Craft whiskey in the mountains: Berkshire and CatskillJuly 24th, 2014
I got a chance to visit two craft distillers in the Northeast last week: Berkshire Mountain Distillers and Catskill Distilling. I took a day off and drove up to Boston for the 30th anniversary of the opening of the Boston Beer Company (the brewers of Samuel Adams), and realized I could easily stop in to see some whiskey being made on my way back. It was a gorgeous day, and after I’d cleared the Boston traffic, a great drive west out the Mass Pike, past lakes, marshes, and forests, then into the rolling folds of the Berkshires. I got off the Pike, headed south, and watched as the roads my mapping app directed me onto got smaller and smaller, until finally the arrow pointed down a long gravel driveway through a meadow.
Nice work, mapping app: that’s where I found Berkshire Mountain Distillers and founder Chris Weld. Things were, as he put it, “a tad crazy,” as they prepared to move to a new building in nearby Sheffield, Mass. The grassy area around the barn where the distillery has been for seven years was littered with tanks, “totes” (the heavy plastic, roughly 1,000 liter container cubes this industry seems to run on), and a malfunctioning auger, all waiting to be moved or salvaged. It was also crazy because while they were mashing in for a run of bourbon, they were eagerly anticipating the first run of their new bottled gin-and-tonic product, due to be done at the new plant in mid-August. (I got a chilled sip: deliciously refreshing and dangerously drinkable at 26 proof!)
Berkshire runs on a pot still salvaged from Brown-Forman, an odd, capsule-shaped device with internal copper. The new make ages in a variety of barrel sizes; like many craft distillers, Weld is moving away from tiny 10-gallon barrels to larger ones. Too woody, too fast in the smaller ones, he acknowledged. That’s some of the reason they’re moving: more room for barrels. Another reason is that long gravel driveway and the barn. It’s hard for trucks to get back here, and once they’re here…Weld told me a hair-raising story about a parked truck starting to slide, wheels locked, down the snow-covered driveway toward his cottage. They managed to get it stopped, but started looking for another location.
Berkshire has done some interesting collaborations with brewers. I’d actually tasted one the night before at the Samuel Adams event; a whiskey made by distilling Samuel Adams Boston Lager and aging it in bourbon barrels. It was at barrel proof, and only two years old, but with a bit of water it opened right up and gave the floral, spicy hop nose the Lager is known for, without the bitterness in the mouth. It’s still young, and hot; in a couple years, it might be an interesting whiskey indeed. They did another one with Samuel Adams Cinder Bock, a smoked beer, which was aged in barrels that had held Samuel Adams Utopias. I tasted that at the distillery, and didn’t really get much of the smoke; the rich vinous wood of the barrel was more evident.
They’ve also done a series of small bottlings of their bourbon, finished in barrels used by other brewers to age their beers. I review the Samuel Adams Utopias edition in the upcoming Fall issue; Chris gave me a sample bottle of the Terrapin Brewing project at the distillery; there will be ten bottlings altogether. I found the Utopias bottling to be a richer, rounder version of the standard Berkshire Mountain bourbon bottling, and look forward to trying the Terrapin.
Chris had to run at this point, so I thanked him, and headed back down that gravel driveway and west toward the Hudson River. I crossed at Poughkeepsie, had lunch at a brewpub in New Paltz, and headed into another incredibly scenic drive, up over the Shawangunk escarpment and into the Catskills. After 50 minutes of roller coaster-like thrill driving on more two-lane roads, I found myself stuck in a solid mile of backed-up traffic…a mile from Catskill Distilling! What the heck was going on, a run on the tasting room?
My single-mindedness had betrayed me. I didn’t know that Catskill Distilling was just a couple hundred yards up the road from the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, a performing space on the site of the 1969 Woodstock festival…and Jimmy Buffett was playing there that night. Don’t mess with the Parrotheads! I did finally get to turn off at the Dancing Cat Saloon and Catskill Distilling Company, where I was quickly greeted by the gregarious and friendly Monte Sachs, DVM.
That’s right; the owner is a large animal veterinarian. He made his money caring for racehorses in the Hudson Valley and at the track at Monticello, just down the road. I asked him how he got hooked on distilling, and he told me a great story about an Italian girlfriend who took him back to the family vineyard, where he decided to learn winemaking to impress the parents. “But after six months, I learned that winemaking is a lot of work!” he laughed. “What I really liked and wanted to do was make grappa.” The distillation of this Italian spirit fascinated him, and he decided he would make grappa. Someday.
Eventually the opportunity came along when New York passed a farm distillery law in 2008. Sachs jumped on it. He put in a Carl still setup, and got some valuable consulting help from industry legend Lincoln Henderson. (I first heard of Monte and Catskill from Lincoln, who told me that, among other things, he’d told Monte to “keep the place clean and open a gift shop; people want to buy things.” I can report that Monte definitely took that advice; the place was spotless, and there was plenty of merchandise.) Henderson advised him on his aging building, a former horse stable behind the distillery.
This little barrel house is heavily insulated, without windows, and when Monte opened the door for me, I could see it was stuffed with barrels. It was also eye-stingingly heavy with boozy aromas; the angels have to fight for their share of this whiskey! There was a concrete slab beside the building; another aging house is going in soon, and should be up by October.
Monte needs that barrel house, and new tanks, and more barrels (he says he’s got good barrel supply, but has to order in large lots to get it). Not only is the current barrel house chockfull, he’s ramping up production. Through a chance meeting at a spirits expo, he connected with a high-powered consultant with years of experience in major spirits companies who had just retired and was looking for interesting products to work with. Monte sent him his product line and, just as I did in this summer’s Rye Issue, he picked out the Buckwheat whiskey as the most interesting, the most different. There are plans to make the Buckwheat the forefront of the portfolio, and there may be a lot more investment coming in to make it happen.
He’s also doing a collaboration with a brewery, by the way. He connected with Brewery Ommegang, over in Cooperstown, N.Y., and they made a batch of ale for him that’s been distilled and is aging in the barrel house now, with the rampant Ommegang lion stenciled on the barrel head. Exciting times in the Catskills.
And the grappa? He’s still making it. “You see those bottles? They’re all hand-blown, which means they’re all a different size, so I have to measure the spirit going in at precisely 375 ml, and I have to use a tapered cork because all the necks are different, and then I have to wax the corks to keep them in. And it’s not a big seller.” He shrugged, and grinned. “I’m still going to make it! I really love the stuff.”
I don’t like grappa. I’ve tried it, repeatedly, and I don’t like it, or the similar slivovitz or pisco (though I do like marc; go figure). But I told Monte I’d try his, because he’d been so friendly, and because that Buckwheat was so interesting. You know? I liked the grappa (words I’ve never said before, or ever thought I would). It had much more to it than just hot rocket fuel character; it was subtle, intriguing, delicate. It was an interesting insight into how distilling is done here; each product clearly shows its origin grains or grapes, packed with flavor before it comes anywhere near wood.
I left Catskill Distilling, cut back half a mile to elude the Parrotheads, and two-laned it home, managing to make it a hat trick of pretty little mountain chains by driving through the Poconos during a gorgeous sunset. There aren’t any craft distillers in the Poconos yet, but who knows what might happen in a few years?
(Do you like the video? Do you want to see more? Or is it just annoying?)