At Merchant’s Daughter Premium Hard Cider in Purdys, two beverage veterans come together to produce a craft cider.
Christine Sisler and Dan O’Brien, former colleagues at PepsiCo., were watching their sons play soccer together in northern Westchester. O’Brien had left Pepsi a while back — to study classical wine-making in Napa, Sonoma, and New Zealand. After 25 years, Sisler had retired from the company, but not from work. At the time, she was enamored of hard cider. “Going from soda to cider seemed like a natural step,” she says. At that fateful soccer game, she asked O’Brien, “Wanna go into the cider business?”
O’Brien spent the next two years learning how to make craft cider, taking courses at Cornell and in the UK, and becoming a certified cider maker. By 2018 they had a product they were ready to market. But they needed a marketer. “Chris and Dan are food scientists. They reached out to a couple marketers, and eventually got to me,” says Amy Wirtanen, the third leg of this cider stool. She had been a VP at Nestle Waters, and had also reached a point where she had to decide “whether to stay in corporate America or start something for myself,” she says.
She became a partner in the company in 2018, and found just the story to attach to their brand. Sisler had purchased an 1850s general store in Purdys, which served the town as a market for more than a century. It had been handed down through the generations, particularly through the daughters. “That’s our brand essence,” Wirtanen says. “When we heard that story, it became what our brand needed to be about: honor the past as we build something for the future.”
With branding in place, all they needed to do was find a place to make and sell the stuff. The general store is being renovated into a retail and special events space. “We are still looking for the perfect spot” for a production facility and taproom along the lower Hudson Valley waterfront, Wirtanen says.
Their first products — a dry, semi-dry and reserve — were produced at Brotherhood Winery, and their next batch at Warwick Valley Winery.
They self-distribute their run of about 1,800 cases at local outlets like Suburban Wine and Spirits in Yorktown Heights, six DeCicco & Sons, and Taste NY at Woodbury Common. The long-range goal is to produce upwards of 100,000 cases and spread regionally and, eventually, nationally, but to maintain their distinctly Hudson Valley-style cider.
“The Hudson Valley is important to us,” Wirtanen says. “Dan and Chris did a lot of research and talking to industry experts, and the Valley is a unique place to get apples because of the river, microclimates, and the long growing season. That’s why we chose it.” The heirloom apples they use come from Columbia County.
The hard-cider market is growing exponentially, and they believe there is even more upside. “I think it has the potential to become what it once was,” Sisler says. And that was huge: in 1790, by one report, every citizen in Massachusetts over age 15 drank 34 gallons of beer and cider every year. (The main reason: it was safer than unpurified water.) Today, Americans often favor beer over cider. Yet, “pre-Prohibition, cider was the drink of choice,” Sisler says. “It was on everybody’s table as an everyday drinking experience.”