We tend to associate abbeys and monasteries in medieval Europe with the preservation of literacy, learning and culture, picturing monks who labored away for decades, copying ancient manuscripts by hand. But those scholastic communities also had to support themselves through agriculture. From their harvests, they made wine and beer, and encouraged laypeople to drink them as safer alternatives to dubious local water sources, especially during times of plague. Drawings survive of three breweries operating in 820 AD at the Monastery of Saint Gall in Switzerland. The Benedictine and Jesuit orders became expert winemakers, and a Franciscan monk, Fra Junipero Serra, planted California’s first vineyard. It was a Benedictine, the original Dom Pérignon, who invented Champagne in 1715, reportedly exclaiming that he was “drinking stars.”
The recipes for stronger liquors also evolved in monasteries – originally as herbal tinctures and tonics intended for medicinal use, as religious orders of the day trained their initiates to be apothecaries. Whisky was invented by medieval Irish monks, who shared it with their Scottish brethren. The makers of the herbal liqueur Bénédictine DOM claim that it was created by an Italian Benedictine named Dom Bernardo Vincelli in 1510. The most jealously guarded liqueur recipe of all, Chartreuse, dates back to 1605, requires 130 different botanical ingredients and is only entrusted to two living Carthusian monks at a time.
To this day, “monk-to-table” beverages remain highly prized. Many monastic wineries are still in operation, mainly in Burgundy and Champagne. Andechs Abbey, where Benedictine monks have brewed their namesake beer since 1455, is one of 24 Benedictine breweries remaining in Germany. Trappist beer, still produced by 13 monasteries in eight countries, is a byword for quality control maintained over centuries. While more affordable iterations of Chartreuse are available at your local liquor store, the original “Élixir Végétal” version is sold for a pretty penny in vials of less than four ounces, and cocktail connoisseurs are willing to pay it to mix legendary recipes such as the Last Word.
So, the notion of transforming a former monastery on the banks of the Hudson River into a destination distillery, to be called the Hudson House, honors quite a venerable Old-World tradition. The two young men whose brainchild is currently being spruced up for public visitation are hardly the types to cloister themselves away, however. In fact, one of them, Charles Ferri, spent a year as a cast member of Lucky Bastards, an Esquire Network reality show about the New York City adventures of six wealthy bachelor bros, before he settled down to raise a family upstate. His partner, Paul Seres, has long been an advocate for the night life, as founder of the New York City Hospitality Alliance and the Responsible Hospitality Institute.
Both men have considerable experience owning and operating restaurants and night clubs. They became friends in 2007 after Seres, then serving on Manhattan Community Board 4 in Hell’s Kitchen, championed Ferri’s sale of his Star Lounge in the basement of the Chelsea Hotel. Ferri went on to run a nightclub in the Hamptons called the Star Room, while Seres was operating a rooftop lounge and restaurant on Delancey Street called The DL. They would run into each other at events, where Ferri would share his enthusiasm about getting into the distilling business in Oregon, where he manufactured the “ultra-premium” Star Vodka.
But Ferri, an East Fishkill native, always wanted to return to the Hudson Valley. He dreamed of establishing a craft distillery in a location so iconic and beautiful that it would become the perfect romantic site for weddings and galas. Seres signed onto the project, buttonholing potential investors while Ferri searched for the right piece of real estate. “I always wanted to create my own brand,” says Seres. “So, we started coming up here and looking at so many places.”
It was Ferri’s wife who finally spotted it one day while driving up Route 9W: a handsome Italianate brick building that had formerly been a Christian Brothers monastery. The 27 riverfront acres upon which it sits, with a spectacular view encompassing the Hyde Park train station and the Vanderbilt Mansion, were being subdivided from the religious order’s West Park estate and sold off. “The stars aligned,” says Ferri of their discovery. “It was meant to be.”
The process of purchasing the land and obtaining the necessary permits to bring their project to fruition took years, with many discouraging setbacks. In fact, several of their most enthusiastic local boosters died in the interval, including Esopus town supervisor John Coutant. Just last month, their plans were rocked by the sudden passing of Gable Erenzo of Gardiner’s pioneering Tuthilltown Spirits, whom Ferri and Seres had engaged to design and run their distillery operation. Another Tuthilltown alumnus, Kyle Trapani of Hillrock Estate Distillery in Ancram, will step into the breach.
Erenzo had already developed recipes for the Hudson House’s inaugural “expressions,” called the Founders’ First collection: Black Creek Empire Rye and Black Creek New York Bourbon. These spirits are already being aged in the Finger Lakes while Hudson House is made ready for operations. The distillery, housed in a basement of an auxiliary building that Ferri describes as “one step below bombproof,” awaits delivery of its boiler in July, but already boasts a handsome 2,000-liter Kothe copper pot still. The condenser and columns are situated in a space that was once a chapel, where, Ferri jokes, visitors will still be able to “pray to the spirits.”
The Christian Brothers’ former refectory in the rear building will eventually become a ballroom, and Seres and Ferri have constructed a huge new deck with a river view for hosting events. The front building, built in the 1850s as the mansion of Archibald Russell, passed into the Durkee family (of spice fame) and a new wing was added around 1870. The Christian Brothers bought the place in the 1920s and built the rear addition in 1933.
Some of the older parts of the building are already nearly ready to host events, including two lovely tasting rooms with parquet floors and carved wooden mantelpieces. A new bar has been constructed from beams of nearly extinct American chestnut that the partners found in the basement; they’ve created new windows in this gathering space that face the deck and river view. A charming enclosed sun porch connecting to the deck also looks out upon the Hudson vista.
Long-term, their plan is to develop the Hudson House in phases, adding a full restaurant kitchen in 2022 and eventually renovating the upstairs rooms to serve as overnight accommodations. An underpass under the railroad tracks provides access to the waterfront, where they plan to stage wedding ceremonies and welcome boat-tour visitors with a mobile bar. On the 9W side, a 70-space parking lot is now under construction. A new herringbone brick patio has replaced asphalt at the front entry, and they’re planning gardens and a fountain.
A soft opening will commence this summer, with a few private events already booked, to be catered by pop-up kitchens and food trucks. “We want everything to be as exceptional as it should be for a property like this,” says Ferri. “There’s nothing like this in the country – no waterfront distillery that has a wedding component.”