Heritage distilling with Coppersea
Photographed by Peter Barrett
The Coppersea distillery burst onto the scene in 2012 with Raw Rye, a unique and compelling retro booze that re-created what 19th-century New Yorkers would have instantly recognized as whiskey. The popularity of Raw Rye, which surprised the folks at Coppersea as much as anybody else, quickly garnered the new distillery accolades and awards. Brisk demand delayed their plans to offer barrel-aged spirits as they scrambled to keep up. Now, with significant stores of whiskeys (including bourbon) and brandies aging in oak and a line of eaux de vie (a clear fruit brandy available in peach, cherry or pear) slated for release this winter, they are entering what might be called phase three of the operation, and it’s their most interesting evolution so far.
Coppersea is housed in a former printing facility outside New Paltz that more closely resembles a humble car repair shop than an outpost of artisanal excellence. Christopher Williams, distillery manager, stands six and a half feet tall (closer to seven if you count his conspicuous topknot) and is clad more or less permanently in Carhartt overalls. He runs the day-to-day operations along with former farmer, now distiller Sam Zurofsky: malting, kilning, mashing, distilling, bottling, labeling and delivering full cases.
Williams is animated when talking and almost always in constant motion on the job; when he sits, briefly, to fill a beaker with clear liquor flowing from the still for a proof test, he clearly savors the momentary repose. “The central philosophy of the distillery is that whiskey-making is overly complicated by technology. If you visit fancy distilleries, every piece of equipment costs more than everything we have,” says Williams, standing in front of the malt kiln they built out of plywood and a propane heater. “Plus our cars, plus our salaries. But the fact that we make award-winning whiskey on a shoestring budget bears that out.”
Grain-based spirits get the sugar required for fermentation from malt: germinated grain that has converted much of its starch to sugar to fuel sprouting. The key to the flavor of the Raw Rye is green malt—freshly made, not kiln-dried, which almost nobody uses because it’s so labor intensive—which imparts complex herbal notes that flirt with flavors found in tequila and gin. The distillery buys grain from several farms in the region, organic whenever possible, and their biggest source by far has been Ken Migliorelli of the eponymous farm in Tivoli.
“Ken does great work, and he’s determined to become a grain powerhouse in the Hudson Valley,” explains Williams, indicating the 20 tons of recently delivered rye in huge white supersacks lined up in the back room, which also serves as the malting floor. Floor malting, an ancient process of spreading out soaked grain, is essential to all of Coppersea’s distinctive spirits. “Most distilleries buy their malt, and it’s good, but it’s commodity grain with no terroir,” Williams insists, referring to the characteristics of geography and climate that are reflected in a single ingredient or food.
Williams waxes philosophical while raking a fresh batch with a bespoke malt rake he commissioned from a local metal worker. Regular raking keeps the rootlets in the individual grains of green malt from tangling together into a dense mat, which impedes drying and grinding.
After malting, the grain is kiln-dried for storage unless it is to be used green. In either case, before mashing, the grain gets ground up so it ferments evenly. For this, Coppersea has a motley assortment of vintage grinders; a 1920s meat grinder is best for damp green malt, while the coffee grinder circa 1930 takes care of corn. In the next room, which is a mezzanine above the still room, sit the two 500-gallon open-top wooden fermenters. The grain, malt and copious amounts of water get blended together, along with yeast, which metabolizes all the sugar from the malt into alcohol (the open vats allow native yeasts in the air to join the party). From the fermenters, it’s a short, gravity-powered trip down through tubing to the three hulking copper Portuguese pot stills sitting one floor below.
Angus MacDonald, the bearded, barrel-chested master distiller and co-owner (along with business partner Michael Kinstlick), was named after his great-grandfather, a gangster and bootlegger during Prohibition. Appropriately, MacDonald favors a Deadwood- era wardrobe of waistcoats, collared shirts and rimless glasses.
When he’s on the premises, he can often be found upstairs in a corner of the aging room that they’ve furnished in incongruously elegant antique wing chairs and a sofa, thoughtfully puffing his e-cigarette as he surveys the rows of barrels. That subtle cylinder of 21st-century technology ensconced in a scene that could otherwise easily be a picture from the 19th century serves pretty well as a visual analogy for the work they’re doing at Coppersea.
