During Colonial times rum, made from molasses imported from Caribbean sugar plantations, was the drink of early settlers before the Revolutionary War. Whiskey, already distilled here, gained ground during and after the war with production limited to farmers who had surplus grain.
New York's Hudson Valley, running south from Albany to Yonkers, near New York City, once hosted countless family distilleries where Scots, Irish, Dutch and German settlers used old country skills which flourished before post war tax demands and punitive distillation laws drove killed off the game.
Fortunately recent relaxation in laws encourage a new band of distilleries, five to date, enthusiastically resurrecting spirits making while concocting new delights in ciders, whiskeys, bourbons, brandies, gins, and vodkas.
Exploring old haunts like Valatie and Clermont - historic landmark villages New York City dwellers drive a hundred miles north to visit - I found new distilleries again making spirits using locally harvested ingredients.
Valatie's harvest spirit
Valatie, formerly a mill town, is home to apple orchard Golden Harvest Farms and adjacent five-year-old offshoot Harvest Spirits Distillery where self-taught artisan Derek Grout makes renowned applejack ciders, local fruit brandies and core vodkas and has just added a single malt whiskey to his line.
"Five years ago I began by making traditional applejack during an abnormally cold winter" he explains. "As the cider fermented, I froze it in two stages, outdoors in 50 gallon barrels, transferring it to five gallon pails we moved to a walk-in freezer." Transferred later to 15 gallon American Oak quarter casks, then aged three years, the distillation named Old Scrumpy is frozen applejack.
"We used the first run to condition barrels for aging Cornelius Applejack (40% ABV) made from 100% Hudson Valley apples."
Taste: subtle sweetness, hints of peach, spiced oak maple wood finish.
However it was Derek's new whiskey, not released yet, I'd come to sample.
John Henry Single Malt Whiskey
Noticing an unlabeled bottle marked John Henry Single Malt Whiskey, I persuade Derek to pour a wee drop. Only one year aged already, this robust whiskey thrills the taste buds, warms the chest going down.
Taste: pronounced aromatic aroma, hint of apple, smoky finish with noticeable smoothness.
"It differs from Rye whiskey since there's only malted barley. No rye is used." Derek explains "Mellowed in used oak, touching newly charred American oak barrels just long enough to be considered 'Straight Whiskey' before we transferred into ageing barrels."
Derek explains the John Henry was the product of two serendipitous errors; a brewery's mistake by over smoking their malt, then a distiller making a premature tails cut. "We didn't have the equipment or expertise to brew our own, so we had a commercial brewer make the wort for our whisky. Of nine or so mash bills, one was different, a super peaty beer made with applewood smoked malted barley, aged one year in 50 gallon hogsheads. Finding this too smoky to serve in their pub, the brewery was going to throw it away!" That's when Derek made a second distillation, then made his tails cut. "Next morning we realised the carboy of 'smoky tails' was exactly what we'd longed for - we had the genesis for John Henry Single Malt Whiskey."
This remarkable single malt whiskey will be on New York's retail shelves later this year.
Hudson valley distillers
When old friends and fraternity brothers Chris Moyer and Tom Yozzo looked at what to do upon retirement, a distillery idea piqued their interest. "Tom and I were in college 25 years ago; our families vacationed together, over campfires we had talked about what to do later in life, everything from golf courses to camp grounds was discussed" Chris explained. "So when Tom suggested a distillery, I decided to do it with him."
In 2013 the pair bought a 12-acre farm near Clermont, a Hudson riverside town 45 minutes south of Valatie. Spirits Grove Farm, formerly a nursery, came with a four acre apple orchard, four greenhouses and a house along with a ramshackle 150-year-old barn, ideal for their new distillery.
Chris had long ago noted the distilling industry was growing rapidly, so as soon after the pair cleared licensing and legal matters, they installed a sixty-gallon reflux column still in the barn and got down to work distilling Chancellor's Raw Bourbon. A premium white whiskey made from corn and malted barley; it was so named for Robert Livingston, one of the Hudson Valley's great patriots.
Livingston, an author of the Declaration of Independence, administered the oath of office to George Washington. He was also a wealthy investor who brought the North River Steamboat, regarded as the first commercially successful steamboat, to the Hudson River Valley with sailings from New York City to Albany.
"There's no telling what Chancellor Livingston and President George Washington toasted at the inauguration ball." says Chris, "But with hundreds of distilleries in the Hudson Valley making whiskey, we're pretty sure some of it was consumed before it had time to age in the barrel."
Livingston once owned the land, later named Spirits Grove Farm, which is located alongside the old New York City to Albany road "We like to think weary travellers may have stopped nearby to enjoy Applejack similar to ours, with its strong American oak start, hints of caramel and vanilla and ending like an aged Scotch." Farm apples are used to make apple based vodka; greenhouses grow botanical and flavourings for Hudson Valley's gins.
The distillery is open to the public. "Visitors will see every step of the spirits production process, how we grow grains and fruits, learn the art of fermenting, distilling and watch our bottling."
Also in production: Old Tom Gin from a secret recipe based on home grown botanicals; Vodka boasting a sweet nose, silky mouth feel, subtle tone of apple and a smooth finish; Adirondack Applejack - known here since the first European settlers arrived - made with Hudson Valley apples, aged in white oak as used in American whiskey, boasting a whiskey nose upfront.
"We are also working on a new Hudson Valley whiskey, unnamed as yet, but it will be made from the same mash bill as our Livingston Lightning, and then aged in barrels - until we say it's ready." Chris confides.
New York State has over 51,000 acres of apple orchards - can more new distilleries be far behind?