Is there anything Hudson Valley apples can’t do?
As glorious as they are scattered across local orchards that are ripe for picking, they’re maybe even better infused into cinnamony cider donuts or brewed into hard cider. Yet that’s just the start of their culinary versatility. After all, for the distillers of the region, apples are coveted ingredients for craft alcohols that bottle local flavor like nothing else.
Need an example? Just sip on the apple brandy from Shady Knoll Orchards & Distillery. Tucked quietly in the Dutchess County countryside, the Millbrook farm is an understated, albeit flavorful presence in the Hudson Valley’s craft alcohol scene. While the farmland dates back to the late 1700s, Shady Knoll was born in 1980 as a second chapter for a corporate lawyer and his family.
“My goal was to turn it into a working farm, which was inspired by my grandfather, who was a long-time dairy farmer,” explains CEO and Manager Rick Kneipper. A corporate attorney on Wall Street and in Dallas for more than 30 years, Kneipper also co-founded and helped direct a healthcare technology and services company for nearly 15 years prior to his retirement. With the debut of Shady Knoll, he sought a fresh start for himself and his family in the Hudson Valley. To do so, he homed in on one crop for which his farm would be known.
“I decided upon apples as our initial crop since New York State was the second largest apple producer in the U.S. (and the apple is designated as its official fruit) and to use our apples to produce hand-crafted apple brandy, a long-time favorite drink of mine,” he explains. At the time, he adds, such a decision was a bit audacious since only five craft distilleries existed in the whole of the United States. After a delay due to career and family, he filled his orchard with more than 120 varieties of dwarf apple trees to craft a brandy in line with French Calvados, which utilizes 50 to 100 apple varieties to add complexity and depth. In 2016, he followed this up with his first planting of rye grain for use in the production of rye whiskey.
Around that time, Shady Knoll built its distillery, granary, silo, and equipment shed and added its French alembic Charentais pot still, along with its fermenting, distilling, and apple processing equipment. After obtaining a NYS farm distillery license and federal TTB distillery license, Kneipper and his son-in-law and head distiller and farm manager Andrew Richards were ready to debut their tasting room.
Softly launched between 2018 and 2019, Shady Knoll Orchards & Distillery offers the hyperlocal craft alcohol experience in the Hudson Valley at its finest. The family-run endeavor takes a thoughtful approach to production, opting for natural processes and time-intensive methods over speedy rollout cycles. Because of this, its attention to detail shines in every bottle of its Shady Knoll Apple Brandy and Shady Knoll Pommeau, its two signature products. Both drinks are one-of-a-kind, in part thanks to their combination of more than 120 American and European apple varieties grown both in the orchard and from local farms and in part thanks to the hand-processing and natural fermentation that gives them their unrivaled flavor.
“We pick our apples by hand only when they tell us they’re ready in order to maximize their juice and taste,” Kneipper reveals, adding that that’s part of the reason why he puts the slogan “from our orchards to your glass” on the bottles. After harvesting the fruits, he and his team grind and press them before leaving the juice to ferment using only wild yeast for approximately nine months. After that, the fermented juice gets double-distilled in the farm’s beautiful French alembic pot still to maximize the complex flavors.
From there, the juice takes two different paths to craft Shady Knoll’s brandy and pommeau, respectively. For the apple brandy, Kneipper and Richards age it for about 16 months in new American oak barrels before finishing it over three to four months in used Portuguese Madeira barrels. With the pommeau, meanwhile, the pair combine the brandy with fresh apple juice from the orchard before letting it rest in used apple brandy barrels for three to four months.
The aging process for both products might be a long one, but the results are well worth the effort. Kneipper notes that “quality takes longer,” and he has a point. It’s only through this attention to detail that Shady Knoll can craft such nuanced micro-batches that offer the farm-fresh flavors of the Hudson Valley with every sip.
And that’s just the apple side of things. With its rye harvest, Shady Knoll does wonders to transform it into smooth rye whiskey based on a formula of 70-percent rye grown straight on the farm, plus 15-percent malted barley and 15-percent corn, the latter two ingredients which are both grown on nearby New York State farms. Uniquely, the farm ferments and distills on the grain, or by leaving the grain after cooking and fermenting, so as to enhance the nose and taste. The whiskey also gets double-distilled in the alembic pot before aging for 12 months in new America oak barrels and finished for three to four months in Portuguese port barrels.
Because production occurs in small batches and as a family operation, Shady Knoll beverages are a rare treat indeed. They’re a delight when sampled during a tour and tasting at the Millbrook farm, which is open by appointment. They’re also equally as divine when acquired from any of the more than 20 retailers throughout the state, not to mention the 20-plus additional ones in Texas. Looking ahead, Kneipper anticipates rolling out Shady Knoll products in California and Florida as well. While COVID-19 did hit the distillery, Kneipper and team made the most of the downtime by working to further improve the beverages that are currently in production.
“We have decided not to bottle more spirits and instead allow them to continue to age to enhance their flavors,” he reveals, “and so we expect to be releasing older aged Shady Knoll spirits in 2021.”
Now how’s that for a happy new year?
Shady Knoll Orchards & Distillery
37 Brush Hill Rd, Millbrook