Please tell me about your distillery's history and why you decided to go down this route.
I bought the property in Gardiner to build a "climbers ranch" for the rock climbers who visit the cliffs here. Most important climbing area in Eastern US, "The Gunks". No camping or bunkhouse facilities for climbers. The neighbours of the property I bought, 36 acres along the river, objected to the plan and hired lawyers and stopped me at every turn, for three years till I ran out of money, which was their plan. The local zoning officer told me that we are in a Farm district and had a "right to farm", and that a winery is a "farm use". I researched it and discovered the more interesting A-1 licence for small distillery NY had just put into effect, lowered the fee for a permit from $60,000 to $1000 for three years. Met my business partner when he wanted to buy the gristmill on my property and make flour. After a short stint with the milling team he decided he did not want to be a miller. He is an Electrical Engineer by trade. We looked into distilling and decided to throw in our lots together. He mortgaged his house, I threw in my property and we worked for three years to build it out, learn the trade and get our permits and still. In 2006 we released Hudson Baby Bourbon, the first bourbon ever produced in NY and the first whiskey made legally in New York since Prohibition.
Please tell me about your whiskeys
We make five grain whiskeys (well, in the US they're "whiskey" but in the EU not) from New York grains under the brand Hudson: New York Corn, Baby Bourbon, Four Grain Bourbon, Manhattan Rye and Single Malt. The Hudson line has been acquired by William Grant and Sons "Innovation" portfolio and is distributed worldwide. We continue to produce Hudson whiskeys at Tuthilltown. All are made by hand by our crew. Our local farms grow our grain for us. We produce about 1,000 proof gallons of whiskey a week. All is aged in new charred American (Missouri) white oak barrels coopered for us at BLACK SWAN cooperage in Minnesota.
How do you view the current state of craft distilling in America?
Craft distilling is the fastest growing segment of the alcohol industry in the US. In 2003 there were maybe three small distilleries in the US. Today there are four hundred and many applications pending and facilities under construction nationwide. Our facility, started in 2003, now employs 18 people. As with most other craft distillers, we sell every drop we make. State laws are being amended as a result of the aggressive lobbying of craft distillers who've teamed up with Tourism and Agricultural interests. Those efforts have resulted in an easing of arcane alcohol laws and the successful emergence of craft distilling as a social force which effects not only spirits interests but also agriculture, tourism, job creation and tax revenues.
Is it a force for good or bad?
It has the potential to produce positive effects on the economy by stimulating regional agriculture, increasing tourism activity, introduction of a new range of employment and return of a tax resource which was eliminated by Prohibition, excise tax revenue from spirits production.
The ACDA was set up recently and there seems to be an attempt by some distillers to stand apart from negative elements in the movement. What's your take on this?
The ACDA is formed to be the industry association for licensed DSP operators. The ADI has done a great service to the industry by coalescing the disparate elements of the emerging craft industry. The ACDA is taking it to the next step by being the voice of the licensed distilleries in the US. It's efforts will assist distillers who are engaged in regional or State lobbying efforts. It will be an information resource and a point of contact for the media as issues arise pertaining to alcohol production or consumption.
What effect have the new distillers had on established ones?
The effect is certainly not on their wallets. Except that they are having to introduce new product concepts and fund their introduction into the marketplace to keep up with the growing demand for new high quality crafted spirits. The major producers are hopping on the "craft" bandwagon, making claims about their production and products which mimic the authenticity of the stories of new small distilleries with far fewer resources to draw upon. Notice the increase in the new "single barrel" or "cask strength" or "pot distilled" whiskeys which have recently been introduced by the large players.
Are you appealing to new consumers and bringing new drinkers to the category?
Absolutely. We regularly hear "I never liked whiskey before, but this is so different." And that is the key to the success of the artisan distiller, variety and "new". The small distiller is also able to be more nimble and respond more quickly to market trends. The consumers benefit from the increased variety of high quality crafted spirits.
Tell me what the William Grant link means to you in terms of opportunity and distribution?
We were told, "Just keep doing what you're doing." The connection brings with it a great access to resources we could not have managed on our own. I'm not just referring to the international distribution network and deep corporate pockets which are brought to bear promoting Hudson, but also the depth of experience and industry knowledge, the scientific resource.
How important is it for American whiskey to be recognised as a category defined by Americans and recognised in markets such as Europe?
Try to convince a persnickety consumer bent on a bottle of whisky to buy a bottle of aged grain spirit instead. That's the problem American new producers face when they try to move their legal American whiskeys in the EU and must remove the word whiskey from their label because though it is legal in the US as whiskey, and it is explicitly recognized in EU law as an American spirit made under US regulations and sold as whiskey throughout the US, our legal young whiskey may not be sold as whiskey or whisky in the EU unless it meets the EU aging requirement. That is NOT recognition. Both Scotch and Irish whiskeys are specifically exempt from the US new charred oak rule as it applies to every other country in the world (including the US) producing malt whisky or Single Malt Whisky. So the EU market is closed to whiskey makers in the US making young legal American whiskeys; and the US market is closed to all producers of malt whisky in the EU which are not exempt from the new oak rule. Non-Scot and non-Irish producers may send their whisky to the US but may not refer to it as Malt Whisky or "Single Malt Whisky" though they make it exactly the same way as the exempt countries do. We think both the EU and the US should amend their regulations. The US should broaden the exemption to include all EU producers of malt whisky. And the EU should fully recognize American Whiskey in its legal entirety and permit American producers of legal American whiskey Types to call their whiskeys by their rightful name: Bourbon Whiskey, Rye Whiskey, Wheat Whiskey, Malt Whiskey.
Where is that battle and how optimistic are you about it?
The conversations have moved into the realm of International Trade Treaty negotiations among the various trade partner nations. An Atlantic Trade agreement is being composed now. This issue is on the table. The EU is adamant it will not eliminate the 3 year age requirement. The US is requesting full recognition of American Whiskey as a "Type" and exempt from the three year age rule; and the US is proposing the broadening of the exemption from the "new oak" rule for all EU producers of malt whisky. I am guardedly optimistic. It is the right thing to do for both parties: US and EU producers. I guess the real question is how much do EU producers want access to the US consumer for their Malt Whisky products and is that access worth going up against the powers that be in the EU whisky community which seems to believe the only way to protect the "integrity" of Scotch and Irish whiskies is to insist that everyone conform to the Irish and Scotch definition of whisky or whiskey whether or not you are producing an EU whisky.
What are your greatest hopes and fears about the new craft distilling movement not just in american but worldwide?
Hope is that the industry will continue to organize and address the inequities and artificial barriers to their success which are remnants of another time and other conditions. I fear there will be a shake out at some point, which of course is the natural course of a fast growing industry, but I think the strong companies making good product will rise to the top and survive and prosper. I would like to see craft distilling brought closer to its agricultural roots. And we are increasingly concerned about distillery safety among the small facilities with limited finances and perhaps a less than hyper critical attitude about safety in the distillery.
What will the next year hold for Tuthilltown?
We are working hard to bring our non-whiskey products to market. Our first ventures are our Orchard Gin from wheat and apples; and our Indigenous vodka from Hudson Valley apples. We are installing 1,500 cider apple trees on our field in a couple weeks which will be dedicated to our apple brandy project. And we will increase the number of unique products we make and offer only at the distillery shop to visitors.