A Former Rocket Scientist Runs This Hudson Valley Distillery

The Beacon brain elevates local spirits to a whole new level.


You might think that making whiskey ain’t rocket science. But in fact it is — and former rocket scientist-turned-distiller Karl Johnson is, ahem, proof. Johnson, with a chemical engineering background, distilled rocket fuel components before turning his skills from accelerants to intoxicants. As co-founder of Denning’s Point Distillery in Beacon, he and his business partner, Susan Johnson, are turning out medal-winning spirits and are three-time winners of the Best Hudson Valley Distillery Award bestowed by the readers of Hudson Valley magazine. 

Neither of them thought they would end up in the booze business, though. Karl Johnson was born and raised on a 6,000-acre farm in Minnesota. His first business was selling corn to the neighbors from his little red wagon as a boy. He also learned about farming from his father, a plant geneticist and agronomist who bred barley for malt, a critical ingredient in the brewing and distilling process, before working in chemical engineering and making rocket fuel.

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 Susan Johnson grew up in Allendale, NJ, and built a successful career in corporate marketing and design. After discussing it for a decade, with his technical skill and her marketing background, the idea to open a distillery “seemed like a no-brainer.” 

The coming of New York’s favorable distilling laws around that time led them north to hunt for the perfect location. That turned out to be a former auto garage in Beacon. “We had been looking at farm properties further out in the country, but we needed heavy-duty utilities, like power and gas lines, that farms didn’t have,” she says. The garage, with the right power lines and a thriving community, did. 



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They kept their day jobs while he did the build-out on weekends. It took about 10 months to install the equipment and get licenses approved. The still was up and running in September 2014, and they started producing vodka and unaged white rye to get product to market while their darker spirits aged. Their first bourbon was released in 2016, and they have since added gin, apple brandy, an American whiskey, and an infused vodka to their portfolio. “We just released a blueberry-infused gin, which is getting rave reviews,” Susan says.

The Beacon Bourbon, a Silver Medal winner at the 2017 San Fran World Spirits Competition, is their most popular item. Aged for two years in charred white oak barrels, the spirit offers opening notes of vanilla and oak and finishes with cinnamon, maple, and dark fruit, according to the distillery notes. Second on the popularity list is Maid of the Meadow, a wheat-based spirit infused with Hudson Valley wild herbs and wild honey. 

Now comprising three full-time distillers, they produce about 300 cases a month and distribute in six states. They boast of their 250-gallon hybrid still, handcrafted by Vendome Copper and Brassworks of Louisville, KY, which Karl and his distillery team can monitor and control remotely from an iPhone and a homemade relay system.

It goes without saying, but Karl and Susan have their business down to a science.

Distillery open Fri–Sat, 2–8 p.m.; Sun, 2–6 p.m.

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10 N. Chestnut St, Beacon, 845.476.8413



Related: The Delicious Rebirth of a Hudson Valley Distillery

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