There’s a lot of innovation going on in New York state’s alcohol industry these days. Licenses for farm and microbreweries, wineries, and distilleries are cheaper and easier to obtain than ever before, leading to increased creativity and diversity in the booze sector — great news for consumers who favor all things local, small-batch, and artisanal.
With all the activity happening in this industry, you’d be forgiven for not having heard of Raphael Lyon and his meadery, Enlightenment Wines. Operating on a small farm in Ulster County, Lyon makes wine out of just about everything but grapes. His creations feature New York state herbs and flowers obtained from “wildcrafters” (a.k.a. foragers), honey, fruit, and other locally sourced ingredients. The wines, meads, and “potions” come out with a unique, earthy flavor profile — truly unlike anything else on the market. At a recent dinner at the Farm on Adderley (1108 Cortelyou Road, Brooklyn, 718-287-3101) featuring Enlightenment’s latest bottlings alongside vodka and gin from Vermont’s Caledonia Spirits, Lyon explained his passion for creating something totally new.
“I’m trying to make things I want to exist,” he said, rather than redefining or reinventing an existing product. Most people associate mead with Vikings or hobbits, not realizing that it’s a pretty open category whose only stringent characteristic is the use of honey in fermentation. That openness is what Lyon hopes to seize on as he makes plans with two partners to launch a tasting room in Brooklyn, a move that makes sense for his market. Enlightenment’s wines are currently available at a few NYC stores and restaurants, including Adderley, and through Lyon’s CSA (“community supported alcohol”), most of whose members live in the city.
Because Enlightenment operates on such a small scale, Lyon has lots of opportunity to experiment, meaning he can find out what recipes work best much faster than a larger, more traditional setup. Although his output measures less than 1,500 gallons per year, he’s looking into methods to scale up, such as swapping out foraged ingredients for farmed ones. With the new site in Brooklyn, Lyon hopes to bring more attention to mead’s untapped potential.
For the uninitiated, the wines and meads can take some getting used to, although they lend themselves well to food pairing and mixing in cocktails. Made with both wild and commercial yeasts and aged in small batches in glass, they retain many of the herbal, floral characteristics of their base ingredients. Those who dislike sweet wines need not be put off by the prominence of honey in the products — many of them are dry with only a hint of sweetness underlying more complex flavors.
Enlightenment Wines Floralia
A nose of chalky minerals mixes with floral notes, giving way to flavors of lemon, earth, and flowers. Slightly astringent and refreshing, it has a bitter, herbal finish.
Englightenment Wines Maple
Encapsulating the depth of flavor of maple syrup with very little sweetness, it has a tannic bitterness and dryness with rich carob and chocolate flavors throughout.