Before Tuthilltown, there had been no distilleries in New York since Prohibition.
That will never work.” “You’re going to fail.” “No one will buy your whiskey.”
When Ralph Erenzo started Tuthilltown Spirits with his partner Brian Lee in New York back in 2005, that was all people were telling him. After all, there had not been a distillery in New York since the United State’s Prohibition era (1920-1933), so it wasn’t a stretch to assume that these two guys, one a former professional rock climber the other an engineer, with no experience in distilling whiskey, would fail spectacularly.
Ten years later, Tuthilltown Spirits is not only a thriving craft distillery with over 50 employees, it also changed the entire law and landscape of the distilling industry in the area.
When we met Erenzo at Whisky Live Singapore last year, he told us about how it all came about. When he and Lee acquired the Tuthilltown Gristmill property, it was to turn it into a “climbers ranch” where rock climbers could hang out before and after climbing. When that didn’t pan out, they decided to start a distillery instead. There was only one problem – neither of them knew how to distil spirits.
“We decided to figure it out ourselves, because we figured that if others could do it, so could we!” Erenzo recalled. “Brian’s engineering skills came in handy – when there were technical problems, he would be able to sort it out. The biggest problem for us was the biology and the chemistry.”
In the end, they learnt how to distil through the Internet, reading books, and Erenzo went to Europe a few times to visit the distilleries there that made grappa, absinthe, calvados, and other spirits made in very small farm distilleries, which was what they wanted to build.
Wouldn’t it have been easier to hire someone who had experience in this sort of thing though? “Well, we didn’t hire a master distiller, because first of all, we couldn’t afford to, and secondly, we figured that if we did that, he would be teaching us to make HIS whisky,” he said. “We just wanted to make whisky that WE liked. We were reasonably normal people, and we saw no reason that if we liked it, others wouldn’t!”
From the very beginning, the whole business was built on a very DIY kind of style. They started out making vodka out of scraps they collected at a local apple slicing plant, before moving on to making whiskey. Their first ever whiskey product was their signature Hudson Baby Bourbon – the first legal pot-distilled bourbon made in New York since Prohibition.
Made from 100% New York-grown corn and aged less than four years in small virgin American Oak barrels, it comes in a small 375ml bottle, but packs a decent punch at 46% ABV. “It’s a good introduction to bourbon, because it’s got a single flavour profile so it’s easy to understand, and there’s no rye in it so there’s no bite,” he said.
According to him, the first batch of Baby Bourbon was made almost by accident. “We put the corn whisky into a barrel, and stuck it in a corner. Four months later, I opened it up and tried it, thinking it would never taste right. But it came out looking, smelling and tasting like whisky to me!” he said.
Besides the Baby Bourbon, Tuthilltown also makes vodkas, gin, bitters, and liqueurs. They also have the excellent Hudson Manhattan Rye Whiskey, the Hudson Single Malt Whiskey, and the Hudson Four Grain Bourbon, which is made with corn, rye, wheat and malted barley.
All the spirits are made with grains and fruits grown by local farmers. “Our idea was to make something that was local and for as little as we could, and it’s a lot cheaper to get grain from a neighbour farmer than it is to ship it from another state,” he said. “So, we went over to the farmers and paid them to grow it for us. They were happy because we gave them a whole new market for their crop.”
Tuthilltown also single-handedly changed the distilling game in New York. Erenzo said that the main reason there had been no distilleries in New York was that the start-up costs were too high, and because there were no distilleries for so long, we were operating on Prohibition-era laws. So the first thing he did when he set up shop was lobby for a change in the law. His work eventually led to the passage of the Farm Distillery Act, which permits New York farms to establish distilleries on site and sell their agricultural spirits at the farm.
Even though Tuthilltown Spirits is now part of William Grant And Sons (which produces Glenfiddich and Balvenie single malt Scotch whiskies and Hendrick’s Gin), it remains very much a craft distillery at heart.
“I think being ‘craft’ has a lot to do with the mindset and the way you look at it. In our case, we still hand make everything, and all the critical decisions are made by a person, not machines or computers. That for me is what craft spirits are all about.
Looking back at how they started out, Erenzo wouldn’t change a thing if he had to do it all again. “It was exciting, but terrifying at the same time! We were both 53 at the time, so we were determined to make it work. Though knowing what I know now, I would have gotten investors and started it with more money!”