Tuthilltown Spirits distills a new chapter
Photography by peter barrett
On the morning of October third, I arrived at Tuthilltown Spirits distillery to meet Edible editor Eric Steinman and Joel Elder (pictured above), chief distiller and head of research and development for the region’s preeminent producer of spirits. Tuthilltown has just released their first gin, which Eric thought would be an ideal subject to cover for this issue about essences.
But the story would not be so simple. About 10 days earlier an explosion and fire ripped through the converted barn distillery, blowing doors off their hinges and charring the vaulted interior of the arched barn that housed the stills. The cupolas that were built to accommodate the tall columns on the stills turned out to be a blessing, since they gave the fire and heat somewhere to go; though the stills were damaged—cracked glass, burnt gaskets, puddles of melted solder—they can be repaired.
Elder, visibly shaken, described the fire: “I was in my office when I heard the bang, and I saw that I had a narrow window to escape. There’s no reason that I wasn’t in the distillery, but if I had been, I could have been killed.” Another employee, working downstairs, was also unharmed. The force of the blast, even with the second story doors wide open, pushed an exterior wall out by a foot or more. Elder is making a virtue out of the disaster, seeing it as an opportunity to use Tuthilltown’s status as a micro-distilling industry leader to set an example for best practices moving forward. “The goal is to rebuild, not just as a phoenix story, but to share what we’re doing and how we’re doing it, what protocols we’re putting in place. It’s a devastating occurrence, but we’ll come out safer and better.” The barn-based operation, though quaint, “was an ergonomic mess. It was an obtuse way to design it, but it was a necessity because of the building. We’re going to build a new distillery, with a concrete pad, metal studs and a blowout wall, and segregate distilling from all other operations.”
With their inventory undamaged, they are hoping to not have any interruptions to the supply. Contacted recently for an update, Elder sounded upbeat. “Things are going quite well, actually. It looks like we should be rebuilt and operational within a few weeks to a month [about press time for this issue]. In fact, if we weren’t reliant on getting replacement parts from Germany [for the stills] it would probably be less than two weeks.” In the store, after touring the scorched distillery, Elder began pouring samples for us, pausing when he noticed the huge oak oar that had been used for stirring the mash, now charred and checked, leaning against the wall. Someone had moved it into the shop as an exhibit, a relic of the fire, to be hung on the wall at some point.
Tuthilltown, founded in 2003 by Ralph Erenzo and Brian Lee, was the first distillery in New York State since prohibition. Erenzo was instrumental in changing state law to allow farm distilleries—making possible their proliferation—and the company quickly distinguished itself for its fine barrel- aged whiskeys, both in New York and around the world. In 2010 Tuthilltown sold its Hudson Whiskey line to global mega-producer William Grant (a family-owned Scottish distillery that owns such brands as Glenfiddich). Tuthilltown still manufactures the Hudson Whiskey line, and the recipes are unchanged, but William Grant owns the intellectual property. Since the sale, Elder has been hard at work developing new products that express a regional identity while maintaining the local character as well as the highest standards for quality.
Elder, 35, combines a passion for experimentation with a determined focus on sustainable agriculture as the foundation of both the business and the quality of the products he makes. Originally from Missouri, after a stint in the Army and college he worked on both coasts before coming to Tuthilltown. His goal is to create a line of products that are as connected to this region as the great Calvados he tasted last year when he traveled to France as part of Glynwood’s Apple Exchange (See EHV Summer 2012). Besides the gin, a new vodka is in the works; the two original apple vodkas will be retired and replaced by one triple-distilled offering with a new bottle and label. “They were nice start-up products, but they don’t have the polish of the new lines,” Elder says. His excellent new cassis is now for sale, though the small production means that it will likely only be available at the distillery. The cassis was featured during Cider Week in October, since the cider kir (sparkling hard cider and cassis) became the official cocktail of the event.
Crafting Tuthilltown’s Hudson New York Corn Whiskey, part of the line sold to William Grant, taught Elder the importance of ingredients. “In general, American distillers are too lean, too aggressive with our cuts. The result, especially with corn whiskey, is really austere.” To balance that austerity, he uses an heirloom Indian corn called Wapsie Valley that imparts a buttered popcorn note to the whiskey’s nose. “The further back you go in the process, the more important it is, all the way to the grapes on the vine or the grain in the field.” Using heirloom grains also emphasizes the sense of place, making these spirits expressive of our region, which is a particular passion of Elder’s. The distillery also sells aging kits: bottles full of oak chips so you can watch the clear liquor turn amber and taste it as it picks up caramel and vanilla complexity over time; kind of a novelty, but an interesting experiment in flavor development. The team that works in the bottling plant below the store has developed bitters, also now available for sale. “They tried a ton of different versions, and settled on this one,” says Elder. “I like it; in general I find that most modern bitters are weak. They’re supposed to be the backbone of a drink, to add structure.”
