When you sit in the Grand Bar in the Soho Grand Hotel and scan the bottles of American whiskey on the soaring shelves, iconic brands are sure to ring familiar: Four Roses, Old Grand-Dad, Woodford Reserve, Maker’s Mark. But scattered among those behemoths are bottles with intriguing names, many of which evoke old world Americana: High West Double Rye, Widow Jane, Smooth Ambler Old Scout Bourbon, and Virginia Highland Malt Whiskey, just to name a few.
Just as craft beers captured the curiosity of Americans in the 1990s, so goes the spirits industry today. Ten years ago, only a few intrepid entrepreneurs bought stills, fermenting tanks and barrels and started distilling. They were the trailblazers. Today, every state in America now has at least one boutique distillery turning out small batch gins, rums, vodkas and whiskies.
One of those trailblazers was the Erenzo family.
Before the US government outlawed alcohol production with the passage of the Volstead Act in 1920, New York was dappled with hundreds of distilleries. Prohibition ended in 1933, but it wasn’t until 2005 when Tuthilltown Spirits fired up their stills in a colonial-era grist mill in Gardiner that whiskey production resumed in the Empire State.
The initial idea, said Gable Erenzo, who owns Tuthilltown with his father, Ralph, was to distill spirits from local harvests and support the agricultural community. They started making a vodka from local apples and an unaged corn whiskey. But from the outset, Erenzo says, whiskey was the focus because of their proximity to grain farmers. Today almost 90% of the grains they use are grown within a 10-mile radius of the distillery. In addition to turning out ryes and bourbons, they produce a single malt whiskey with Canadian malted barley.
“It’s been exciting to build relationships with local farmers growing grains and fruit, watch the harvest evolve and then make something delicious and sought-after and unique in the industry,” says Erenzo. A lapsed Madison Avenue worker, he served as distiller when the business got started. Today he runs Tuthilltown’s sales and marketing. “It’s been fun to present the products to bars throughout New York and realize there’s a demand for local agricultural products.”
You can try an assortment of their whiskies at Grand Bar. Ask for the Hudson Manhattan Rye in a cocktail, or order a few half-ounce servings to experience the variety.
While American whiskey was once narrowly defined, the players in the fast-growing craft world do not necessarily adhere to the rules that define bourbon or rye, thus offering even the most seasoned whisky aficionados flavor profiles unlike anything they have ever tasted. Some judge this creative liberty as sacrilege; others call it thrilling.
One of the more innovative distillers in the country is Chip Tate, who opened Balcones Distilling in Waco, Texas in 2008. He’d spent many years indulging in what he calls “out of control home brewing.” A few different Balcones Whiskeys, which are made from blue corn, are on the shelves at Grand Bar.
“Making whiskey is a further extension of brewing,” says Tate, explaining how he got into the business. But as he sees it, his reputation for being experimental wasn’t something he necessarily intended. “The innovations we’re making only happen to be new. Why couldn’t it be that blue corn—the oldest American grain—was the basis of the first American whiskey? There’s a novelty factor today because it’s brand new, but that’s just historical coincidence. Our whiskey is about deeply exploring tradition, process and ingredients in new ways.” Balcones Brimstone, for instance, is a clever twist on a classic peat-smoked single malt Scotch: right after distillation, Tate smokes his spirit with Texas oak.
Perhaps one of the most exciting things about the craft distilling industry is the sense of local pride. More and more restaurants these days can tell you about the pedigree of the cheeses and meats and other locally sourced ingredients. It’s common to go to a bar and find the local brew on tap. Today, same goes for spirits.
“The locavore movement is helping drive the craft distilling movement,” says Dave Pickerell, a craft spirits consultant who worked as Master Distiller for Maker’s Mark for 14 years. “In the last year, I spent significant time in a third of the states and had the opportunity to work with distillers who use local products. I’ve also been able to engage with the bar scenes around the country and see the level of all-around excitement around small-batch local products well up everywhere. The demand for local is unbelievable.”
Join us in The Grand Bar to experience the tradition of American Craft Whiskey, and let GrandLife Mixologist Jeremy Oertel prepare for you the perfect Sazerac: