The way he tells it, Charles Ferri had always wanted to get back to the Hudson Valley and set up a top-notch distillery. The way there just happened to go through Oregon.
Ferri, who grew up in Hopewell Junction and graduated from John Jay High School, worked on Wall Street for a spell but made a name for himself out in the Pacific Northwest as the creator of Star Vodka. “My heart’s always been in the Hudson Valley,” he said, and he’s been “longing” to get back home, but five years ago, an opportunity for a partnership ended up with him founding Star Vodka out in Oregon, and building that brand into a success.
Ferri’s vodka is an “ultra-premium” product which drinks so smooth, he says, it should be served sans adornment or dilution (“neat, on the rocks, in a straight martini,” he suggests). The vodka is made from handpicked non-GMO corn from the Midwest, which is brought to Oregon, distilled with Cascade Mountain water and filtered five times through lava rocks before being bottled.
But always, he said, there was that homeward pull, to do what he did in Oregon — and more — here.
In October, Ferri closed on a 27-acre riverfront parcel on Route 9W in the Town of Esopus that was subdivided from a 117-acre piece once owned by the Christian Brothers. The part that Ferri bought contains a 19th-century building (the yellow one with brown trim used as a retreat by the order) and a more-recent brick structure.
Ferri, who’s appeared on the Esquire Network’s Lucky Bastards reality show, said he spent a year or so looking locally for the right spot for his enterprise, but it was his wife who happened upon it while taking a ride up 9W. “What is this? Stop the car!” Ferri said his wife said. “This is your dream. This is it.”
Ferri’s enthusiastic about the site’s future. It’s been rechristened the Star Estate and he’s working on turning it into what he’s calling a “destination distillery,” where he’ll produce whiskey and gin. The idea, he said, is to transform the place, which has spectacular Hudson River frontage, into a venue where people can come, stay at a boutique hotel, dine in a restaurant, sample the products in a tasting room, hang out in the fields where the ingredients are grown, hike trails on the grounds and generally immerse themselves in the craft-distilling experience.
Ferri likens what he’s trying to do to sites in Europe and California centered on beers and wines produced on-site. “Distilling hasn’t done the job of creating that for people — yet,” he said.
Ferri’s venture would join a growing cluster of Hudson Valley distilleries, including Tuthilltown Spirits in Gardiner, Dutch’s Spirits in Pine Plains and Coppersea Distilling, right up the road in Ulster Park. Ferri thinks it won’t be so much a competition thing as a synergy thing, with the various enterprises, including our already-healthy local beer and wine infrastructure, having the collective effect of drawing a larger crowd. “We can all help each other,” Ferri said. “It will lift everyone in the area and their stuff is going to lift ours.”
“I think it’s a fantastic proposal,” said Esopus Town Councilman Kyle Barnett. Ferri began talking with the town while the late John Coutant was supervisor, and said Coutant was a big early supporter of the plan. “[Coutant] was my number-one fan,” said Ferri, who added that he’s been impressed by the enthusiasm town officials have shown.
“I think it complements the type of businesses that we’re looking to come to this town, like the hospitality industry,” Barnett said. “I think this town has a lot to offer in terms of natural resources and I think there’s a tremendous opportunity here for businesses like Charles’.” Barnett, who said the project is moving toward final site plan approval, noted the property hadn’t been open to the public for at least a decade and that it would be a plus to again have it available for activities like hiking.
The money end of it
Like pretty much every other endeavor in this great land of ours, Star Estate would remain just a dream without the financing. Key to getting that together, said Ferri, was the Lakehurst, N.J.-based real-estate funding company Alpha Funding Solutions. “They really stepped up,” said Ferri. “They moved quickly — there were two other offers behind us.”
“We’re like the primordial soup of the investment world,” quipped Alpha Funding Solutions President David Hansel in describing his firm, which has about $75 million worth of loans out on the street and lends in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut. “We seek to find borrowers that have a project that may not be financeable through a bank for various reasons — timing-related issues, or a bridge to get past, like getting approvals for something to be done on the property, or there’s a large development piece to it and you can’t get that kind of leverage from a bank,” said Hansel, who noted that Alpha Funding is lending the money but not taking a partnership stake of the project. “We can come in, and based on the underlying asset value, the borrower’s ability to navigate a project from point A to Point B and get it sold or refinanced, we can come in and get it closed in under two weeks to help them acquire that project.”
Ferri “has a great business plan,” noted Hansel; Alpha lent $487,500 toward the total purchase price of $582,000. “[Ferri] got a very good deal on it.”
Hansel said Ferri’s success with Star Vodka, as well as a previous gig running a nightclub out in the Hamptons, helped his case in getting the loan. “We were able to get comfortable with the project because [Ferri] has a really good plan in place. He already had his operation up and running out west, and other partners involved as well, so he had a couple people party to the loan that helped us get a little more comfortable,” said Hansel, who added that he thinks the site’s closeness to New York City will be a big plus. “And we believe that the value of the land and the property was considerably more — he was buying it at a nice discount and there’s opportunities to do other things with that property had this plan not worked out. … All these little intangible pieces, when you put them together they build a comfort level with it,” said Hansel. “I think he’s got a very good shot.”