Distillery Focus

A good bassy tone

Ian Buxton meets the team behind Tuthilltown Spirits, a craft distillery on the rise
By Ian Buxton
This is the story of a distillery which should have been a rock climbing centre. Or possibly a craft bakery. Which has survived a fire. Which ages its casks using rap music.

It is something of a poster boy for the burgeoning US craft distilling industry, having achieved the remarkable feat of working with one of the giants of the global distilling industry without being swallowed up by them.

Also it has won a host of awards in its short but exciting life and which – roll of drums please – will shortly be available in the UK.

So you could say that I have seen – and heard – whisky’s future, and it rocks. Or, to be more precise, raps. I’m talking about Tuthilltown Spirits and the distillery in New York’s Hudson Valley. I went there to learn about the exciting range of rye, bourbon and single malt whiskeys and its tie-up with William Grant & Sons. I didn’t expect any of the other stuff.

But first, some facts. Tuthilltown is located about 75 miles due north of Manhattan island and is the first legal distillery in New York state since Prohibition. Incidentally, as I learned from the Tuthilltown team, there were more than 1,000 small farm distillers prior to that particular episode in NY State alone so perhaps the craft distilling movement has some way to go.

The local area is notable for its dramatic cliff formations and is a mecca for climbers. As a professional climber Ralph Erenzo moved here and bought a run-down farm property in 2001 with the aim of creating a climbing centre for enthusiasts. Cue violent objections to his plans from local residents concerned about traffic and large number of visitors. After two years, realising he could never overcome local opposition, Ralph abandoned his dream and turned in despair and frustration to a sympathetic local planning officer.

“What can I build here,” he asked. The answer, a winery, surprised him. But even better was that because a winery is considered an agricultural use the plans would be automatically approved and were not subject to local consultation. “Could I build a distillery, then?” was his next question. “Sure,” came the answer. His truculent neighbours had just scored a spectacular own goal!

At that point he was joined by his business partner Brian Lee who had bought the neighbouring mill to operate as a craft bakery.

Lee brought his engineering background and shrewd purchasing skills to bear on the problem of building a distillery from scratch with limited funds.

By 2003, Tuthilltown Spirits was up and running, operating a tiny 100 litre still to make apple vodka.

Ralph, Brian and their growing team are essentially self-taught and they take justifiable pride in that fact. “We’re not making whiskey the ‘traditional’ way, as defined for 80 years by the big whiskey producers,” says Erenzo. “We are making it the way their grandfathers made it.”

Well, possibly. Those early farm distillers didn’t have custom-made German stills and they certainly didn’t age their whiskey using bass speakers and rap music. Yes, this is Tuthilltown’s apparently completely insane ‘sonic ageing’ technique that would have traditionalists recoiling in horror.

“We’re not making whiskey the traditional way, as defined for 80 years by the big producers”

From vodka the distillery had quickly begun producing corn spirits but faced the classic problem of the long delay before the product is ready to be marketed.

How to accelerate ageing? They employed smaller casks, with success, but Brian Lee also dreamed of agitating the barrels to promote greater movement between wood and spirit.

It clearly wasn’t possible to turn them by hand so he hit on the idea of using low frequency sound. Today their main warehouse (itself part of the gift shop) is fitted with large bass speakers and sub-woofers. At night, cue a continuous loop of very loud hard-core rap music.

It sounds like the finest mumbo-jumbo or New Age madness; a bunch of hippies left over from Woodstock (it was just down the road) indulging in some half baked, crazed whim.

Except that it isn’t. There’s a very sound scientific principle behind this use of music.

The low frequency bass notes cause the barrels to vibrate very, very slightly – enough to create a greater interaction between whisky and wood, which promotes faster uptake of colour and flavour. Control samples held in monastic silence develop more slowly, so Tuthilltown are convinced they’re onto something important.

The restless experimentation continues. ‘Rifling’ involves cutting spiral grooves into the inside of their casks, thus greatly increasing the surface area and again promoting faster uptake of colour and flavour.

For a Scot, it’s reminiscent of Compass Box’s battles with the SWA during the first release of The Spice Tree.

It’s not traditional, but it feels like a variation on de-char / re-char. That’s allowed. Would this be? If so, this tiny craft distillery, which has been making whiskey for less than 10 years, may have discovered the Holy Grail – legal accelerated ageing.

American enthusiasts quickly realised the quality of the whiskey and this drew the attention of William Grant and Sons who acquired the brand rights to the Hudson whiskey brands. Tuthilltown continue to make them, while retaining the ownership of the distillery and their other products – various vodkas, gin and cassis.

Grants’ investment means the whiskeys will enjoy more international distribution, albeit in limited quantities, and the distillery now has three sets of stills to work with. Production has been expanded and new staff taken on. Visitors now make the pilgrimage to the distillery in greater numbers, no doubt to the chagrin of the nimby neighbours.

Even a small, but dramatic fire in October 2012 couldn’t halt production for long – today Ralph Erenzo thinks the production site may be “the most fire resistant distillery on the continent!”

UK readers will be delighted to learn that Grants will begin distribution of Hudson whiskies in Spring 2013 while a little bird tells me that Tuthilltown Half Moon Gin (it’s delicious by the way) will shortly find its way to these shores as well.

The moral of the story: as Gable Erenzo says “If you’re fully engaged and you really love what you do and live it, you can make almost anything possible.”

Inspired? You should be.