New Paltz distillery makes whisky the old-fashioned way

Christopher Williams of Coppersea Distillery located at 239 Springtown Road in New Paltz. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

Coppersea Distilling, located at 239 Springtown Road just north of New Paltz, is not normally the sort of craft distillery that encourages lots of visitors with tours of the operation. Its small staff is simply too busy running the farm and making whisky the traditional way to show you around. Yes, there’s a tasting room at the roadside, called the Springtown Tavern, but it’s uninsulated and open only from noon to 7 p.m. Friday through Sunday in season. If you want to poke around and see where the malting, fermentation and distilling take place, there’s a sort of porthole that you can peer through. But this is a place for serious small-batch liquor manufacturing, not for tourism.

Last Saturday, July 27, was a rare exception, though. With tastings, live music from the Acoustic Medicine Show and a pig roast personally presided over by chief distiller Christopher Williams, Coppersea was celebrating the launch of a long-awaited new product: Excelsior Bottled-in-Bond Bourbon, aged four years. Like its two-year-old sibling, Excelsior Straight Bourbon, this spirit earns its name from the Great Seal of the State of New York by being made using New York State-grown ingredients exclusively. Even the casks in which they age are made from charred white oak harvested in the Adirondacks, constructed by a new cooperage — the first in the state since Prohibition — founded by Coppersea and an upstate partner.

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Both of the Excelsiors have a “mash bill” consisting of 60 percent corn, 30 percent rye and 10 percent malted barley. Most of the grain is grown right on the 75-acre farm, the rest sourced from other Hudson Valley growers, including Tivoli’s Ken Migliorelli. To qualify for the Bottled-in-Bond distinction, a whisky must be 100 proof, fermented and distilled within the same six-month season without ever having left the premises and aged at the same bonded distillery for at least four years. Established by a federal law passed in 1897 in order to protect the whisky industry from unscrupulous purveyors of adulterated products, the Bottled-in-Bond designation is difficult to attain and rarely used anymore. But, like seeing “mise en bouteille” on a wine label, it’s a guarantee of provenance and strict quality control, and can also be an indicator nowadays of spirits made in small batches.

Coppersea’s Excelsior Straight Bourbon was already a high-end whisky, delicious and complex, even if it is only 96 proof, aged two years and sometimes mixed from separate batches or seasons. Excelsior Bottled-in-Bond Bourbon takes that level of quality a quantum leap higher. “It packs a cherry punch, smoky and round,” said the Springtown Tavern’s Danielle Pustulka as she poured out a sample. And indeed, this beverage is something really special.

Then again, one could fairly say that about everything Coppersea distils; even its bottom-of-the-line blend, Springtown Straight Whisky, belongs on the top shelf in most any bar. There are several different types of rye whisky, each with a unique character. All of these potions are made using what Williams likes to call “heritage methods”: low-tech processes that predate the automation of the distilling industry at the end of the 19th century. “Our philosophy of distilling is very counterintuitive to how most distilleries work,” he said. “We wanted to get back to the weird, idiosyncratic stylistic oddities of American whiskies.”

The distillation process for all Coppersea products uses traditional direct-fired alembic copper pot stills, which Williams admits without shame are “inefficient.” That means significantly lower yields and higher prices, but the laborious process preserves the tiny traces of essential oils as the ethanol is separated from the water content in the fermented mash. “That .01 percent is where all the flavor comes from,” he explained. “It gives you an oilier, chewier mouthfeel, and the finish is much longer.” What you get in the end from all this TLC are spirits that express a definite provenance or terroir — a flavor stamp that marks these products as having been made right here, in the shadow of Bonticou Crag. Even the wild yeasts that make their way into the open wooden fermentation tanks are hyperlocal.

Coppersea is also extremely unusual in malting all its own grain, using a floor-malting process in which the corn, rye or barley is wetted down and repeatedly raked over a wooden platform. For most batches, the sprouted grain is then dried in a kiln and ground to a shelf-stable flour, which creates the toasty, nutty and woodsy notes found in many whiskies. But the distillery’s founder, the late Angus MacDonald, became fascinated by the “green malting” method used long ago by renegade tax-dodging distillers in Scotland to evade detection by the smoke of their peat fires. This approach involves grinding the green, wet, unkilned sprouted grain to make the malt, lending the finished product pronounced bright, grassy, herbaceous flavor notes. Coppersea manufactures two whiskies by this method: Big Angus Green Malt, using 100 percent barley, and Green Malt Rye. Though it would be sinfully wasteful to use such rare spirits as mixers, this correspondent could not help imagining adding a dollop of Big Angus to a Bloody Mary or even a bowl of gazpacho.

Closing the loop of on-site sustainability, Coppersea raises a rare heritage breed of pig on its farm, called Gloucestershire Old Spot, feeding the pigs on the spent mash from the distilling process. You can buy the pork thus produced at the Springtown Tavern, or enjoy it at a variety of farm-to-table restaurants in the Hudson Valley.

You can purchase the whiskies from this true grain-to-glass distillery by the glass at many local taverns and restaurants, or by the bottle from many local liquor stores, or online via the links on the Coppersea website at http://coppersea.com/online-retailers. Or attend their next Farm & Field Day event, happening from noon to 7 p.m. on Saturday, August 10.

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