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.