Beer festivals have been all the rage these last few summers, and if you’re at all interested in the beverage, you’re probably familiar with the sight that greets an attendee to such an event: huge white tents and clusters of brewer’s booths in vast interconnected rectangles. Attending Hunter Mountain’s recent Tap New York festival, I was at first severely daunted by the staggering numbering of options, sprawled inside and out across a number of indistinct zones.
Walking up the road through the orchards of the Warwick Valley Winery & Distillery, I was greeted instead by a single modest tent that encompassed the whole of the first annual Straight Up New York craft spirits festival. Its size surprised me: This looked tight-knit and focused, but undeniably small in comparison than the beer fests I’ve attended across the region.
But that relative lack of sprawl turned out to be misleading. There may have only been twenty-some vendors inside, but as I began my exploration of New York’s finest local spirit producers — almost all of which offered three or more tasting options — I realized size is a little warped when it comes to this kind of beverage. This was the exact right scale for sampling the varied liquids distilled in New York state: anything larger would have been too intimidating to properly tackle. Any larger, and you’d be forced to step out before trying even a fraction of the options, and would thus probably feel a little defeated afterwards.
The well-organized rectangle of spirit-makers allowed an easy overview of the offerings available. It’s the first festival of its kind that I’ve seen in the area, but that’s no great surprise. New York’s spirit scene is itself very young. The focus of spirits is narrow, by necessity: gin and whiskey dominate.
Bourbon is often sold based upon its extensive aging in oak barrels, making it a difficult business to break into for newcomers, who can’t afford to sit around for years waiting on a product to finally sell. Some clever New York distillers have found ways around this hurdle, like Roscoe’s Prohibition Distillery, which ages its Bootlegger 21 bourbon in smaller-than-usual five- to 30-gallon oak barrels for a minimum of 21 months. The smaller size of the barrel (most whiskey is typically aged in 55-gallon oak barrels) means more contact between the wood and the liquid, and thus faster extraction of flavors. Like many distilleries, Prohibition also supplements its offerings with a gin and a vodka, which don’t require aging, and thus allow a young distillery to hit the ground running.
Of course, gin and vodka are much more than just a backup. Some specialize in nothing but, like Brooklyn Gin, who poured one of the best examples of the spirit I’ve had anywhere. The company says that it’s the only gin maker to use 100% hand-cut fresh citrus peels. Joe Santos, a co-founder of Brooklyn Gin, told me that the freshness of the citrus translates directly into a more expressive flavor compared to a gin using frozen or dried citrus peels. This was no “handcrafted” buzzword hype: Brooklyn Gin truly did bear a freshness not found in more botanical-forward gins.
Other distillers have found their footing by experimenting with grains outside the norm. Catskill Distilling Company in Bethel crafts a unique spirit from 80% buckwheat, a cover crop related to rhubarb (but not, despite its name, related to wheat itself) that’s grown commonly in New York state. While buckwheat isn’t actually a grass, its grain-like seeds can be used in the brewing process, making for a beverage that conjures notes of hay, grass, and earth. Catskill’s Buckwheat certainly has many similarities to whiskey, though it’s like no other whiskey you’ll try. And the distillery’s Peace Vodka, made from 100% locally-grown whole wheat, proved to be the smoothest vodka I’d ever had. Mark Satanovsky, pouring for the Catskill booth, explained that in his native Russia, such reliance on high-quality wheat for a triple-distilled vodka makes all the difference: it’s truly the Russian’s secret weapon for a vodka that goes down smooth all night. I believe it: vodka would rarely be my first choice of spirit, in all honesty, but Catskill’s rendition of the spirit was something else altogether.
Hillrock Estate Distillery is only a few years old, but has quickly made a name for itself with a number of impressive firsts. Hillrock is the first U.S. distillery since before Prohibition to use entirely estate-grown grains for its whiskeys, and the first distillery in the world to release a solera-aged bourbon. The solera method adds a new level of complexity to both the process and flavor of a beverage, involving a small portion of liquid withdrawn and blended together from a set of barrels, so that no barrel is ever completely empty. The barrels are then topped off with fresh, young liquid, allowing the mix inside each to increase in age and complexity with each new filling cycle. Since the price tag is higher than most, Straight Up New York was the perfect opportunity to sample across Hillrock’s offerings. The Solera Bourbon is an impressive feat of blending, while the rarer Double Cask Rye was my favorite liquid of the whole festival: an incredibly smooth but rich amalgamation of earthy rye balanced with notes of coffee, cinnamon, and cocoa.
Hillrock Distillery (left) and Taconic Distillery
Straight Up New York featured a number of other impressive spirit-makers — too many to cover in detail — like Warwick’s own Black Dirt Distillery, Harvest Spirits Distillery, Taconic Distillery, Still the One, Atsby Vermouth, and more. In addition to ample booze, the event featured authors, live music, and local farmers, and helped to raise funds and awareness for the Hudson Valley Research Laboratory in Highland, which seeks to establish sustainable agriculture in the Hudson Valley.
While food was sadly not included in the admission price, pizza, tacos, and sandwiches are available around the estate, with seating at the Warwick estate visitor’s center. Even a few short hours of carefully-paced spirit sampling can take its toll in the hot July sun, and such a festival couldn’t ask for a better location than the Warwick Valley Winery, with opportunities for food and relaxation readily available.
Next year, if you attend the second annual Straight Up New York fest, make plans to spend a few hours afterwards mellowing out on the lawn, strolling the vineyard, or simply enjoying the view over the black dirt hills.
Derek Dellinger is the creator of the brewing blog Bear-Flavored.com, brewmaster at Kent Falls Brewing Co., and author of The Fermented Man, out 2016.