There was a time not so long ago when the words “New York whiskey” would raise eyebrows, or even elicit laughter. That time was as recent as 2005, when there was nary a commercial producer to be found in the Empire State. My, what a difference a decade makes. Today, the New York whiskey scene is no laughing matter — it’s developed into one of the most prolific regions of production in the country, featuring solid examples of every variety of brown spirit imaginable.
“In the decade since the first Hudson whiskey flowed from the stills at Tuthilltown, New York craft whiskey has not only exploded, it’s really made a mark,” says Han Shan, Hudson Whiskey Ambassador. Establishing itself as the state’s first bourbon makers since Prohibition, his brand had to lobby Albany to help change the laws. Hudson Whiskey founder Ralph Erenzo pressed lawmakers to pass the Farm Distillery Act in 2007, which allowed farms to establish distilling operations on-site and produce up to 35,000 proof gallons for $250. Notably, the legislation also legalized direct sales to the public — as long as the spirits sold contain at least 75 percent New York agricultural product.
“The ability to sell direct to public means the ability to leverage tourism and get off the ground without having to ID and contract with distributors, an insurmountable obstacle for a lot of small craft producers.” And so the Great New York Whiskey Boom was born.
“From Brooklyn to the Hudson Valley to the Great Lakes, we’re making world-class whiskey in the Empire State. Bourbon, rye, malt whiskey — you name it — and it just gets better every year,” Shan points out. To wit, there’s Long Island Spirits out on the North Fork, producing a wine-barrel-finished bourbon as well as a unique single malt distilled from a barleywine ale. Their double-casked Rough Rider imparts essences of berry fruit from the wine casks to go along with the hints of vanilla and caramel more familiar to a properly aged bourbon. Retailing at under $40 a bottle, it easily holds its own against any similarly priced Kentucky export.
And speaking of Kentucky exports, when Hillrock Estate Distillery, just south of the Catskills, launched their operation in 2012, they tapped a notable bluegrass veteran as their master distiller. Dave Pickerell, formerly of Maker’s Mark, applied a Solera technique to their bourbon, which uses fractional blending to ensure that every batch ready for bottling includes a portion of the eldest spirit in the system. When it launched, it became the first Solera-blended bourbon on the market. They continue that innovative approach with their very own peat-smoked single malt, due to hit the market before Christmas.
If you can’t wait that long, Hillrock’s Hudson Valley neighbors, Harvest Spirits, just launched John Henry, a two-year-aged single malt. Sourcing local, sustainably farmed grain, the scotch-style whisky is as complex as it is environmentally friendly. Bottles priced at $60 are now popping up at liquor stores across the city.
Further upstate, Brian McKenzie of Finger Lakes Distilling has excelled at crafting a flavorful take on a traditional Irish-style whiskey. His Pure Pot Still whiskey sells for around $45 in the five boroughs. “It’s mostly the mash bill that determines the taste profile of the Pot Still whiskey,” McKenzie points out. “The unmalted barley that dominates the recipe really creates a unique flavor. Most Irish whiskeys are triple-distilled, but we elected to double-distill our Pot Still to preserve more of the flavor.” Rich in body, with a bittersweet, tea-infused spice in the finish, it evokes the Old World while maintaining a modern edge.
In fact, all of the great whiskeys pouring out the barrels in New York today balance a respectful nod to traditions of the past while incorporating something interesting and new. As New York whiskey evolves at a rapid clip, these products are a harbinger of an unprecedented era of aged excellence in our near future.