In the Southern foothills of the Catskills, Dr. Monte Sachs runs the Catskill Distilling Company, an establishment that continues to rake in awards for Defiant rye whiskey, Most Righteous bourbon, Peace vodka, Curious gin, grappa, and buckwheat spirit. The tasting room is directly across the street from the Woodstock Festival grounds and next door to the Dancing Cat Saloon, an idyllic spot for visitors looking for great music and great booze. A horse veterinarian by trade, Sachs became enamored with the process of distilling while completing his medical training in Italy, and he hasn’t stopped creating and experimenting since then. We caught up with Sachs to learn more about his unique aging techniques and latest spirited creations.
I heard you’re doing a collaboration with Ommegang?
Oh yeah. It’s incredible. I got the idea when I read an article about other distilleries pairing up with breweries to make malt whiskey. But I wanted to get more than just a local brewer, I wanted something special, and Ommegang is very special. Phil [Leinhart], the head brewer at Ommegang, and I talked, and we decided to use Hennepin, a non-hop spiced Belgian style beer.
This spring, I drove up to the brewery where we pumped four 250-gallon totes full of freshly cooked Hennepin mash. The brewery would usually launder it, separating the grain from the liquid, but I like to ferment on grains; I think it gives a lot more depth. So I brought back 1,000 gallons of Hennepin — during which I blew a tire on a mountainous ridge and had to walk for an hour to find help — and then pumped it into my mash ton because it was still hot. This stuff was steaming all over the road as I was driving. So we cooled it down and inoculated it with a whiskey yeast and distilled it as a whiskey. And now it is sitting out in my barrel house, aging.
How does it taste?
It’s extraordinary. There’s a whiskey sommelier from Flatiron Lounge, Heather [Green], who tasted it and was blown away. This stuff is incredible. It is a beautiful golden wheat color. It just tastes good. The nose on it is full of spices and citrus and flavors. I’ve never smelled anything like this, and neither had Heather, who tastes whiskey for a living.
It’s been resting for six months. Phil and the regional manager from Duval — who owns Ommegang — come check it every few months.
I’ve read that you use a special technique to age your spirits. Can you tell me about it?
I have a very particular way of aging. I do something called accelerated maturation, taught to me by Lincoln Henderson. I wanted to track down the best whiskey maker I could find; Lincoln was the master distiller for Brown-Forman for 40-something years. He had never taught anyone outside the industry, but I think he liked me because I’m a doctor and we could talk science. We worked together for almost two years, a lot over the internet and phone calls and some time hands on. One of the things he had done when he was at Brown-Forman was research how to speed up the aging process, and he developed accelerated maturation. But for large companies like Jack Daniels [part of Brown-Forman], it turned out not to be economical on a big scale, so they never built [an accelerated maturation house]. But on my scale, it’s perfect. Maturation of whiskey is more than just getting brown from the wood. It is really about a series of chemical reactions. The raw spirit that goes into the barrel has thousands of trace amounts of little flavor compounds that the yeast produce. The maturation of whiskey is actually the interaction of those as they form other things. We built this accelerated maturation house that’s very expensive to run, yet in two years I can produce a whiskey that is comparable to a five- or six-year-old whiskey. The way I measure that is not only by taste but by evaporation, and I’ll get 35 percent evaporation in two years. The whiskey that comes out is way cool.
What other new spirits do you have lined up?
I’m working on a wheat whiskey that’s also extraordinary. It’s called Fearless. I like to distill different things.
My first love is making grappa, which is truly my passion. I learned how to make it when I was a med student in Tuscany. I have been experimenting over the years, and the first grappa I have out is a Vulvan Muscat, a very aromatic Minnesotan cold weather grape. This year I used the Traminer grape. This is unbelieveable. You can rub it on your hands; it smells like perfume. The grappa we made this year is maybe one of the most aromatic grappas I’ve ever tasted and I have my own collection of 50 or 60. The point of a grappa is it should smell and taste like the grape it’s made out of, not lighter fluid.
Sample Catskill Distilling Company’s spirits up in Bethel, or look for it at your local liquor stores.