MacDonald came to distilling early, courtesy of the occasional jars of moonshine that circled the campfires of his adolescence in Woodstock. “I wanted to meet the people who made it, to watch the process,” MacDonald remembers. Over the years, he amassed an encyclopedic knowledge on the subject of distilling and spirits, both history and technique, that informs the products on their roster. He talks about how Scotch came to be, for example: “A bunch of smelly, barefoot Scots came down to a market in York and saw, say, a Danish apothecary making alcohol with an alembic [an ancient alchemy still]. They took the technique back with them, but to hide it from the tax man, they distilled on the sly in trenches they dug in peat bogs and covered with branches.”
“Right now it’s a farm in service of a distillery;
in a few years the distillery will be
in service of the farm.”
Thus was the smoky, peaty character of the world’s best whiskey born. Even barrel aging, now the necessity for most of the world’s great spirits, originated because booze needed to be transported over sea or land; wooden barrels that had previously held pickles or herring were charred inside to remove the offending odors and then filled with whiskey. By the end of the long voyage, an entirely different product emerged: mellower, more complex and with magical notes of caramel and spices from the burnt wood.
MacDonald is emphatic about the importance of direct-fired pot stills. “In a column [still], you get an equilibrium of rectification as volatiles stack up and you draw off what you want through valves at different heights. Column rectification is not a culinary process; it’s industrial, like a laboratory. It’s exactly like refining crude oil. Are you going to make a better curry by isolating capsaicin in a lab and adding it to the food? You’ll be missing all kinds of stuff, and certainly any sense of terroir.” Pot stills smear the volatile components; the bubbling mixes things up, and the vapors that escape contain some water, some alcohol and some impurities, but those impart character into the final product. There’s also a precise touch required when heating the mash with fire; MacDonald wants the flavors from pyrolysis compounds, the technical term referring to the combustion of organic material, formed by bringing the mash just to the edge of burnt but not quite crossing that line, much in the way a cook will brown a piece of meat to caramelize the surface but avoid burning it.
While the recipes are still evolving, and techniques can always be refined, the main challenges facing the Coppersea team now revolve around controlling the flow of ingredients that go into the still and the by-product that comes out of it. Beginning at the end, Williams says “It’s irksome that 90% of our product is waste.” Stillage, the watery mash left after every run, has no easy use and must be trucked to the dump and sprayed over the compost pile there several times a week in order to make room for the next batch. Finding a way to dry it out enough to compost it themselves, or to turn it into animal feed, is a top priority for the business as part of their goal of maintaining a sustainable footprint.
FARM TO BOTTLE
On the other end, as a logical continuation of their quest to control every stage of production, the Coppersea team recently bought a farm outside New Paltz, where Williams now lives with his family and where the team has begun trial plantings of various grains to see which crop performs best. Of the nine or so varieties of heirloom corn, a few have already failed, but others show promise. The 75- acre plot, formerly a horse farm, is now certified organic and being prepared for significant production next year. Williams describes how the farm is essential on several levels for realizing their vision for the business; their goal is of a closed loop, where the farm produces fruit and grain for the stills, and the stillage becomes compost and feed for animals. “Right now it’s a farm in service of a distillery; in a few years the distillery will be in service of the farm.”
Besides the grains, they’re also putting in a pear orchard, planted almost exclusively with old cider (technically “perry”) varieties, some boasting particularly evocative names like Normannichen Ciderbime, Butt, Brandy, Yellow Huffcap and Hendrick’s Huffcap. “Huffcap,” a word that begs for revival in contemporary speech, means a swaggering bully; it comes from a descriptor used for strong ale. The existence of this orchard, which should be online in the next few years, means that in the not-too-distant future you’ll be able to knowingly swirl a snifter and note, “You can really smell the Butts!” to your friends with a straight face.
