Saturday, February 27, 2016

Using New York Fruits to Make Tasty Spirits

From Empire Farm & Dairy magazine:

Empire Farm & Dairy

Everyone knows you use grapes to make wine.

But did you know you could take just about any type of fruit grown in New York and make other types of spirits? And you can also make wine out of other fruits.

“Distilled apple beverages and apple wine have really taken off,” said James Allen, president of the New York Apple Association.

The numbers bear this out — there were 10 farm distilleries in New York state in 2011 and there are 85 today, according to figures from the state Liquor Authority.

An example: Apple Country Spirits in Williamson, Wayne County.

David DeFisher, a fourth-generation fruit farmer, began the business in 2012 after trying to figure out if there was a product he could make to bring in more profit from his fruits.

“We sold (our fruits) to processors for years,” DeFisher said. “Then in 2010-2011, I started thinking about what sort of value-added product could we begin producing that would bring in a better return.”

Tart cherry cordial by Apple Country Spirits
He and his wife took a course about distilling at Cornell University and then bought a still and built a 7,000-square-foot facility at the farm. Today they make a variety of distilled spirits — vodka, a cherry cordial, and bourbon- and whiskey-like products — from apples and other fruits.

He does not make apple vodka, which he said is regular, grain-distilled vodka flavored with apple.

“Our product, our vodka, is made from apples,” he said.

DeFisher operates a tasting room at the farm where people can taste the vodka, cherry cordial and bourbon-like and whiskey-like products and even a hard cider. The tasting room is open from noon to 5 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. For more information, visit

Distilling has a long history in New York state.

According to numerous online histories, back in the early days of our country, a distillery could be found on just about every corner. Seems the Founding Fathers and others in this new land liked to keep themselves supplied with a steady source of alcoholic beverages.

But once Prohibition grabbed hold of the country in the early 1900s, the distilling industry took a huge hit. New York state went from hundreds of distilleries to none.

Passage of the Farm Distillery Law in 2007 helped change that.

The law, signed by then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer, established a farm distillery license for small-liquor producers that use mostly New York farm products. The distilleries make no more than 35,000 gallons of liquor annually and can conduct tasting on their licensed premises, much the same as wineries throughout the state.

The first to open was Tuthilltown Distillery in the Hudson Valley. Founders Ralph Erenzo and Brian Lee took a mill that had once milled grain into flour and turned it into the state’s first distillery since Prohibition.

“Today, Tuthilltown Spirits distills Indigenous Vodka from apples grown at orchards less than five miles away and the highly awarded Hudson Whiskey line, using grain harvested by farmers less than 10 miles away,” according to the Tuthilltown website.

“The Visitor Center offers guests the opportunity to taste the collection of whiskeys, vodkas, gins, liqueurs and other unique, handmade spirits,” the website entry states. “Tours illustrate how Tuthilltown’s spirits are made by hand, one batch at a time.”

Another distilling company that started up shortly after Tuthilltown is Finger Lakes Distilling in Burdett, Schuyler County. President Brian McKenzie said the passage of the farm distillery license bill was key to the business opening.

“We wouldn’t be here without it,” he said.

McKenzie got the idea for the business in 2007, made the first batches of spirits at the end of 2008 and sold to the public for the firs time in July 2009. The distillery is in the heart of Finger Lakes (five miles north of Watkins Glen on Route 414) wine country, making whiskeys, bourbons, vodkas and liqueurs using locally grown grapes, berries, rye, corn and other fruits and grains.

The location might seem odd, but it makes a lot of sense.

“A big reason why we’re situated where we are is the draw from the wine tours — we have a captive audience,” McKenzie said. “And then it’s a great spot because of all the agricultural products grown right near here. We have all the fresh, raw material we need right here.”

McKenzie said their flavored vodkas and liqueurs are made in the traditional manner, by soaking real fruits in the spirit.

“We don’t add extracts or synthetic flavoring to speed up the process,” McKenzie says on the distillery’s website. “Our whiskies rest in oak barrels for as long as they need to, until they mature into the rich, aged spirit we offer with pride.”

The entire process, from processing the raw ingredients to labeling filled bottles, is housed at Finger Lakes Distilling, which makes 18 different products. Its tasting room is open daily from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

And then, of course, there are those who still make spirits the old-fashioned way.

Elias Barber, a sixth-generation farmer in Schoharie County, uses not-ready-for-prime-time potatoes from his farm to make vodka. He said Barber’s Farm opened its tasting room in October (right next door to its roadside stand) where visitors can taste the vodkas.

“We had been playing around with the idea for almost three years,” Barber said. “We wanted to create a value-added product from a waste product (the potatoes that are too ugly for the public to buy).”

The farm got a Farm Distillery License and started making vodka from those ugly potatoes. Farm workers make about 300 750-milliliter bottles a week.

And now, “the sky’s the limit,” Barber said.


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