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Tuthilltown Spirits

by Gavin D Smith, 06/08

PART ONE

There are currently no fewer than 28 designated craft distilleries in the USA making some form of whisk(e)y. One such venture is Tuthilltown Spirits, based in a converted granary in Gardiner, New York State.

Tuthilltown opened for business in 2005 and now produces a range of rye and single malt whiskeys, as well as Hudson Baby Bourbon, the first Bourbon to be made in New York and the first legal pot-distilled whiskey to be made in the state since Prohibition.

The distillery is owned and run by Ralph Erenzo and former electrical engineer Brian Lee. Here Ralph talks to whisky-pages about the trials, tribulations and rewards of establishing and running your own small-scale whisk(e)y distillery.
  

"I had a consulting production business specialising in 'high' production and climbing-related production work and I owned and operated a climbing gym on Broadway, Manhattan for 10 years before moving to Gardiner," he explains.

"My goal when I bought the place was to establish a 'climbers' ranch' with bunkhouse, camping and cafe facilities for the climbers who come to the area, which is the most popular and extensive climbing area in the Eastern US. But neighbours thwarted my efforts, so we decided to build the distillery. The site was available and exactly suited to the climber's ranch and because of the nature of the property and its history, it was also ideally suited for a distillery in the end."


   Getting permission to create that distillery proved somewhat problematical, however. "We are one of twelve distilleries in New York," explains Ralph, "and all the others are fruit brandy distillers on wineries, but we are the first and only whiskey producer in the State since Prohibition. It took two years to get through the licensing process at Federal then State level.

"In the meanwhile, we converted the buildings, built out the facility and taught ourselves how to make whiskey and vodka. We did an end run around zoning regulations by licensing the site as a winery, then adding the distillery. In New York, a winery is considered a farm use and farming is a use by right, a distillery is an 'accessory use' to a farm. We ended up dropping our winery license and nary a word was heard!"

Equipping the distillery took up around 50 per cent of Tuthilltown's start-up budget, and Ralph says "We bought our first still, 400 litres, with alembic helmet and six-plate column, then added a 14 plate column to produce vodka. Last August we added an 800 litre still with adjoining four-plate still which now serves as our 'stripping' still. We use the smaller still for rectification. But our next stills will be classic whiskey stills, probably sourced from the UK.

"We are also looking up and down the Hudson Valley for a place to open another in one of the revitalised river cities to take advantage of the tourism opportunities and hopefully to partner with a brewer in the same site. Shared infrastructure needs make that a desirable partnership and offer co-branding opportunities."

Both Ralph Erenzo (left of picture) and Brian Lee (seated) are self-taught distillers, with Ralph recalling that "We taught ourselves, researched, emailed, worked on the web and visited distillers. I made two research trips to Europe to visit a grappa distillery in northern Italy and several Cognac distillers in France, and to France again to visit absinthe distilleries in the Jura. But mainly it was Brian and me constantly reading, phoning, visiting and emailing.

"The 'distilling' part is the easiest part of the process; the biology was the real difficult part. My partner's scientific and engineering background pulled us through after much trial and error.
  

"Most of the information out there is useless for beginners and small distillers, and what the big guys are doing is irrelevant for the most part due to the scale. There's no 'manual' for starting a craft distillery in the US, and since it's been over 80 years since the small-scale distilling industry existed in the US, the only guys who knew anything of any real value were the big boys who were not interested in talking to two novice wannabees. We experimented constantly and are still doing so."

Many US craft whiskey distillers generate initial income by marketing unaged white spirits in order to help bridge the gap while expenses accrue and their whiskey matures.

Ralph Erenzo says "We started with vodka from apples, getting scraps from a local slicing plant for free then grinding and fermenting whole mash. We switched over to cider when it became clear that the process was too labour intensive, and the more expensive cider was actually cheaper in the long run.

"We began experimenting with grains right away, making corn whiskey. Our first aged spirit was an experiment that turned out quite well indeed. And since we are a small batch shop, we can change direction overnight. We also realised early that whiskey was coming back, in particular the interest in straightforward aged spirits; people are just tired of the same old thing. And we copied no one.

"We're not making whiskey the 'traditional' way, as defined for 80 years by the big whiskey producers. We are making it the way their grandfathers made it. We do all the work, hands-on, from scratch in one building. All our product is hand-made, and bottles are hand-filled and labelled, and each label is hand-numbered with batch, year and bottle number. All of this demonstrates that reasonably intelligent, hard working people can do what seems utterly out of reach."

go to part II

  

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