Back in the 18th and early 19th centuries, just about every farm had a copper still somewhere in the barn. It was a way to turn grains into a product, says Christopher Williams, chief distiller at Coppersea Distilling. “It was as common as putting up preserves or making jerky from your meat.” Nine years ago, Coppersea CEO Michael Kinstlick and co-founder Angus MacDonald turned this fact into an image — a sea of copper — and in 2012 formed Coppersea Distilling in West Park. Like their forbears, they wanted to produce whiskeys the old-school way to, as Williams puts it, “rediscover what whiskey tasted like before industrialization.”
MacDonald, a mentor of Williams’, had a vision of a distillery that didn’t exist at the time. “He had studied distilling before it became a viable small-scale business,” says Williams, who left a career in journalism to work as a brewer and distiller in Chicago. MacDonald served as the original master distiller at Coppersea before passing away only a few years after his vision started to come together. But Williams and Kinstlick continued to forge ahead, and in 2014 they were joined by distillery manager Patrick Franco. Three years later, the team moved its operation to New Paltz.
They follow what Williams calls “heritage methods.” They use only heirloom varietals of rye, corn, and barley grown at their own farm or other Hudson Valley farms. They make all of their own malt through floor malting, a slow and laborious job. They ferment their mash in open tanks, which Williams says allows local, free-floating yeasts and other microflora to drop in and give their products “local terroir and seasonal variation.” They use direct, open-flame fire rather than gas or electric heating systems, which Williams says causes his whiskeys to maintain organic oils that give a richer and more flavorful feel and nose than modern stills. And finally, they barrel their distillations at 105 proof, which he says allows them to extract more water- and alcohol-soluble compounds from the wood, adding distinctive flavorings of red fruit, hints of vanilla, and caramel, as well as helping to minimize dilution.
These are, in fact, your grandfather’s whiskeys. “It’s very rich, lush on the palate. Our stills bring a lot of oils out,” he says. “The finish is ridiculously long. We like rich, bold whiskeys,” much different from the mass-market whiskey that comes out of the big factories, he says.
The Coppersea team is interested in exploring whiskey terroir, so in 2015 Williams and other distillers in the state created rules to govern the production of an official Empire Rye category. The rules mandate specific ingredients — a minimum of 75 percent New York rye, for instance — and production methods. “We now have 20-plus distillers following these practices, which will allow us to determine the New York terroir,” he says. That will take years, though. “Until then there isn’t a sample set.”
Their versions of rye, along with their bourbons and the unique Big Angus Green Malt, which uses unkilned “green” malted barley, will add to that sample, albeit in a very small way. They produce only 2,000 cases a year total. That’s just how they like it. “It’s all about intent,” Williams says. “Is it to make more whiskey or to make better whiskey?”