tastes like the finger lakes

the still

Homemade hooch in my backyard

EVERY TIME I visit Finger Lakes Distilling in Burdett, New York, I find master distiller Thomas McKenzie hard at work downstairs. Today, in the shadow of the towering, twenty-foot tall copper still and surrounded by dozens of barrels that line the walls, Thomas is coercing the juice from blueberries with a hand-cranked wooden barrel press. His hands are stained a murderous blood red, and indigo streaks mark his face and shirt. He spies the photographer with me. “Don’t shoot my britches,” says Thomas with a southern accent that curls like molasses, “cuz I got blueberry juice all over ‘em.”

The air in the building is heavy with the lingering scent of fermenting corn mash. The pervasive, permeating presence of the aroma is much like a grandmother’s house that has a distinctive, comforting smell even when nothing is in the oven. I’m particularly excited about my visit today; I don’t know if Thomas and president Brian McKenzie (who has the same last name as Thomas, but is no relation) will agree, but for me their announcement this week is one of the most exciting since I first heard the rumors of the opening last July: They finally have a date for their bourbon release.

Finger Lakes Distilling renders me giddy. It’s not just the excellent liquor, made with local berries, corn and grapes. It’s the idea of a distillery in my own neighborhood. Though they are legally producing liquor, the thought of a still near the edge of the Hector National Forest feels thrilling and naughty, like smoking in the girls’ bathroom or, I imagine, growing marijuana hidden between tomato plants in your garden.

Though Finger Lakes Distilling is a classy venture, with architecture and tasting room décor inspired by the distilleries of Scotland, I can’t stop myself from calling their product “hooch.” Their business is the first of its kind in the Finger Lakes region to focus solely on liquor. Recently relaxed restrictions on farm distilleries, which allow farms to have tasting rooms, combined with the rising popularity of craft spirits have led to a growing trend in New York State: this summer, three more distilleries are slated to open in Brooklyn alone.

As the story goes, Thomas and Brian met three years ago at a distilling conference in Louisville, Kentucky. Thomas comes from a long line of distillers, but he’s the first to legally take on the task. His thick Alabama accent conjures up visions of a dilapidated backyard shed that houses a ramshackle still. You can almost taste Thomas’ family heritage in all of the liquors here, brought to life by Brian’s entrepreneurial energy.

Initially, the distillery released vodka and gin, both made from local grapes, and both of which won Best in Class at the 2009 New York Spirits Awards. The gin, which boasts complex anise and citrus notes, has been a big hit with the public. The wild berry vodka is a perfect addition to a glass of lemonade. They produced sweet liqueurs next (I recommend cassis and raspberry), followed by rye and then grappa. Most recently, the distillery released an exquisite cherry liqueur that tastes like the juice of fresh-picked sour cherries. In my house, we went through three bottles in two weeks (for educational purposes, honest), and I’ll be taking another half case home with me today.

What I’ve been waiting for, though, is Finger Lakes Distilling’s bourbon. Like Thomas, I, too, have a history in the world of booze:  I come from a long line of devoted whiskey-drinkers. My partner Leah and I have followed the progress of the bourbon with regular visits to the Distillery, as it aged in new charred oak barrels and then moved to second-hand chardonnay barrels from Lamoreaux Landing Wine Cellars. Our faithful visits have been rewarded with sneak-peek tastings, or perhaps I should call them teasings, since they have only served to feed our impatience. When we had our first nip eighteen months ago, the bourbon was so brilliant, smooth and rich that I asked then why they were waiting to release it. “It needs to a-yage,” Thomas answered in his drawl, speaking the word “age” with two syllables. “It’s gonna get even better.”

And it most certainly has. Sitting with Brian and Thomas on barrels that house aging spirits, I get to taste the bourbon a few weeks before its release. It’s more mellow now, rounded, with hints of butterscotch, toasted caramel and rye. This bottle will easily sit on the top shelf with Booker’s and Basil Hayden. I ask Thomas how he would describe it. “It tastes like bourbon,” he says and we all laugh. Then he elaborates. “It tastes like old-time bourbon.”