Elder is also developing an apple eau-devie. His first batch was distilled from Farnum Hill cider, made by Steven Wood in New Hampshire; a batch had undergone malolactic fermentation (a secondary fermentation) so Wood gave it to Elder to play with. The new batch, also made with Wood’s cider, is a dramatic improvement, and Elder is excited about the joint venture: “We’re talking about co-branding and profit-sharing.” After four seasons of grafting old cider apple varieties—that make the best, most complex cider—onto their own orchards, Elder says they are only just getting a meaningful yield. The collaboration ensures sufficient supply, and it will be consistent. “The scions [a grafting from another apple tree] came from Steve, so they’re the same apples, but this gives us a head start.” The eau-de-vie promises to be worth seeking out; while it will be unaged, the sample Elder poured for us (out of a gallon jug with oak chips) was smooth and enticing. The traditional cider apples have bitterness and acidity that sweet table apples lack; they make a superior product, whether cider or spirit.
Tuthilltown’s Half Moon Orchard Gin is made from apples, like their vodka. “The idea was to build it around that, to make it evocative of apples and things people associate with apples, without being too literal,” explains Elder. The gin is clean and bright, with lots of citrus and a warm, spicy lower end defined by the cardamom, which alludes subtly to baked apples or pie. The word “gin” derives from the French word for juniper, genièvre, but here the juniper is understated rather than dominant, and the result is balanced and elegant.
Elder finds juniper-heavy versions to be less versatile: “I wanted it to be the full range, capable to mix any sort of cocktail.”
When developing the gin, Elder did separate distillations of all the aromatics, then blended them to see how they behaved together, gradually settling on a recipe. On the counter, a gin bottle—they’re tall, not at all like the iconically stout Hudson Whiskey bottles—is filled with neat layers of the gin’s aromatic ingredients: elderberry, coriander, cardamom, juniper, bitter orange and lemon peels, and almonds as a visual representation of what flavors each bottle of gin. Elder also uses bergamot, the flavor in Earl Grey tea, but only fresh: “Dried, it was disgusting.” He buys the fruit in season, zests it and then pickles the zest in 55 percent alcohol until it is needed. Not all of the components are for flavor, but they all contribute. “Bitter almond is fairly common, not so much for flavor but because it gives a nice creamy mouth feel. You see things made from fifty different herbs; old things I can understand because they were meant to be a tonic. Contemporary gin isn’t like that.”
This careful analysis of individual flavors explains the epiphany that led him to understand gin-making: “When I was doing the research, it quickly occurred to me that I was making perfume, which has base notes, top notes and fixatives.” New Perfume Handbook by Nigel Groom, considered by many to be the definitive text on the subject, was a helpful inspiration, albeit fragmented: unwilling to spend $200 on a copy, Elder read the excerpts available on Google Books and gleaned fragments from there to inform his process and experimentation. “Coriander and cardamom function really well as bridges, tying the other notes together like fixatives do in perfume,” he continues, describing the harmonious whole he was working toward, while keeping the number of ingredients manageable.
His somewhat minimalist approach to gin was inspired by an absinthe recipe he developed for a client. “You only need five herbs, and two are for color. All the rest are optional.” Absinthe also taught Elder a sensitivity to the diverse natures of plant materials, since leaves, seeds, fruit and flowers all require different handling to show their best. “It’s a really fine line to extract the desired qualities without getting vegetal, funky flavors.”
A principal challenge with gin is getting bright top notes while maintaining clarity (the aromatic oils can cloud the liquid, especially when water is added; Half Moon has a slightly bluish iridescence to it). Elder says he will need to start chill filtering the gin, to remove the cloudiness, because the market expects it to be crystal clear.
“Clarity was seen as a mark of purity, beginning with the Industrial Revolution and London dry gin, but it requires chill filtering, which strips out character.” There are unfiltered artisanal gins that make a proud point of their slight translucency, though, so one hopes that Tuthilltown can use the power of their status to try to move the market forward rather than succumbing to it, especially given their clear commitment to quality and the business they have built on it. His first attempt was distilled using the vapor over technique, where the aromatics sit inside a perforated container through which the alcohol vapors pass during distillation, but now they are macerated in neutral spirit and redistilled. Elder also plans to release a wheat gin, using lavender and cubeb pepper (a fragrant Indonesian pepper) and vaporization, shooting for a meadowy, floral flavor that will evoke a wheat field the way Half Moon does an apple orchard.
By the time you read this, Tuthilltown Spirits should be up and running with the new facility. Elder feels that the fire, and the new distillery that will spring from its ashes, will ultimately be good for the company and for the industry in general. “We actually intend to publish our methodology and present it at the American Distilling Institute conference in April. Hopefully we can convince enough of the industry to adopt it that it becomes the de facto standard,” since currently there is no definitive industry standard when it comes to distilling.
Gin has had a long history, from its murky inception in the Middle Ages and its codification in the 17th century to its refinement in the 19th and its artisanal apogee in the present. There has never been a better time to explore and enjoy spirits, and we’re blessed with some serious talent in the Hudson Valley region. So buy local, raise a glass and hope that from now on the only thing charred at the distillery will be the insides of the barrels used to age their ever popular bourbon.
14 Grist Mill Lane, Gardiner