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Thursday, 29 March 2012

From American Dream to American Dram: Tuthilltown Distillery and Hudson Whiskey



Over the next three days we are going to be taking a look at a few craft distilleries; one in the UK and two in the US.

The distillery we're starting with is the first to have received a licence to distil in New York State since prohibition in 1933. Set up by former professional rock climber Ralph Erenzo and his business partner Brian Lee, the story of the birth of Tuthilltown distillery is both heart-warming and entertaining. But the real praise should come for their unique approach to creating some fantastically unique spirits.

The story starts after founder and partner Ralph Erenzo purchased a farm in the idyllic Hudson Valley, around 100 miles north of Manhattan, with the express purposes of turning it into a retreat for climbers.

The local community, most of whom are displaced city dwellers having worked hard to purchase their small slice of heaven, were none too pleased about the thought of having these hippy-types come and sully their American dream.

Knockback after knockback hit Erenzo's project until one day he snapped. Calling in a local expert on property law, he asked what could be done with his down-at-heel farm which didn't require planning permission. The answer: a winery.

Due to a loophole in New York State law, opening a vineyard was considered 'farm use' and therefore did not require a change of use nor planning permission. However, Erenzo was not keen on opening a vineyard (NY wines don't have a great rep, apparently) it was fast realised that under the same law fell distilling and thus the Tuthilltown distillery was born!

Of course, I make the whole process sound a hell of a lot simpler than it was. There was a clear divide between Erenzo and his neighbours, to the extent that in a local meeting regarding the development of the distillery, one native called him a 'moving target'... so you get the idea as to the level of opposition in this part of New York State, whatever the proposed project! (FYI, at the time of applying, the licence to distil in new York State costs $1250 for 3 years. Cheaper than a membership at most gyms...)

And so the story started. But you can't just stop there. Getting in capital, finding the right premises, getting some stills made is all very well... but at some stage you have to make some liquid, some hooch, some... gulp... whiskey, which is exactly what the small two-man team did... with gusto!

The two chaps, Ralph and Brian had no experience of how to run a distillery, let alone make whiskey. "If a man in a field with a kindergarten education and no teeth can do it, how hard can it be?", Erenzo apparently commented to his business partner at the time.

Fair point.

Erenzo caveats this by saying that making a lot of whiskey in a huge distillery is hard, but that was not what they set out to do. In fact, he goes as far as to suggest not taking advice from experts. Why? Because they're too used to dealing with things on a large scale that they find it difficult to work at such a small scale and advise appropriately. An interesting thought indeed.

The creativity of the team at Tuthilltown can be seen not only in their range of products (super premium vodka made from local apples, single batch unaged corn whiskey, single malt whiskey) but in the way they are made and matured.

Not bound by Scotch Whisky Association regulations (for obvious reasons), they can play and have some fun, producing high quality spirits at the end of it all. One of the tricks, for extra-fast maturation is the use of small barrels (ranging from 3 - 20 gallons in size). Nothing new there, I hear you cry! However, to increase the surface-area-to-liquid ratio, the cooperage where their casks are made (in which Tuthilltown distillery now own a share) have small dimples drilled in to the staves. This, along with their small half-bottles (375ml) which meant their bottles were placed in front of others on a back-bar or on photoshoots, means I'm starting to think this lot are pretty bloody clever.

Another piece of fantastic innovation is what the distillery is calling 'Sonic Maturation' (or as someone at our tasting referred to it, 'Rapturation'). Not having enough work force to turn the barrels in the warehouse (a traditional practice for added flavour / maturation), some bright spark realised that playing loud music, in this case bass heavy rap, in to the building loudly would shake the juice in a barrels, Jurassic Park-style, thus helping the liquid to mature quicker.

Already I like this lot!

But the music reference doesn't stop there. Finding a foothold in the liquor market in New York was hard work, but achievable. Taking on the whole of the States? Almost impossible for a distillery of this size. So how does one make a name in the sprits world? Well, learning from the likes of Jimmy Hendrix, The White Stripes and The Kings of Leon, you head over to where people have real taste... Britain (well, in this case Europe!). Building a following in Europe is easier than the states and taking the 'success abroad' story back home creates some much needed PR and awareness, eventually converting to sales.

The growth of distillery now means they have 3 stills (running 100, 200 and 540 litres) and a shop onsite which last year generated over $500,000 in revenue. The staff have grown from 2 to 20 in 4 years and not a single one of them is trained to work in a distillery. Sounds a lot like the early 1800's in Scotland, to me! (Except the distillery shop bit, of course)

This remarkable story is best told in this short video:


But it would mean nothing without a liquid in the bottle to stand up to the recently written legend. Stories are great, but if the ending is weak the narrative means nothing. Having tried a selection of the range, including the 4-Grain made with corn, rye, wheat and barley and the unaged New York corn whiskey, I can wholeheartedly say that the products do indeed provide the perfect happy ending to the set-up of the story. But let's not stop there, let's have a real dig down in to two of their releases:

Hudson - Single Malt Whiskey - 46% abv

(matured in new American oak)

Nose: The nose gives suede and leather jackets hanging side-by-side in an old wardrobe, mixed with some honey and dark sugar at boiling point.

Palate: Rich and full of bitter orange, cinnamon and low coco dark chocolate and a lighter citrus note to underpin, followed by some sweet vanilla.

Finish: The finish is cedar wood and oak with a hint of suede again.

Overall: Is it a Scotch? Is it a bourbon? Somewhere between the two, without the rich black cherry notes of a bourbon and a lighter chocolate tone. This is more Japanese than American, so gets a firm thumbs up here.


Hudson - Manhattan Rye Whiskey - 46% abv

Nose: The classic rye tones in the nose, but with a sweeter, icing sugar touch.

Palate: This is like the smell of our local timber merchants translated on to the palate, with a hearty slice of wholemeal bread and a thick layer of salted butter. Strangely homely!

Finish: Real ale, baked potateo skins and a hint of mint.

Overall: Thoroughly enjoyable on its own, I'd love to try this in a few of the more robust whiskey cocktails.