This Is Why New York's Craft Spirits Scene Is Booming

This Is Why New York's Craft Spirits Scene Is Booming
Van Brunt via Facebook

It's not often that we see creatives and the government come together to make positive change, but the farm beverage laws are beautiful examples of such a phenomenon. Farm brewery, distillery, winery, and cidery regulations all went through significant revisions in 2012, thanks to Governor Cuomo. In 2013 and 2014, those changes began to take effect, and now, new drinking holes and stellar drams are the enjoyable result of the loosened statutes.

There are new jobs in breweries and malt facilities; farm licenses now cost less and take less time to obtain; tax incentives help those scraping by with new business expenses; and all New Yorkers -- upstate and urbanite alike -- are drinking more locally made and locally loved booze. Cheers all around.

There is a different law for each product, and each favors producers who utilize local New York crops. Percentage requirements of local ingredients differ between beer, spirit, cider, and wine, and each license comes with its own benefits, specific to the industry. Distillers, for example, can serve their spirits in tasting rooms now, as long as the hooch is made with 75 percent local crops.

Farm breweries have new freedoms as well: They can sell beer-making equipment, supplies, food for tastings, and souvenir items (koozies!). Like the distiller's law, the in-demand brewery license is only bestowed on brewers who make beer primarily from local products. Until the end of 2018, at least 20 percent of the hops and 20 percent of all other ingredients must be grown or produced in New York State. Those percentages will increase in time, rising to 60 percent in 2018 and 90 percent in 2024.

To meet demand, the state is investing in booze-related agriculture: malt, hops, and wheat. Hop acreage is already, well, hoppin', doubling in the last year to about 140 acres. Money is going to malt facilities. These changes are creating jobs and increasing tipsy tourism. Administrative PR pushes, like Taste of NY kiosks in local airports and this I Love New York commercial, are raising global awareness of New York's alcoholic products.

The market is responding with eager investors and beverage-makers. Fifty-seven new farm breweries have opened up across the state in recent years. The number of microbreweries jumped by 160 percent from 2011, and the number of restaurant brewers or brewpubs has increased from 10 in 2011 to 33 today, a 230 percent increase.

Seven new farm cideries -- which must make their sweet and effervescent tipples exclusively with New York-grown apples -- have opened since the new farm cidery law went into effect in January 2014. And the number of farm distilleries -- including Tuthilltown Spirits, Catskill Distilling Company, and Finger Lakes Distilling -- has increased 450 percent, from 10 in 2011 to 55 today.

And of course, let's not forget about the grapes. New York is now home to 291 farm wineries, up from 195 in 2011. The growing number of wine producers coincides with better vino. In 2013 alone, New York wineries brought home more than 700 awards -- the most ever received in a single year.

These changes are letting craft-beverage businesses not just start, but grow. More bars are opening within distilleries, where locals can kick back and sample local whiskeys, bourbons, gins, and grappas, and distillers can add a new source of revenue.

Van Brunt Stillhouse in Red Hook recently built out a tasting room in its vast warehouse space, where, under current regulation, it can pour 3/4-ounce sips of the majority of its products. (While distilleries can sell all products at farmers' markets -- check out Van Brunt at Park Slope and Chelsea's Down to Earth Markets -- pours at a tasting room must only be of products with 75 percent New York ingredients. That excludes Van Brunt's rum and malt whiskey, which are made with ingredients from outside the Empire State.) Doc's All Natural Spirits, an absinthe distillery in Bed-Stuy, is also adding a bar. "It's a fun little thing to draw some people to the distillery," Kevin Herson, owner of Doc's, said. "It's kind of cool that people will be able to watch me make absinthe at the same time that they're drinking and eating."

And more changes are potentially around the corner. In mid-June, Governor Cuomo proposed a new bill to further support craft beverage makers.

Assemblyman Robin Schimminger sponsored Assembly Bill 10122 on June 16. Intended to ease the restraints of the three-tier distribution system, the proposal would allow producers to sell beverages by the glass and bottle, apply for other licenses (such as beer, wine, and other liquors for on-premises sales), and open branch offices in separate locations from the actual distillery. The draft law quickly passed both houses, but it needs to be requested and signed by the governor's office before the law comes into effect. And although the governor is the one who suggested loosening regulations on distillers, he's currently holding up the change.

"The governor held a series of summits regarding the craft act, and created great urgency to pass something," says Schimminger. "Not only did I support it, I introduced a bill, and passed it. I don't know what the delay is."

Nicole Austin, president of the New York State Distillers Guild and master blender at King's County Distillery, pressed Schimminger to sponsor the measure. As the head representative for distilleries in the state of New York, Austin is continually pushing for legislative changes for the industry. "It's been a continual effort to move everything forward," she says. "The rules were antiquated, most of them written in the '30s when distillers were still thought of as gangsters."

Austin is pleased with the new proposals and hopeful that Governor Cuomo will sign off on the changes, but she's frustrated with the pace. According to the rules of the system, the governor's office needs to call for the measure from the House. Once Cuomo does so, he has a period of time to act on it. If he decides to sign off on it (which is what everyone is expecting, given his previous statements), it goes into effect 30 days later. The current delays, however, have put some distillers in an uncomfortable place. "We were hoping to take advantage of the tourist season," says Austin. "A lot of people didn't realize there would be such a long gap. Some took out leases on spaces; others have started building bars. It's left a couple people in an awkward position."

Still, Austin and other local distillers are readying themselves for the bill's official passage. Everyone has their fingers crossed that Governor Cuomo will sign off on it in the coming weeks. According to Austin, the fourth quarter is the biggest, in terms of sales, for craft producers.

Once the bill is signed, "we'll have a mixed drinks menu," Sarah Ludington, co-owner of Van Brunt Stillhouse, revealed. This week, the distillery held a tasting-room sneak-peek event where it served old-fashioneds, manhattans, and a moonshine cocktail. Once legal to pour full glasses, Ludington says, they'll have to figure out their hours. "Right now we're open during the day to coincide with distillery tours, but once we can serve by the glass, we may be staying open later. We also might be available as an event space."

What this all means, of course, is that the New York-made wine, beer, and spirits scene is nascent. As the resources and government support continue to improve, so will the local excitement and demand. And you can expect new products to enter the market.

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