Tuthilltown Distillery Tour and Tasting

Going back about a month, a great Christmas gift was bestowed upon me. It was a visit, tour, and tasting at Tuthilltown, “New York’s first whiskey distillery since prohibition.” Not all that far from NYC, this Hudson Valley distillery is a quaint operation, converted from a mill granary, that literally accomplished changing the NYS laws to allow farmhouse distilleries to serve and sell alcohol on the premises (with a few legal caveats — more below).

Upon arrival, we hurried to what is essentially a converted barn-stillhouse to catchup with the tour that had just started (they run two per day, one in the morning, one after noon). Ralph Erenzo, one of the two founders, was already educating the tour group, beside the mash tun, about grain acquisition and composition — two aspects of the Tuthilltown operation that they have painstakingly improved upon over the course of their existence.

At the inception of operations at Tuthilltown the most obvious way to acquire grains — rye, wheat, and corn — was to have it delivered from the distributor who bought it from local farms. Eventually, Mr. Erenzo and his partner, Brian Lee, discovered that they could buy the grain from the nearby farms directly, thereby reducing costs and creating a more dynamic and self-sustaning local economy.

Walking up the creaky stillhouse stairs we passed the framed document that had legalized the sale and sampling of liquour at “farm distilleries” in New York State, a feat accomplished through consistent lobbying from Erenzo and Lee. This enables the distillery to provide tastings and sell both bottles and casks (more on that in another post) directly to the customer. The restriction, though, is that all products offered on site must be entirely locally sourced (i.e. from New York), eliminating the possibility of selling or sampling the very popular Hudson Single Malt Whiskey since they have to import the malted barley from Canada. That’s right — there’s not much barley production in the US. This could change in the near future, however, given the rise in popularity of American single malt whiskeys…

And then prominently featured on the upper floor of the former granary barn are the stills used for their double distillation: one combination pot-and-column wash still and a smaller spirit still, both in beautifully smithed copper. After storytelling the process by which they hoisted the massive, $80,000 instruments up into the second storey of the barn, Mr. Erenzo explained, quite clearly, the process of making the still cuts — and how to “smell” the difference between the usable distillate, the foreshot, and the feints. Apparently, they take a fairly wide cut of the non-ethanol alcohols, giving Tuthilltown spirits their robust flavour and character.

To age most of their whiskey Tuthilltown uses smaller-sized barrels, thereby increasing the wood-to-whiskey ratio and reducing the amount of time necessary to age the spirit (much akin to the concept behind Laphroaig Quatercask). Another innovation that these folks employ is “sonic aging,” whereby bass vibrations from speakers excite both the spirit and the wood. This essentially replicates the natural “breathing” process of the barrel, upon which distilleries normally rely for absorption by the whiskey of elements in the wood and external environment.

The entire post-distillation process seems rather rudimentary; from capturing the spirit in the cask to bottling and sealing the final product, almost everything is done by the hands of their small team. And distillation at Tuthilltown is quite environmentally friendly, too. At the moment they are working on a system by which excess heat from the stills can be recyled to provide energy to run the operation. One curiosity of the still room is a small series of shelves holding about a dozen different bottles of whiskey, including Glenmorangie, Pappy Van Winkle, and a few others of interest.

After explaining the aging and packaging processes, Mr. Erenzo graciously entertained all kinds of ludicrous questions (e.g., can bourbon me made outside of Kentucky? …but of course), and then invited us back to the farmhouse/shop for a tasting session. There they offer the majority of their products for sampling (for a small fee), providing you with a complimentary Hudson Whiskey-engraved Glencairn nosing glass.

The delicious, 100% corn Baby Bourbon was one of the favorites, although I was particularly impressed with the unaged variant that they call Hudson Corn Whiskey (it’s like a prequel to the Baby Bourbon). Other remarkable expressions were the tasty Four Grain and the excellent Manhattan Rye. They typically have a rare release available under the moniker New York Whiskey, although that particular batch didn’t suit my tastes as much as the standards.

Behind the tasting counter, Ms. Luz Reid not only provided friendly conversation and healthy pours, but also very kindly offered to take this photo for me. And with that, we closed down the tasting session and headed out into the Hudson Valley night to find that cask of Single Malt whiskey that they had been aging for us…