The newest in a growing collection of local distilling pioneers is Hudson Valley Distillers in Clermont, near the Dutchess/Columbia County line. Set to open April 1, it will be offering a vodka made from apples, an applejack and a white whisky to start, then will branch out to other products like an aged whisky, gin, rum and eaux de vie (clear flavored brandies).
Co-owners Tom and Jennifer Yozzo and Chris and Jennifer Moyer are longtime close friends who had intended to go into business together for years. They toyed with various ideas for a grand project to undertake once Tom retired from his law enforcement career in Newburgh, and they finally settled on the boozemaking biz.
The nine-acre farm that is the distillery’s home sits across Route 9 from Tousey Winery. On the site of the former nursery Thunderoc Farms, the renamed Spirits Grove Farm includes a farmhouse, outbuildings, four acres of apple orchards and a hundred-year-old sheep barn that the Yozzos and Moyers have been renovating since July to house the distillery and tasting area.
Inside the cavernous-yet-cozy space of the barn is a huge, gleaming still of silvery stainless and copper, which contributes to the purity of the finished products. A chubby orb much like a overgrown teapot connects to four flutelike towers stretching to the ceiling, all different heights, girths and numbers of distilling plates, each custom-made to the filtering requirements of various liquors.
Yozzo showed me a smaller still nearby, dwarfed by the big one, but impressive nonetheless. It’s the original, home to their first distillations. “This is where it all started,” he said.
Since Arabic scholars first fooled around with the distillation process in the first century, trying to create more potent brews than beer and wine, which are naturally fermented, mankind has been making liquor. In the last few years, several craft distilleries have popped up around the Hudson Valley, and the area is beginning to get a reputation for being a destination for fine artisan liquor. Much like the craft beer movement has gained momentum in recent years, the craft hooch business is burgeoning; and the hope is that the Hudson Valley will be known for it, like an Eastern Napa Valley for fine liquors.
Whiskies start with corn and malted barley, and Hudson Valley Distillers is all about local, using a heritage barley grown nearby. In the malting process – which is also used for beer – raw barley soaks, is dried and then germinates. “We lie to it to make it think it’s spring,” explained Tom, “and it sprouts.”
Sugars and starches from the barley ferment with the help of special yeasts, creating a wash of seven to ten percent alcohol. The Yozzos and Moyers showed me a couple of tubs full of the bready-scented liquid that would grow up to be whisky – one with a local yeast. Once fermentation occurs, the mash is heated and its vapors are collected at the top of the still, where they cool, condense and drip down. The distillation process can be done once or twice or even more; then, at this point, some liquors may age for a while.
Cooperage was a lost art, but is now enjoying a renaissance, Tom told me, which means that barrels of local woods like chestnut or birch are being constructed to hold and flavor maturing liquors. Hudson Valley Distillers’ clear, unaged whisky will be called Chancellor’s White Whisky (after founding father Robert R. “The Chancellor” Livingston), and then later the aged version Clear Mountain (after Livingston’s estate, Clermont). Labels are currently undergoing the legal approval process.
Also in the restored barn is a Founders’ Room for the 20 people who helped fund the project, so that they can have their own space for gatherings and events. Currently the space is hosting, keeping warm and providing light for a collection of young flavorful plants, like hazelnut, mandarin, tangelo and yuzu, an aromatic Asian citrus fruit of which the distillers will use the zest. There is also sugar cane, and if it does well, the Yozzos and Moyers plan to create a rum that will be the only one in the Valley made with local ingredients.
Products from a small distillery like this aren’t consistently identical every time, they told me. Like wines, these small-batch liquors will have characters that change and evolve year to year. But all ingredients will be local, with no pesticides used in the orchards. They hope to grow everything that they need on-site, with cornfields for the whisky mash to the gin botanicals in the greenhouses.
This fall they will create 1,800 square feet of event space just outside the barn, and they plan to host events and live music. “Our goal is to be a destination spot,” said Jennifer Moyer. “People can make a day of it.”
Hudson Valley Distillers’ products will be sold in local farmers’ markets, with tastings at the distillery planned for Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 1 to 6 p.m. plus by appointment. The address is 1727 Route 9 in Clermont, and the phone number (518) 537-6820. You can keep up-to-date on the opening via the Facebook page (look for HVDistillers) or Twitter (@HVDistillers), or look at their website at www.hudsonvalleydistillers.com.