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


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