Fifty percent of a whiskey’s flavor comes from the ingredients and how distillers work their magic with them, Stuart Newsome will tell you. What about the other 50 percent? He’s glad you asked. He will take you upstairs, above the cozy little tasting room at Olde York Farm just outside of Hudson. There you’ll find his expansive workshop, where he makes the barrels that hold the spirits while they age. Those barrels, which impart upon the liquid their charred wood smokiness, are responsible for the rest of a darker whiskey’s distinctive flavors and colors. And he makes them all by hand, as one of the very few independent coopers you’ll ever come across.
The business is known as Olde York Farm Distillery and Cooperage, in fact. Though Newsome, who still sports the peaty brogue of his native Yorkshire, England, is the patriarch of this family-owned business, the majority owners are his daughter, Sophie, and his wife, Louise. Being able to proclaim itself women-owned is important to everyone, including Stuart. (Though it means he has to ask for — and often be denied — money to buy new tools for his shop.)
The National Historic Registered farm once belonged to Jacob Rutsen van Rensselaer, descendant of those van Rensselaers, who lived there in the early 1800s. It’s his carriage house that Newsome, a carpenter for four decades, renovated into the distillery, tasting room, and cooperage. And in a fateful twist, the Newsomes learned, after they bought the spread, that Jacob had his own distillery and cooperage back in his day.
Of course, none of this would matter if the other 50 percent of the whiskey’s flavor didn’t hold its own. It does, thanks to Sophie’s partner in life and business, head distiller Rory Tice. Sophie had the original idea to start the distillery. While living in Albany working other jobs, they took Newsome to visit the Albany Distilling Company. A history buff who loves to talk about the Whiskey Rebellion and George Washington’s still, “he was immediately in love, like, ‘We have to do this,’” Sophie says.
Tice and Sophie have been infusing spirits since Tice’s college days, and he taught himself the art of distilling when the family decided to go all-in on the business about a half-dozen years ago. He crafts singularly delicious potions, including two special bourbons. Marketed under the brand name Cooper’s Daughter, the black walnut bourbon is aged in Newsome’s American white oak barrels and finished in a second barrel that previously stored black walnut syrup tapped from their own and nearby trees. His smoked maple bourbon uses organic maple syrup from Maple Leaf Sugaring in nearby Ghent. Both are smooth, slightly sweet, and easily quaffed neat or over a large, slowly melting ice cube.
Tice also makes vodka and (inspired by Sophie’s flavor choices) infuses it with delights such as cacao and maple; pumpkin spice; rhubarb and honey; and Buddha’s hand — an odd-looking Chinese fruit. There’s even a ramp vodka, whose garlicky taste and aroma work great in Bloody Marys. Apple brandy and cordials made with fruit in season round out the portfolio.
Though it all works like a perfect cocktail now, it hasn’t been an easy pour. Newsome struggled to learn the art of coopering; at least one unfinished barrel was hurled across the shop and through a window by an unbalanced winch. He thought, more than once, “I can’t do this.” On at least three occasions they all sat down and asked, are we done with this crazy idea? “There was a lot of shouting, being upset and unsure of things,” Sophie says. “But after a restless night’s sleep, we’d figure something out.”
“You just find the right way,” Tice says. “Same with making spirits.”