Calvados, the French brandy from Normandy is the gold standard for all apple brandies, and can contain up to 30% pear in its mash. A sub-appellation pear-centric variety called Calvados Domfrontais must use a minimum of 30% pear, but according to Williams, “They say that no self-respecting producer uses less than a 100%.” It is this brandy, aged at least three years in oak, that MacDonald and Williams hope to revive once the orchard bears fruit in a couple of years. This summer was a difficult one for apples and plums in New York, so there was no slivovitz, the clear plum brandy that Coppersea had trialed in the past. Pears, however, performed well; eight just-delivered hogsheads of ripe brown Boscs stood grouped just inside the big roll-up door on a recent visit, waiting to be mashed after they softened up a bit more.
Besides the Raw Rye, an aged version of green malt rye is also available. Oak does fascinating things to the green malt rye; when the coolly herbaceous flavors of the green malt shine through the warm caramel character, the result resembles nothing so much as a summer mountainside at sunset, where the green trees receive the flattering orange sunlight and both complementary colors coexist in the same space simultaneously. The bourbon, tasted at about the same amount of barrel age, has not yet reached the place where the grain’s personality becomes fully embraced by the oak, but it has plenty of time before it’s released next summer. The eaux de vie will be out in time for Christmas; barrel-aged peach brandy will follow in 2015. The aged peach brandy, smelling slightly like bubblegum, nonetheless captures all the volatile and fugitive essence of perfectly ripe peaches— those nuances that cannot be otherwise retained, even in your grandmother’s jam—warmed and ramified by seven months in oak. There’s brightness and a vivid fillip to the flavors, like a very high-resolution image. It’s exciting stuff.
Coppersea ages all their spirits at 101 proof, or 50.5% alcohol. “A lot of places age at 110 or more these days,” Williams says, because it requires fewer barrels and thus saves money (higher proof means less barrel space occupied). But small choices like this at every stage can make a big difference in the finished product, since equal parts alcohol and water extract equal proportions of alcohol and water-soluble compounds from the oak. To illustrate, Williams pours two shots of Old Grand-Dad from their modest house whiskey collection of oddities and treats: one from a vintage bottle, made back when it was aged at 100 proof years ago, and another from today. The difference is remarkable; the older version is full, round and complex, while the new stuff is watery, with the flavor rising up after a few seconds.
All this talk of aging brings us to an exciting development, another in the lengthening list of firsts this tiny distillery has achieved: the procurement of barrels made in New York State from New York State oak. The inception of this new angle, says Williams, came via a serendipitous encounter: “We saw this guy delivering a sauna on the back of his truck, so we flagged him down and asked if he could do tight cooperage [referring to the process of wooden barrel making].” Thus was born Bob Hockert’s U.S. Barrel Company, based up in the Adirondacks, and which has begun producing 5-, 10-, 15- and 30-gallon casks for Coppersea. Their entirely New York bourbon—the first ever made since bourbon became an official designation—sits unassumingly in two small 5-gallon casks huddled beside the much bigger barrels in the aging room.
“Up to 75% of the flavors in an aged whiskey come from the wood,” Williams continues. “That’s why the barrels are so important. How local can it be if three quarters of the flavor comes from the Ozarks?” (Most American oak barrels come from Missouri.) Hockert, whose barrels are now much in demand, is lining up more sources for properly seasoned Adirondack oak; the wood needs to be dried outside, not in a kiln, so that native bacteria can take up residence in the wood and impart even more local terroir.
And that’s what all the work at Coppersea boils down to: conveying the personality of this place in the finished product. The farm, the floor malting, the native oak barrels and the many steps they take to create optimal flavors all serve their overarching goal of realizing the character of the Hudson Valley in distilled form. While the bottles and labels aren’t made locally (yet), much to MacDonald’s chagrin, the cardboard boxes come from Viking Industries in New Paltz.
“We want to make whiskey that’s not ubiquitous,” says Williams, grunting on the second syllable as he tips wet malt out of a cart onto the floor. “It should be an experience like you have when you’re traveling, and you stop in some village and there’s this weird dude who makes wine, and you have it with some of his cheese and charcuterie and it’s incredible, and you remember it forever. And you can’t get it anywhere else.”