Thomas explains that in the last fifteen or twenty years, liquor has typically been distilled and aged at higher proofs than it was previously, which allowed producers to fit more in a barrel, in turn reducing storage costs. Instead of aging their bourbon at 115 or 120 proof, Finger Lakes Distilling chose to age it at 100 proof. Brian believes the way the spirit interacts with the wooden barrels is affected by the lower proof, thus resulting in a different flavor.

Thomas disappears for a minute and comes back with a tiny bottle. “Try this,” he says, pouring me a splash of the brown liquor. It tastes amazing, different than any whiskey I’ve had before, though I lack the words to describe how. “Wild Turkey,” he says. “Distilled in 1971, bottled in 1978.” I wouldn’t turn twenty-one for another thirteen years.

Finger Lakes Distilling bourbon is made with 70% corn, 20% rye and 10% malted barley. The corn is not a hybrid, nor is it genetically modified. It is local, open-pollinated corn, and organic, too, which Brian says results in a superior fermentation. Less than 300 bottles will be available, and they suspect it will sell out quickly.

I pose one more question to the guys before I leave. What, I ask, is the essence that haunts every spirit from Finger Lakes Distilling, whether the grape-based vodka and gin, the corn liquor, the rye or the bourbon? It’s a mystery, they tell me. Brian thinks it may be a flavor imparted from their still. “Terroir,” says Thomas and I make him repeat it and spell it. A term frequently used in winemaking, terroir (pronounced te-wa) is loosely translated from French as “sense of place.”

“It’s the flavor of the land,” says Thomas. I agree. Tastes like the Finger Lakes to me.

On May 1, the Distillery will release the eagerly-awaited bourbon. A 750ml bottle will cost $45. Live music will be provided by Long John and the Tights in the afternoon, and you get a free tasting if you wear a derby hat. Those who arrive unadorned can pay $2 for a tasting, which is credited back if they make a purchase. And if that’s not enough to bring you out that day, Thomas adds, “You get to talk with me.”

The tasting room at Finger Lakes Distilling is open daily from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. More information can be found at www.fingerlakesdistilling.com.

-Amelia Sauter




This will be me in forty years

ON THE EVE OF MY FORTIETH BIRTHDAY, I found myself in a Midwest hotel with a bottle of Hendrick’s gin. True, the hotel boasted a state-of-the-art fitness center, and my room had a fridge, but I was in the middle of Ohio, for chrissake, and furthermore I was in the company of a mob of conservative mini-van driving women with perfect hair, perfect makeup, and perfect wedding bands. It was the first time I celebrated a birthday alone, and I was surrounded by the type of women I always swore I’d never become.

Sitting on my king bed, I suspected I had made a mistake coming to this writers’ conference when I read the first line of the brochure: “Catholic in our faith, global in our mission.” My email in-bin provided a second unwelcome clue: my one-on-one session was scheduled with a man who worked for a publishing company that represented books with catchy titles like The Faithful and the Flawed, Your Phone Connection Vs. Your Prayer Connection, and The Trinity Diet. I cancelled my appointment. Someone overflowing with the holy spirit could have my spot.

At the registration table in the lobby, I was surrounded by what appeared to be suburban mommy bloggers and frumpy granny writers: the room overflowed with flat-ironed hair, penciled eyebrows and a disproportionate number of blondes. They all picked up their information packets and then sat down on the couches, meeting, greeting, chatting.  I hesitated. Should I join them, make some new friends? I thought perhaps I should hang out in the bar instead. Maybe I’d find the other degenerates in there, you know, the tattooed writers and socialists and gays with inappropriate senses of humor and foul mouths, the ones more than ready for a drink at two o’ clock on a Thursday afternoon. I changed my mind and hid in my room until dinner; if the bar ended up being full of drunken soccer moms, it could be a scary sight.

I used to insist I would age gracefully, that the phrase “plastic surgery” would never escape my lips, which would never be injected with collagen. During the height of my teenage soap opera addiction, I watched a character from The Young and the Restless, Katherine Chancellor, receive an on-air facelift. A written warning flashed across the screen, followed by scalpels, bloody flesh, heavy bandages and later, bruising. I was mortified that a beautiful woman would elect to have someone loosen the skin on her face with a knife and then yank it up like a pair of knee socks.

