It’s high time for local spirits

The distilling room at Tuthilltown Spirits. (photo by Wilson Bilkovich)

The distilling room at Tuthilltown Spirits. (photo by Wilson Bilkovich)

There’s a growing industry in the region that’s very good news for independent wine and liquor stores. Check out their shelves and you’ll find hand-crafted, artisan-style spirits of every sort. Tuthilltown Spirits in Gardiner, which had a recent fire contained in the distillery, led the way in 2005, creating vodka from apples left over at nearby orchards. They’ve expanded into an award-winning bourbon made from local grains, leading Whiskey Magazine to name Tuthilltown Craft Whiskey Distillery of the Year. Tuthilltown also makes rum, absinthe, bitters and cassis.

At Delaware Phoenix distillery over in Walton, distiller Cheryl Lins is making small batches of exquisite absinthe and rye, bourbon and corn whiskey. It’s a one-woman operation, with Lins not only creating the spirits but delivering them, too.

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Hurley Ridge Wine and Spirits in West Hurley didn’t have any Delaware Phoenix products. “We can’t keep them on the shelves,” owner Carol Matthews said.

A small tasting area at the back of the store was lined with bottles of other New York-made spirits Matthews called “just outrageous!” Her first offering was Greenhook Ginsmiths’ Beach Plum liqueur, made from Long Island beach plums (which leads to worries about the outlook for future batches after Hurricane Sandy). Matthews described it as unlike anything she’s ever tasted. Light, flowery and crisp, it tasted, as Ray Bradbury once described dandelion wine, like “summer in a glass.”

“The trend is definitely toward more artisanal, local distilleries,” Matthews said. “The Hudson Valley is perfectly positioned to supply local distillers with the local products they need. If they need corn, they can get it in Stone Ridge. For vodka, the base source is apples. They’re taking local produce and creating something unique, something people don’t mind paying $45 or even $85 a bottle for.”

The trend is a shot in the arm for the wine and liquor stores, which have had to deal with a client base that is steady but spending less. “We’ve adjusted our buying,” Matthews said. “Our customers who used to pay $17 to $35 for a bottle of wine now don’t want to pay more than $15. We’re finding good wines for them at that price. But these locally made artisan spirits are ones they’ll pay for because they’re something really special.”

Jordan Balsamo, who with his wife Suzanne owns Partition Street Wine Shop in Saugerties, had a simple response when asked if he stocks local distillers’ products. “As many as I can get my hands on!”

A problem, Balsamo said, is that small distillers don’t have a regular distribution chain. That means he may run out, or he may have to go pick up product himself. “Cheryl Lins has done three tastings here,” he reported. “She’s going to do another. I can’t keep it on the shelves. I have a waiting list for her rye.”

Balsamo said Harvest Spirits in Valatie makes a wide variety of high-quality spirits, including whiskey, vodka and pear brandy. “These distillers are bringing us specialty customers; people who come in to find a novel product, but who also buy a less expensive daily drinker. Tuthilltown, for instance, is $42 for a half bottle. They’ll buy it, but they’ll buy a second bottle for everyday.”

Matthews points to a hard cider made in Warwick; “Oh, my god, they’re spectacular,” she said effusively.

For instance, there’s a sour-cherry liqueur which she says is missing only the pit. “They’re extracting the best of the best, the sweetest flesh closest to the skin. You can do that when you’re making small batches. And they’re not afraid to be cutting-edge.”

The featured product on the tasting bar was from Atsby, a line of infused vermouth made by a young downstate distiller, which Wine Enthusiast magazine gave top billing to in its September issue on new vermouths. Here’s a breathless description from the magazine of one of its uses: “Atsby Armadillo Cake: This vividly named New York-based newcomer uses Long Island Chardonnay as the base wine and Finger Lakes apple brandy as the fortifying spirit. The mellow amber version is sweetened with dark caramel made from muscovado sugar and spiked with cardamom, wild celery and shiitake mushroom — unusual flavorings indeed.”

Matthews said she tells people to reserve comment until they’ve tasted them. She offers a sample “These don’t taste anything like anything you’ve ever had before,” she explained. “It’s an entirely different experience. I wouldn’t mix them with anything. Just a glass, a single ice cube and a swipe of lemon around the edge of the glass. That’s all.”

Sampling provides another advantage for smaller distillers. “They don’t have any problem leaving us a bottle to use for samples,” said Matthews. “And that’s what sells these. Once you’ve tasted it, you understand the difference.”

Matthews said that Atsby is going to be featured on an upcoming edition of “The View” on TV. Her store is going to be mentioned as one of the places you can find it, she said.

“People don’t understand how important it is to buy locally,” she said. “If we can just get people to get off their computers and get out to their local stores, not only do the businesses benefit, but the sales-tax dollars stay in New York. It’s good for everyone.”

Liz Elser at New Paltz Wine and Spirits saw a bump in people looking for local products during the holiday season.

“Tuthilltown, of course,” she said, “because they were the first and they’re right down the road from us here. But Warwick Valley Winery has a gin and a bourbon, and Green Hook Ginsmiths in Brooklyn are making an incredible reasonably priced gin.”

Matthews sees small distillers as her opportunity to enhance her store’s reputation as a place to find the unusual. “We’ve always been known for this. Everyone here is not afraid to put things in our customers’ hands that they might otherwise have walked by.”

She’s thinking of setting up a special display highlighting local products. “There’s been an explosion of these amazing new products, perhaps because in this economy people had to find other ways to make a living. But the results are these incredible products and an opportunity for a shop already known for an interesting selection.”

If spirits, at least, we appear to be entering the age of the artisan. “I think it’s high time,” Matthews said.

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