On New York’s pint-sized whiskey row, Warwick Valley Winery is about to become Jack Daniels

| 17 Apr 2012 | 03:28

Jason Grizzanti pulls up wearing a cowboy hat, gregarious but impatient.

“Where are the insulators?” he asks Dan Vaughan, the foreman.

“We can’t do anything ‘til the ceiling goes up,” says Vaughan.

“When’s that happening,” asks Grizzanti. “Tomorrow?”

The men stand side by side, gazing at the 4,000-square-foot red pole building towering over fields of black dirt. Six stories above the freshly poured cement floor, workers scurry over scaffolding that protrudes out of the roof like the rudiments of a chapel. Wood shavings float earthward as the men attach wooden braces in a pinwheel pattern that will keep the tower from toppling in the wind

Lightning rods, to be installed next week, will prevent the electrical storms that sweep Pine Island from striking the tower’s future occupant: a copper still from Kentucky that will produce 30 barrels of whiskey a day.

Grizzanti, 34, is a master distiller and co-owner of Warwick Valley Winery & Distillery. As a kid, he spent weekends at his dad’s (Joseph “Doc” Grizzanti) orchard, which subsequently became the Warwick Valley Winery. Those apple-filled interludes inspired Grizzanti to major in fruit science at Cornell, and continue his brewing and distilling education at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland. Now he’s on the verge of becoming one of the largest, if not the largest, distillers in New York State.

Warwick Valley Winery’s decade of fruit distilling experience makes it the granddaddy of New York distillers. Since 2002, when the winery became the state’s first licensed distillery since Prohibition, it’s been turning apples, pears, sour cherries and currants into award-winning fruit brandies, cordials, liquers and eaux de vie. But distilling was never more than the cherry on top of the brewing operation, because back then, making mainstream inebriants like vodka and whiskey in the east – whether you were Jason Grizzanti or Jack Daniels – required a $50,000 license. But then a pair of changes to state liquor laws made it exponentially cheaper for micro-distillers to make and sell all varieties of booze, craft distilling transformed into a viable business. As long as the bulk of your ingredients come from in-state, craft licenses were practically free at just $1,450.

No one was more surprised than Grizzanti. “We had hopes the hard cider business would grow, and it has,” he said. “But the distilled spirits portion came out of the blue.”

The winery started churning out small batches of bourbon and rye (over 1,000 gallons of whiskey are aging in barrels in an outbuilding at the winery, un-tasted by the public.) And Grizzanti, with the help of childhood friend-turned-business partner Jeremy Kidde, 33, started thinking big.

“Look at this black dirt,” said Kidde. “While we sell market wines, the future is in products we can produce that are world class. Our wines can’t compete with California. But you can’t argue that the Hudson Valley isn’t one of the best places in the world to grow apples, to grow corn.”

New York, while it’s no Kentucky, has become an unlikely bit player in the whiskey game. With 28 from Brooklyn to Lake Placid, New York now ranks behind only California in the number of distilled spirit producers.

Before the advent of the craft distilling license, no one in New York had (legal) plans to become a professional distiller. That means that behind every distillery you’ll find an adaptable personality and a singular creation story.

MonteSachs, make that Doctor Monte Sachs, was a horse veterinarian in his other life. He’d been instilled with a passion for distilling as a side effect of his education at the Medicina Veterinaria at the University of Pisa, Italy. Friends owned vineyards and the making of grappa (distilled from the skins, pulp, seeds, and stems of grapes) beguiled him.

When he heard about the change in the liquor law, Sachs called on master distiller and Bourbon Hall of Famer Lincoln Henderson of Lexington, Kentucky, known for developing Jack Daniels.

The result is the Catskill Distilling Company, just off a rural straightaway on the two-lane highway Route 17B in western Sullivan County. Across the driveway is the affiliated restaurant and pub, The Dancing Cat Saloon. A mile away, the monument at the edge of Max Yasgur’s former alfalfa field marks where Woodstock happened in 1969.

The scent that shrouds the south entryway to Catskill Distilling Company is that of a softly pungent bread on a foggy spring morning. It’s the low, sweet and warm and not altogether unpleasant smell of grain cooking.

Sachs’ reverence for the craft earned a nod of approval last September when Cornell University held its two-day artisan distilling workshop at the Catskill Distilling Company. Distillers from Canada to Nepal attended.

This summer, the distillery released its first product in the form of Peace Vodka, debuting on Aug. 14, the 42nd anniversary of Woodstock. Already, the product has spin-offs. Peace Vodka figures into the penne alla vodka served in the Dancing Cat Saloon. And a German bakery in nearby Jeffersonville makes Bear Trap Truffles, infusing the chocolate with Peace Vodka and honey from a local farm. When Sachs starts making whiskey, the bakers plan to make a bourbon bread from his mash.

