Craft beer? Been there. Boutique wine? Done that. If you’re looking for the Next Big Thing in adult beverages, think bourbon. And vodka, fruit brandy, applejack, and a flood of other strong waters. Thanks to changes in the laws — some of which dated back to Prohibition — it is now legal to distill and market small-batch spirits. And the Hudson Valley is quickly becoming an epicenter of the national boom in local booze.
According to the American Distilling Institute, the number of micro or craft distillers in the U.S. has risen by almost 30 percent each year over the past decade, going from just 50 sites in 2005 to more than 600 in 2013. At least a half-dozen of these have set up shop between Albany and New York City, inspired by clear local water and homegrown fruits and grains. Here is a sampler to whet your whistle.
While technically distilled in Brooklyn, Widow Jane uses corn grown in Rosendale and trucks water down to the distillery from the famed Widow Jane Mine, also located in the town. “We had the water analyzed and it came back zero parts per million microbial bacteria with the highest calcium and limestone content the company had ever seen. In fact, they thought we had sterilized the sample,” says Mike Dirksen, sales director and a distiller for Widow Jane/Cacao Prieto LLC. Limestone is the key to that unique bourbon taste; Kentucky, the center of American bourbon production, also has rich limestone deposits. “Because the water is so far underground, the environment is completely free of contaminants or pollution of any kind,” says Dirksen. “This is why the bourbon is so smooth and soft. And we co-own the water source, so the cost is actually lower than it would be if we used reverse osmosis water in Brooklyn.”
The company, which also makes high-end, artisanal chocolates, produces a line of rums and liqueurs, but its big seller and flagship product is the Widow Jane bourbon, aged in a single barrel for seven years.
Walk-in tours of both the chocolate factory and distillery are available on Saturdays at 2 and 4 p.m. Private tours generally are available on Thursdays. Tours are $15 a person and include a tasting. Cacao Prieto, 218 Conover St., Brooklyn; 347-225-0130.
Serve up or on the rocks.
Black Dirt Distillery is a spin-off of Warwick Valley Winery, which began making gin, fruit brandies, and liqueurs under the brand name American Fruits in 2002. To meet the growing demand for craft spirits, the winery owners created the new company in 2012, building a 4,000-square-foot distillery, with a 60-foot distillation column, in Pine Island in 2013. The new facility has allowed them to increase production 20-fold. Cofounder Jeremy Kidde says they produce about 10 barrels a day, and could double that if they add a second shift. By comparison, “That’s less than one-fourth the size of Maker’s Mark,” he says.
The distillery’s big sellers are Black Dirt bourbon — in two- and three-year-old varieties — and Black Dirt applejack. Before Prohibition, the Black Dirt region boasted dozens of applejack distilleries. Theirs is aged a minimum of four years in new charred American oak barrels.
“We grow our own apples and pears for the brandies, and 80 percent of the corn used in the bourbon is GMO-free and grown in the Black Dirt, contracted through a local grower,” Kidde says.
You can sample the spirits every day between 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. at Warwick Valley Winery’s tasting room and store, 114 Little York Rd., Warwick; 845-258-4858.
Shake with ice; serve up or on the rocks with an orange twist.
When you own a 200-acre fruit farm, you have a lot of unused fruit. So Derek Grout, scion of the family that owns Golden Harvest Farms in Valatie, decided to learn the distilling business. He took a seminar in 2005, got a license in 2008, and began producing apple vodka. He had no previous expertise, and there was no family history. “Grandpa wasn’t running moonshine. He was a German beer drinker and farmer,” Grout says.
Today, he produces about 10 different fruit-based spirits, including a line of Core vodkas, brandies, grappa, and his big seller, Cornelius Applejack. “It takes 60 pounds — a bushel and a half — of apples, plus two years aging, to make one bottle of applejack,” he says. “It takes four gallons of cider to make one bottle of apple vodka. This is why vodka costs as much as it does.”
The farm has a tasting room, which is open weekends from 12-5 p.m. year-round. Golden Harvest Farms, 3074 Rte. 9, Valatie; 518-755-6887
Pour over ice in tall cocktail glass, top with tonic and slice of lime.