As I get older, procedures like laser skin resurfacing and facelifts no longer bring to my mind torture methods from old school horror movies. Rather, these treatments fall into the suspense or adventure comedy genre, like when I recently found myself engrossed in an older friend’s story about flying to Costa Rica for a bargain facelift. I was on the edge of my seat, asking, “And then what happened?”

“It was fabulous!” she raved, recounting her experience as more like a vacation than a major surgery, complete with handsome doctors with sexy accents, euphoria-inducing drugs and cocktails on the beach. All that was missing were the slides.

I didn’t meet any women at the conference who had facelifts, or if they did, we didn’t talk about it. But I did have more in common with the mommy bloggers than I imagined. We were all women with body issues, food issues and self esteem issues, trying to find balance in our lives, saving our money to buy the next anti-aging cream or an awesome pair of girly shoes, and escaping our day-to-days to immerse ourselves in something we each loved to do: write. We read each others’ humor blogs, giggled when the priest said grace before the meals (which was the only time God showed up) and saved each other seats at lunch like we were in high school.

One mother of two with a painted face, Jamie, advocated for me at the dinner table, helping me explain my innumerable food allergies to the catering manager (without apologizing nine times in one sentence). She was funny and supportive, and even took the stage during amateur comic night at the conference, an act of bravery that I deeply admired. Jamie said she refuses to leave her house without makeup, and I had a flash of judgment before I realized, wait a minute, I won’t leave my house without makeup, either! Another gal I met wrote for The Man Show on Comedy Central, every episode of which included girls with big boobs and bikinis bouncing up and down on a trampoline. That, I can definitely appreciate.

About to turn forty, and in a four-star hotel for four days with four hundred women, I celebrated my birthday by sharing a drink and laughter in the bar with my new friends, and I pondered whether my similarities to the other women outweighed the differences. I won’t pop out any kids, I can’t straighten my hair without resembling Gilda Radner, and since I haven’t had eyebrows my whole life, I don’t plan to start drawing them on now. However, I recently became a proud owner of Ellen DeGeneres-endorsed eye serum, and last year a dermatologist lasered some spots off my face. She did it for free the first time, because she knows those laser treatments are as addictive as crack. She stands to make a lot of money off my vanity.

And as for the facelift, I haven’t made up my mind yet. Ask me when I turn 50.

-Amelia Sauter

david sedaris in lil ol’ ithaca

Taughannock Falls

Apparently David Sedaris likes Ithaca.

DAVID SEDARIS IS ONE OF MY FAVORITE PEOPLE THAT I’LL NEVER MEET, second only to Hillary Clinton. Last night at the State Theater marked the first time I’ve seen him in person, and I was more than a little excited.

On Sedaris’ second day of a thirty-six day tour, the show appeared to be close to sold out. Security personnel hovered in every corner – in case someone rushed the stage for a hug? I’ve seen hug attacks happen before in seemingly civilized venues, once at an assembly at my all-girls Catholic high school when a pile of my peers tackled a morning show DJ who came to encourage our chocolate drive sales. You can never be too careful.

“No photographs,” the introducer announced, “and turn off your cell phones.” In response, I pulled my iPhone from my bag and snapped Sedaris’ picture. From the front row of the balcony, my view included the top of his balding head.

$44 per ticket was a lot of money to pay to hear an author read for an hour and a half. Dinner and drinks for two at the Trumansburg Pourhouse costs less, as does a day pass to the Grassroots Festival, and that buys you ten hours, multiple musicians, priceless face time and unbeatable people-watching opportunities.

What is it about Sedaris that leads us to hand over our money – and our hearts – to him? The universality of his topics combined with the ability to turn everyday occurrences into outlandishly funny moments results in stories that quickly draw in the audience. We envy his ability to say inappropriate things out loud that we would not dare whisper.

Two of his readings at the State were from his forthcoming “bestiary,” a collection of fables about animals, though as Sedaris put it, “Fables have morals.” He also shared excerpts from his diary and a piece on the angst of airline travel, where he translated stewardess-speak for the layperson, the underlying meaning of the request “Your trash?” being a judgment: “You’re trash.”