Rock climber Ralph Erenzo had always known he would start a climbing ranch in the Shawangunk Mountains. He’d spent decades building a constituency of climbers at the climbing gyms he owned who would follow him upstate.

But after Erenzo had shelled out $200,000 for the perfect piece of land, a stubborn neighbor, determined not to share Gardiner’s best swimming hole with transient climbers, fought the plan until Erenzo ran out of money.

Erenzo, 60, needed to find another use for his property, and fast. He discovered that the fee for small distilling operations had plummeted. He had no distilling experience, but hey, he told himself, “guys back in the woods are doing this with kindergarten educations and no teeth.”

Those toothless hobos must be smarter than they look, because the engineering bit was giving Erenzo trouble. As it happened, a guy showed up wanting to buy Erenzo’s grist mill so he could make flour. Erenzo sat this Brian Lee down on the stone wall and explained the whiskey plan. Three days later, he got an e-mail: Lee was in. Erenzo had his engineer. When his son Gable Erenzo, 32, came on board with his marketing expertise, the team was ready for business.

Flash forward eight years. Tuthilltown Spirits, employer of 25 people, has become the poster child of New York craft distilling after being written up in the NY Times, Time magazine and Playboy. This summer they cut a hole in their roof so a crane could place a 542-gallon still inside a newly built cuppola, to join the two smaller stills. Times are good.

They’ve bought a piece of a cooperage in Minnesota, to make sure they get barrels made from the finest cut of oak, and get them when they want them. They’ve even figured out how to sell used barrels for the same $155 they bought them for, to chique bartenders who’ve started aging cocktails in “whiskey-cured” barrels.

In the on-premesis lab, a gas chromotograph separates compounds into molecules, allowing them to test batch to batch in a quest for greater uniformity.

But the most groundbreaking of Tuthilltown’s inventions is nothing short of bizarre. By aging whiskey in half-sized barrels, and storing them near speakers that blast heavy bass at night, causing the barrels to vibrate, these guys are maturing whiskey in one year. All the whiskey you know has been aged for two years.

That not only means they get a return on their investment sooner, it also makes them nimbler than the big distilleries. When rye got hot, the Erenzos tracked down a local farmer with a combine who was willing to grow the scarce grass. Bottles of Hudson Manhattan Rye were wax sealed and hand-labeled just in time to sate the trend.

Cheryl Lins adds water to the clear 150-proof bourbon arcing out the tap of her 45-gallon still and sips.

“Spirit runs are a fun day,” she says, handing a glass to a visitor, “‘cause you get to taste.” Lins, 59, doesn’t drink much otherwise. Never has – except for one marked period of her life.

Born in New Jersey, Lins had lived in Florida, California, and in a yurt in New Mexico working as a watercolor painter, when she decided she “had to get out of the desert. Somehow, the idea of the Catskills came to me.” She made her solo pilgrimage and got a job milking goats. (Those farm connections are still around. A local farmer calls mid-distillation to ask when he should pick up the spent mash that he feeds to his pigs.)

In 2006, Lins read a New Yorker article about absinthe. The name, the history, the fact that her favorite French artists probably drank it when they could afford to – everything about the green fairy enchanted her. She ordered half a dozen different brands from Europe.

“Here I was milking goats for a living, buying $60 bottles plus shipping. I said, I guess I have to give this up.” But Lins discovered that she could buy a tiny still from Portugal for a couple hundred dollars. She started tinkering, bringing homemade absinthe to parties where everyone else brought a bottle of wine. Eyes rolled. “There really are not too many abinsthe drinkers up here,” Lins said.

A 2006 flood left the one-horse town of Walton under feet of water. Cheap real estate was suddenly really cheap. Lins seized the opportunity and rented a long narrow storefront with a high tin ceiling. She called her operation the Delaware Phoenix Distillery, after the bird that rises from ashes.

Four years later, Lins was crazed. Liquor stores and bars in the trendier parts of Brooklyn were snapping up the only local absinthe around. She upgraded her “itty-bitty” still and added bourbon and rye to her repertoire.

But she still works solo and does things the old fashioned way, which is to say slowly. She hand-makes the milk paint she uses to whitewash the face of each barrel, then stencil in red the type of alcohol, barrel number and date. Her customers will never see her painstaking handiwork. Lins doesn’t care. The fact that she doesn’t speak French didn’t stop Lins from painting “Merci de ne pas fumer” on the distillery wall, either. She’s having a grand old time.