewers too; I liked the samples they had, and they’ll have a tasting room open in nearby Owego soon…right on the route to the Finger Lakes.)
Myer Farm Distillers is located in Ovid, N.Y. (pronounced “Oh-vid”), where the Myer family have been farming the land since 1868. “We’re small grain and bean farmers,” said John Myer, who said he’d bought a book on distilling 30 years ago to look into the possibilities.
But it was just a thought until he and his brother Joe went to conferences on fermentation and distillation in 2010. “We saw the craft distilling wave and got going,” Joe said. When they started in June of 2012, there was only one other farm distillery in New York. John knew the land he farmed, knew where the different grains grew best, and said that he now saves the best grain for the distillery.
The Myers make spirits—whiskey, vodka and flavored vodka, gin—using corn, rye, wheat, and barley, all grown organically on their farm. They don’t malt on the farm, so they convert with enzymes, ferment, and then distill on grains in a Christian Karl hybrid pot still.
The distillery sits right on State Rt. 89, which runs along the west shore of Cayuga Lake, a road dotted with wineries (as is the east shore of Seneca Lake, across the neck to the west). “Being on the wine trail gives us a flow of visitors,” Joe said. “Visitors doubled in the fall of 2013 from the fall of 2012. The wine trail’s growing, and the locavore movement feeds into it.” They do about 85% of their sales right there in the distillery. (I didn’t taste the whiskeys on this trip, but there are reviews in this issue’s Buying Guide.)
I cut west across the neck and coasted down the eastern shore of Seneca to Burdett, where Finger Lakes Distilling sits above the road, an impressively tall building with a smaller barrelhouse below. I was met by Thomas McKenzie, the distiller, who took me in to show me what he knew I wanted to see: their 12-inch Vendome column still.
He was just starting a run, and getting it dialed in: by hand, there’s no automation on this one. Thomas controls the proof — he wants it coming off around 50%! —by hand-regulating the flow of the steam coming in at the bottom and the amount of cool wash coming in at the top. “I’m distilling,” he said. “You put those PLC [programmable logic controller] probes in there, and they’re doing the distilling. I think the only big distiller doing it this way anymore is Dickel.” I told him how Jimmy Russell had told me about distilling by sound and touch, with a foot against the column and a hand on each valve; Thomas said that gave more control.
He has a lot of ideas about distilling the old way; the column still, for instance. Finger Lakes got a pot still first, and still uses it for brandy, but Thomas wanted a column still, because that’s how bourbon’s been made for over a century. He had Vendome build it, then had them come out and fix it till it ran right (not Vendome’s fault; they’d never made a column this small, and some things just didn’t work the same). He’s very pleased with the spirit coming off it, much more so than the pot still, he said.
We sampled some spirit—clean, but still flavorful—and some 3 year old bourbon that was some of the best young whiskey I’ve had. “Low entry proof,” he said, and grinned. He’s constantly tinkering with his whiskey to find the old ways that he feels many of today’s distillers have abandoned; his office overflows with bottles of bourbon and rye from the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, his own collection that he uses to help find that character in his own whiskey.
As we walked down the hill to the barrelhouse (where we smelled some of his dark ‘funky’ rum he’s making for blending), he turned and grinned, and said something that crystallized what he’s doing here. Waving his arm around to indicate the lake and the hills behind him, he said, “It’s all Appalachians, don’t matter what state it’s in. You got guys making whiskey in the woods!”
I made a couple more stops along the lakes—had a few beers at a brewpub, bought some farmhouse cheese for the ride home—and reflected on how distilling (and malting, and brewing) with a farm license, which allows on-premise sales, sales at farm markets, and the on-premise sales of other farm license spirits, beers, and wines, is transforming and expanding this area, which is sadly marked by abandoned barns. The farm license gives these farms a chance to add value to their crops and get them to new markets, just like whiskey did 200 years ago. You can find a guide to many of them here; you’ll find interesting stops and beautiful scenery, just like I did.