Stacy Cohen has been a Sullivan County booster her whole life. She was a child when the Woodstock festival — the first one and, let’s be real, the only one—came to Bethel in 1969. “I was 11, and my family was right in the middle of it. My father loved what was going on,” she says. They lived just a stage dive from the festival site, and handed out sandwiches and water to the hippie throng. She went to see some of the acts. “I remember Joe Cocker, because it was Joe Cocker,” she says.
Fast forward several decades and Cohen, who spent the majority of her career as an insurance agent, still lived in the county with her husband, Dr. Monte Sachs, a veterinarian. “We wanted to build on the renaissance of Bethel Woods,” she says. The county had long supported agriculture and tourism, and in 2008, the New York State Farm Distillery bill became law. It made possible the sale of spirits produced by private distillers within the state, using locally grown products. Sachs was uniquely ready to jump into the still.
He had grown up on a dairy farm in Connecticut, so he knew farming. During veterinary school, at the University of Pisa, in Italy, he met an octogenarian farmer named Bernardini, who taught him the art of distilling grappa. Sachs got one of the first distillery licenses in the state. The couple scouted locations and found a distressed property near Bethel Woods Performing Arts Center. It included a barn to set up a distillery, and an adjacent Victorian home that came to house the Dancing Cat Saloon, where Cohen and Sachs serve their own craft spirits, local craft beers, and food. “We thought it would be a new, exciting industry,” Cohen says. “It’s a wonderful, back-to-basics type of product. We never imagined it would grow so much.”
Both words come from the same root, but evolved differently into Scottish and Gaelic. If spelling counts — and it always does — use “whisky” when referring to spirits made in Scotland, Canada, and Japan. Use “whiskey” for the U.S. and Ireland. Except when referring to Maker’s Mark bourbon, which prefers the Scottish spelling in honor of the founders’ Scots heritage.
Their first spirit, called Peace Vodka — you’ll notice a groovy, Woodstock theme here — debuted in 2012. Dark whiskey needs to age at least two years, and so in 2013, their Most Righteous Bourbon was released. That was followed by Catskill Straight Rye whiskey and Fearless Wheat whiskey, named in honor of the region’s colorful gangster history.
They also produce a spirit called the One and Only Buckwheat, which cannot technically be called a whiskey because buckwheat is classified as a cereal, not a grain. “But it’s made just like a whiskey,” Cohen says. “It’s a new spirit that we created.” The portfolio also includes Curious Gin, Wicked White whiskey, which is an unaged, blended spirit like moonshine, and a grappa.
A sculpture outside the distillery / Photo by Jerry Cohen
The water, from the Catskill Mountains, is especially pure and well suited to distilling, says Cohen. The New York-grown grains, purchased at a nearby mill, are fed to local farm animals after they have been turned into the mash. Local fruits and botanicals flavor the spirits. “This industry supports everything good and meaningful. It supports the community,” Cohen says. The community, indeed, is what drives them. The Dancing Cat Saloon and the Stray Cat Gallery, which the couple opened across the street in 2013, continue the region’s support of art, music and history.
Take a distillery tour to see the custom-made, European copper stills, then have a sample at the tasting room’s art deco bar from the 1939 World’s Fair in Flushing, Queens. But be prepared for a Chamber of Commerce spiel from Cohen. “When I am on site, everybody gets to hear about Bethel Woods and Woodstock,” she says. “It’s almost mandatory.”
Distillery open daily, 12–5 p.m. 2037 Rte. 17B, Bethel; 845.583.31; www.catskilldistilling.com
Peace Vodka, Catskill Distilling Company’s first product / Photo courtesy Catskill Distilling Company