Craft Distilling's Final Frontier: Bourbon

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There are no rick houses at Tuthilltown Spirits, located just outside New Paltz, New York. There are no racehorses bucking in a nearby field. And there's certainly no bluegrass.

Yet this small operation produces the only commercially available bourbon made entirely outside of Kentucky. In fact, all the ingredients come from farms within a few miles of the distillery.

Whiskey is one of the last frontiers in the craft distiller world, for obvious reasons. It takes years to make and expensive real estate to store, and it has to meet extensive federal regulations simply to earn the name. No wonder most distillers opt for vodkas and brandies.

Tuthilltown, though, got lucky. In 2001 Robert Erenzo bought a collection of buildings surrounding an old mill, planning to open a hostel for climbers headed to the nearby mountains. But the mill is located in a relatively dense patch of suburbs, and the idea of hosting rowdy outdoorsmen ran afoul of the neighbors.

A little while later Erenzo was approached by Brian Lee, an engineer who had heard about the mill and wanted to use it to grind flour for bread. But he blanched at the site of the mill's ancient grinding stones, which could produce in a day just a fraction of what a modern machine can churn out in an hour. Lee was about to leave when Erenzo proposed a compromise: I've got space, you've got an interest in grains. We're surrounded by farms. Why don't we distill something instead?

The mill, it turns out, was located in the middle of New York corn country, with an ample supply of vodka-ready apples at a farm down the road. And the water, if not exactly the naturally filtered stuff that bubbles up through Kentucky limestone, was extraordinarily clean. Even more luck came when, a few months later, the state of New York slashed the price for a distiller's license from several thousand dollars to a few hundred.

A couple of years later, Tuthilltown turned out its first bottle of whiskey, and it's been expanding its line ever since—to rum, absinthe, and white dog, as well as wheat, oat, rye, and single-malt whiskeys alongside the vodka and bourbon. Behind the parking lot is a small field with the beginnings of a hop garden—the fruits of which will be used to make a hopped whiskey.

But Tuthilltown's success isn't just about luck. Like Virginia's Copper Fox Distillery, it is able to do a viable business because it uses a few tricks to age its bourbon quickly. For one, the whiskey goes into small, narrow barrels, which increases the surface area to volume ratio and, according to the distillers, allows them to cut the aging process in half.

Another trick is to place speakers among the stacks of barrels in the storage room and blast rap music at night—a process, they say, that gently agitates the liquid and creates a mellower flavor faster (a few other distillers use a similar process, most notably South Korea's Busan in its Clean No. 1 soju).

Jacob Beam is rolling in his grave for sure, but who knows? What's exciting about Tuthilltown is that, like a craft brewer, it's mastering traditional methods and then tweaking them, taking chances that big, old producers neither need nor want to risk. Hopped whiskey? Why not? Oats? Sonic vibrations? Sure. It might not work, but even the image of innovation is itself a good investment.

Of course, to coin a phrase, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. So does Tuthilltown stand up? A few years ago I bought a bottle of their Four Grain Bourbon, made with 60 percent corn alongside an equal share of wheat, rye, and barley. It tasted like Cheerios drenched in vodka—not, by the way, the worst flavor in the world, though hardly the mark of a quality whiskey.

But Erenzo & Co. seem to be getting the hang of it. The whiskeys I sampled at the distillery still tasted young and fiery, but there was also more complexity to them. I was particularly enamored with their white dog corn whiskey, which was surprisingly easy to drink and came with some pleasant grapefruit and floral notes.

I didn't get to sample their entire range of products, thanks to the vagaries of New York distillery laws—a tasting room can only offer products if at least 80 percent of their ingredients come from inside the state. So the corn whiskeys were in, but the absinthe—there's no wormwood in New York—was out. The vodka was in, the rum was out.

Fortunately, Tuthilltown's products are getting easier to find along the East Coast. My brother even found a bottle in Nashville (one hint: since the bottles come in 375-milliliter sizes, they're often stored behind the cash register, so be sure to look there). They're not cheap—at $35 to $50 (depending on where you live) for just over a third of a liter, they're among the most expensive bourbons on the market.

On the other hand, these are high-quality quaffs, and truly handmade, in an era when even the highest-end liquors are the product of international conglomerates. Tuthilltown may not have the scenery of a Bluegrass State distillery, but its products can stand beside whatever Kentucky has to offer.

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Clay Risen is an editor at The New York Times, and is the author of A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination. He has written for The New Republic, Smithsonian, and The New York Times Sunday Magazine.

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