“Let’s party like it’s 1759!” was the tagline of the Robbie Burns Supper/Celebration hosted last Sunday by the Hudson House Distillery in West Park. While the event’s new venue was built about a century later than the birth of Scotland’s national poet – it was the mansion of Archibald Russell before passing into the Durkee family (of spice fame) and becoming a Christian Brothers monastery in the 1920s – the freshly renovated front dining room and adjoining sun porch provided a warm and cozy atmosphere for this traditional annual gathering.
The very first Burns Night honoring the poet’s memory took place in 1801, on the fifth anniversary of his death. Nowadays it’s more common to hold them on or near his January 25 birthday. They happen all over the world, and have been going on in the mid-Hudson for more than a decade. But longtime host James Chapman has relocated farther north and no longer runs the Rhinecliff, where the last local Burns Supper took place in 2020 just before COVID struck. Following its soft opening in the summer of 2021, the Hudson House was poised to jump into the breach.
But it’s more than the building’s 19th-century vibe that makes it a perfect match for a Burns Night. Hudson House proprietors Charles Ferri and Paul Seres acquired the property with the intent not only of creating a wedding and events venue with a stunning Hudson River view, but also of distilling high-end spirits that would help shape this Valley as a distinctive terroir. Their pioneer in that campaign was Ralph Erenzo, founder of Gardiner-based Tuthilltown Spirits and Hudson Whiskey and a tireless advocate for the reform of outmoded laws that had stymied farm-based distilleries and cideries in New York State since the Prohibition era. To design and run the distilling part of their operation, Ferri and Seres had recruited Ralph’s son and “brand ambassador” Gable Erenzo.
Gabe’s sudden and tragic death last April from thoracic aortic dissection occurred the day before he was supposed to report for full-time work at the Hudson House.“It was a gut punch when this happened. All three of us wanted to build this place together,” Ferri said at the Burns Supper. “We’re indebted for what he did for us.”
To honor Gabe Erenzo’s memory, Ferri, Seres and the Robert Burns Scottish Society of the Hudson Valley, Inc. – whisky-fanciers all, of course – established the Robert Burns Scholarship Fund, an annual scholarship supporting the study of distillery sciences. They also decided to confer an annual Distillery Leadership Award to some Hudson Valley-based individual trailblazer in the field, to be awarded on Burns Night. The inaugural awardee was Ralph Erenzo himself.
“Ralph and Gable have been friends to and supporters of the Robbie Burns Supper since we started in 2009,” said event “mastermind” David Archer of DA Associates PR. “With all that Burns wrote about whisky and the fine traditions that Scotch and whisky have inspired, and given the current circumstances, it only seems appropriate this year to create this honorary Distillery Award and to honor Ralph and Gable.”
On account of the post-holiday spike of the Omicron variant of the COVID virus, the celebration of Burns Night was rescheduled from its original January date until February 25, and then postponed yet again due to Friday’s snowstorm. As a result, Ralph, wintering in Florida, was unfortunately unable to attend in person. His brass plaque was accepted instead by two of his siblings, Jim Erenzo and Katherine Erenzo Redwine.
Redwine reminisced about waiting for a train with her brother Ralph, who first moved to Gardiner because he loved rock climbing in the Gunks: “I remember him scaling the side of the train station,” she said. She also noted that the failure of his initial plan to open a campground for climbers, Bunks in the Gunks, “was best for the whisky world,” because it ultimately led to the brainstorm to found Tuthilltown Spirits. A bottle of 26-year-old Scotch with a $500 value, donated by Viscount Wines & Liquor in Wappingers Falls, was then put up for auction to raise money for the Robert Burns Scholarship Fund.
Aside from the awards ceremony, the choreography for the event mostly followed the traditional order of business for Burns Nights worldwide. The master of ceremonies, storyteller Jonathan Kruk, welcomed the crowd and recited the blessing known as the Selkirk Grace:
Some hae meat an canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
And sae the Lord be thankit.
Resplendent in his kilts and plaid, bagpiper Jeremy Freeman paraded through the two dining rooms “piping in the haggis,” followed by a recitation by actress Elaine Llewellyn of Burns’ famous ode “Address to a Haggis.” At the beginning of the third verse, “His knife see rustic Labour dicht, / An’ cut you up wi’ ready slicht,” the venerable “chieftain o’ the puddin-race” was slit open in the customary manner, eliciting a sigh from the assembled celebrants.
Immediately following the awards ceremony, a buffet dinner was served in an adjoining parlor, featuring traditional Scottish dishes: cock-a-leekie soup, beef stew, “neeps an’ tatties” (mashed turnips and potatoes), a green salad and for dessert, shortbread with a tangy lemon sauce. In the British Isles, they’d say “pudding” rather than “dessert,” but the literal pudding – thin slices of the haggis – came afterwards, along with drams of the Hudson House’s own Black Creek Empire Rye in lieu of actual Scotch single malt for the toast to Burns’ memory. Though its composition – minced heart, liver and lungs of a sheep, onion, oatmeal, suet, spices, salt and stock, steamed inside a sheep’s stomach – may sound off-putting to the uninitiated, haggis has a pleasantly savory taste and texture, surprisingly similar to pâté.
The event was interspersed with renditions by Freeman of Scottish pipe and fiddle tunes, among them “Mason’s Apron,” “Scotland the Brave” and “Bonnie Hielan’ Laddie.” The climactic Burns toast was a prolonged affair, with Kruk and other attendees reciting snippets of classic poems, including “To a Mouse,” “To a Louse,” Of A’ the Airts” and “A Man’s a Man for A’ That.” Kruk quoted “A Red, Red Rose” to serve as the traditional “Address to the Lassies” before engaging the entire crowd in singing “Auld Lang Syne” in unison to wrap up the evening’s entertainment.
With any luck, the 14th annual Robbie Burns Supper/Celebration will be back at the Hudson House Distillery in January 2023, with pandemic restrictions well behind us.