Before Catskill Provisions founder Claire Marin started working with bees, she wanted to work like them. “I was very much taken by their work ethic and how it’s a one-for-all type of society,” she explains. “When I managed sales teams, it was my goal to make us more like a beehive so that we could be more efficient and supportive of each other.”
After 15 years in the publishing world, Marin decided to use her 10 years of beekeeping experience to launch Catskill Provisions, an artisanal food company with offerings rooted in honey that range from chocolate truffles to its latest endeavor, New York Honey Whiskey, launched this November. Marin teamed up with Finger Lakes Distilling to create the spirit, which is now in 26 liquor stores in New York state — including Union Square Wines, where you can find Marin and the product for Saturday tastings through March — and behind an increasing number of bars in the city; catch it at Barbuto, ABC Kitchen, and Char #4. And add Brooklyn Winery to that list this Wednesday, when Joe Campanale (Epicurean Group), Aaron Polsky (Bottled Bartender), and Adam Schuman (Michael Skurnik Wines) will create signature cocktails with the whiskey for Boozey Bees, an event hosted by Heritage Radio Network. In anticipation of that event, we got in touch with Marin to learn more about the spirit.
What sparked your interest in beekeeping?
I basically went into the hives kept by a friend and totally became enamored with it. It was instant fascination. I looked into the hives with the suit on and all — it’s like scuba diving. It’s like a world within a world, and you’re just in that moment. I thought about nothing else when I was beekeeping; it’s really quite amazing.
How did the collaboration with Finger Lakes Distilling come about?
I by chance met Brian McKenzie of Finger Lakes Distilling and his distiller Tom McKenzie (no relation). They’re really cool guys. They were one of the first farm distilleries in the state. I wanted to do the honey whiskey with them because there are a lot of natural honey notes in their rye, in particular, which I love. I fell in love with the honey whiskey formula, which is a different formula than what they currently bottle as their rye.
What were you considering most when creating the spirit?
I wanted it to be a whiskey drinker’s drink. And no sissy drinks — this is 80 proof. I wanted people to sit down and feel a little something from it. I wanted for the honey to round out the edges of the rye, while also respecting the characteristics of the spirit.
How would you describe the flavor profile of New York Honey Whiskey?
It’s a super spicy rye, which isn’t the case with every rye. The late-summer honey is very similar in its color and spiciness. We tried different honeys, and this was the perfect marriage — there’s just enough roundness and smoothness to it.
Why the late-summer honey?
It’s really our most complex honey in terms of color and flavor. There’s a nice amount of sucrose in it. The flowers that are blooming during that time are the deeper colored flowers of the season. You have astors, pine, buckwheat, golden rod, chestnut, and elm. In the early summer honeys, you have more of the fruit trees that are flowering, so it produces honeys that are much lighter in flavors and consistency — something you might want to put on yogurt. This was the magical one.
People can be a bit wary about trying “flavored spirits.” What should they know about New York Honey Whiskey?
Because we use natural honey and not honey flavor, it doesn’t have that artificial and overpowering component. It’s like if you were to add cinnamon to something, you’ll get a little bit of those cinnamon notes — but if you add cinnamon flavoring, it takes over. I didn’t want that; we pulled back a lot on the honey while we were distilling.
What can you tell me about the barrel aging process and what it lends to the spirit?
It sits in new American oak barrels for an average of two and a half years — so we don’t rush it. This is a seriously aged rye. There’s a little bit of vanilla to it. The character of the wood really affects the color and the complexity of flavor. It doesn’t just hit you once; every couple of seconds, you reach a different level of flavor.
How did you decide to distill rye and not bourbon?
I wanted to take a rye and make it more like a bourbon, rather than magnify the character of a bourbon with the honey. I’m seriously satisfied with many bourbons that are out there, but with rye I thought, we could do this. We could make this a little better. The fact that it’s grown in New York state thrills me because it’s giving farmers something to do with their fields when they’re not growing other things.
How would you suggest folks drink the spirit?
Simply on the rocks — or in an old fashioned, but without the sugar. I also make a lemonade with it, with some fresh basil leaves — it’s a really good summer drink.