Former chief distiller at Tuthilltown Spirits opens a craft spirits consultancy business in Rosendale

Joel Elder, formerly chief distiller at Tuthilltown Spirits has recently opened a craft spirits consultancy called Quinta Essentia Alchemy. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

Joel Elder, formerly chief distiller at Tuthilltown Spirits has recently opened a craft spirits consultancy called Quinta Essentia Alchemy. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

Even when he was chief distiller at Tuthilltown Spirits, Joel Elder’s focus was always on the agricultural end of things. “I wouldn’t have been a distiller if it wasn’t for my background in agriculture,” he says. “And I don’t mean I wouldn’t have found that occupation, I mean that I wouldn’t have done it.” While most people probably enter the craft spirits industry through an enthusiasm for the product, Elder’s position at Tuthilltown was really the culmination of what he refers to as “an agricultural apprenticeship journey” that has taken him from one side of the country to the other in his quest to be “a direct and positive influence on agricultural practices in this country.”

Now after seven years at the Gardiner distillery, Elder has gone out on his own. But this time he won’t be the distiller; Elder is putting his experience behind Quinta Essentia Alchemy, LLC, his new craft spirits consultancy business based out of Rosendale. He’s already been doing some consulting in the industry informally since 2013, but has now left his position at Tuthilltown to pursue the new endeavor full-time. “My intention is to help people across the entire gamut of craft distilleries with a nod to cideries, as well, which are one of my main interests. I see the business as being everything from helping the nascent start-up navigate safety and federal and state compliance issues to working with the established business that needs help with product development or design aesthetics and marketing.”

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Or it might be the person who hasn’t yet launched a craft spirits business. “I’ll be available for anybody who needs a little advice and guidance,” Elder says. Entrepreneurs are often of the mindset to “get things done, move it along,” he notes, “and they need somebody to say, ‘Step back and look at issues like compliance.’”

And Elder says there’s no time like now to be working in this industry. “Small scale, hands-on craft distillation has really taken off in the past ten years, largely due to favorable legislation that’s meant to promote small agri-businesses; especially in New York.” He references the Craft New York Act signed by Governor Cuomo in 2014, which eased restrictions on craft beverage producers in the state and reduced costs for small manufacturers in order to promote sales of New York State-produced wine, spirits, beer and hard cider. “What we’re seeing is a tremendous explosion in the number of craft distilleries. I refer to it as ‘The Perfect Storm.’ You’ve got these two things, favorable legislation and interest by entrepreneurs, but that wouldn’t really mean much unless there was the customer who is interested in the provenance of their food, and by extension, their beer, wine and spirits. It’s been ‘a perfect storm’ of those elements coming together. There’s a precedent for craft distilleries with what’s happened with beer and wine, so it’s just the right time.”

Elder was inspired to start Quinta Essentia Alchemy after increasingly getting requests for business advice from small agricultural enterprises during the years he was at Tuthilltown, where he says, “I always considered being a preacher-advocate as one of my major roles at the company, although it’s one that was never part of my job description.”

Elder’s circuitous path to the Hudson Valley began when the Missouri native was living in Kansas City, Missouri in 2000. He took a job “just for fun” at a brewpub called McCoy’s Public House, moving from front-of-the-house positions to that of apprentice brewer as he became interested in the process of beer making. But while he had an appreciation for the handcrafted and enjoyed seeing the tangible results of his labor, he found himself with “this nagging question about sustainability” and a conviction that sustainable practices always came back to the agrarian.

In order to pursue this line of thought, he left the brewery to head west to Northern California, where he went to work on a small CSA farm in the Capay Valley, north of Sonoma. “That was at a time when a CSA was a new idea,” he says, “but I found out that while California agriculture is progressive, it’s very entrenched in its practices. And even though it was organic and they were serving a clientele that was conscientious, it still seemed like conventional agriculture with a different set of inputs to me, and I found that disheartening.”

But through the CSA he met a well known cotton farmer named Sally Fox [best known in the fiber world for introducing naturally colored organic cotton crops after she learned of the health hazards of textile dyes]. For Elder, Fox turned out to be one of the biggest influences on his life, he says. He lived in a trailer on her property in exchange for taking care of her horses, and, as he puts it, “She listened to my lamentations about this farm and how it wasn’t meeting my needs.” Fox introduced him to the concept of biodynamic farming; “Essentially that the farm is a living organism and you have to keep it healthy rather than treat its symptoms,” Elder explains.

“When I started investigating biodynamic farms, it seemed the vast majority of them were centered in New York and especially the Hudson Valley,” says Elder. “So I turned my attention this way and came to work at Phillies Bridge Farm in New Paltz. I’d had no conception of New York or interest in New York particularly, and I’d planned on staying one season and moving on to the next place. Instead I just fell in love with the Hudson Valley and wanted to stay here.”

While working as an intern at Phillies Bridge Farm, Elder came to the conclusion that he now knew what he wanted. “What I saw evolving at that point were value-added crops,” he says. “Instead of taking a farm product and selling it as a commodity, with all the difficulties that come with that, why not instead make a product with it that is shelf-stable and has a higher profit margin. And in the 21st century, it’s very much about self-branding and promotion, and that’s where I knew I belonged, in value-added agribusiness products.”

The very first day he began looking for such an opportunity, he came across one at Tuthilltown. Up to that point the distillery had been staffed only by Erenzo family members, owners of the business, and Elder turned out to be the first non-family hire to take it on as a career. “After a year they made me manager of the production operations and myself and Cathy Erenzo evolved the architecture of the business; we made sure the taxes got paid and that there was compliance with the government and we were doing everything by the book.” That led to Elder getting involved with research and development at Tuthilltown and becoming chief distiller there.

Elder took a philosophical approach to naming his consultancy business Quinta Essentia Alchemy, choosing a name that sums up his intention to be that positive influence on agricultural practices and to “foster more conscientious and healthy agricultural eco-systems.” The fifth element, explains Elder, or “quinta essentia,” is that ethereal, essential nature of something that goes beyond the four elements that ancient alchemists presumed the world to be composed of — fire, water, earth and air — and something greater than the sum of its parts.

Speaking of alcohol, Elder says, “Think about it… it’s clear, it behaves like water, but you can light it on fire… and that must have seemed like pure magic to early proto-scientists. When you can light something on fire that looks like water, it has got to encompass something other than that which is already understood; a fifth element. The proto-scientists questing after the fifth element were seeking the elevation of humanity, of the spirit. ‘Quinta Essentia’ implies striving to be the highest you can be, the elevation of the mind and spirit, your art and practice. It perfectly and succinctly encapsulates all of those ideas for me.”

More information about Quinta Essentia Alchemy, LLC is available at (845) 332-0936, joel@quintaessentia.co or www.quintaessentia.co.