Sedaris’ appeal is as much about his presentation as about his writing. His dramatic pauses drive home punch lines. He knows this, and throughout the show, he jotted on his notes each time the audience laughed, which happened after almost every sentence. We laughed because we expected to laugh, because he’s David Sedaris. Even the things that weren’t really funny left us chuckling, like rats with pancreatic cancer or a dog who gets hungry when he smells burning flesh.

The woman seated beside us was infected with this anticipatory laughter, snorting uncontrollably throughout the reading, when Sedaris read benign sentences like, “He shakes the crumbs out of his mustache,” or “The bull terrier had creepy eyes.” If I wrote those lines, no one would laugh. Nor would they find it humorous if I said a woman left her teenage son in a burning house. Sedaris’ stories are as dark as they are comical.

But the main reason I think we all love Sedaris is that it feels he’s like one of us, but funnier, a regular curmudgeon who swears and complains a lot and checks his watch every ten minutes. During the question and answer period at the end of the show, when asked what animal he would cast himself as in a fable, he said a muppet, or a snail. To another question he quipped, “If I had a beach house, I’d name it Sea Section.”

We related even more when he said he visited one of our gorges. “If I were here longer, I’d go to…” Sedaris paused dramatically, and we waited, to hear his answer. Taughannock Falls? John Thomas Steakhouse? Rasa Spa? And he finished his sentence like a true local:  “…Pudgies and Cobblers Cottage,” he said. “These are prize winners.”

-Amelia Sauter

selective memories

Mr. Boston Bartenders Guide

1974 was a great year for cocktails.

“IS HISTORY IMPORTANT?” My preoccupation with this philosophical question started when a crazy ex-boyfriend hunted me down so we could “reconnect.” After I successfully avoided him for seven years, he cornered me in the periodical section of the public library, and yes, he actually cried. He argued in non-library tones that we should revisit our time together; our relationship the most beautiful year of his life, he said. Clearly, I thought, history is a construct, viewed through the biases of the reminiscer.

I politely declined his reconnection request. I’m not convinced that history is important, and my ex is a strong justification for never looking back. When I’m playing Trivial Pursuit, you won’t find a yellow pie wedge in my game piece. Geek though I am, history was my worst subject in school. In fifth grade, I failed my first test ever in world history. I bombed the American history AP exam in high school. I seem to be incapable of memorizing dates and historical events (though I remember in vivid detail Romeo’s naked buttocks in the 1968 film Romeo and Juliet, which we watched during tenth grade lit class).

My history angst stretches into the arena of cocktails. For the love of Dale*, I can never remember where classic drinks came from, who made them, and why. The elitist worship of old-school cocktails drives me crazy with its snobbery of “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” that many bartenders try to impose on today’s drinks. I’m not interested in either shaking raw eggs into cocktails or glorifying the disgusting herbal liqueurs sold during Prohibition in pharmacies as “medicine.” Some cocktails are best forgotten, like my ex-boyfriend.

But family heritage is my notable exception. Be it stories or objects, I saved everything my parents ever gave me, like the pair of red knee socks with white hearts my mom bought for me twenty-five years ago. Though they’ve faded and the elastic is long-gone, causing them to bunch around my ankles and slide into my shoes, I still wear them every February 14th.

When Leah and I opened the Lounge, my parents passed on to us their 1974 Mr. Boston Bartenders Guide (53rd printing).  I flipped through the classics, but what caught my eye were the handwritten recipes penciled inside the back cover. Tequila sunrise. Daiquiri. In my dad’s script, Margaritas: Fill a blender halfway with tequila and the rest of the way with half triple sec and half either limeade or pop. And then there was my mother’s favorite drink, recorded in her slanty handwriting: Apricot Sour.  Reading the recipe, I could taste it in memory, its tart flavor known to me from eating the liquor-soaked maraschino cherry left at the bottom of her glass.

Apricot Sour

1 ½ ounce apricot brandy

1 ounce orange juice

¾ ounce lemon juice

a few drops of maraschino cherry juice

maraschino cherry

Fill a Collins glass with ice. Add brandy and juices. Stir. Garnish with maraschino cherry.

-Amelia Sauter

*Dale DeGroff, a master mixologist credited for the revival of classic cocktails.