In the early 1800s, the state of New York supplied more than half of the young nation’s rye grain—referring to the Hudson Valley area as the “country’s bread-basket.”
Used as a winter cover crop, organic farmers reaped from the grain’s resourceful properties—capturing nutrients, enhancing soil health, preventing soil erosion, and reducing weeds without the use of herbicides. With a great abundance of high-quality rye grain, local craft distillers flourished as countless farm distilleries produced whiskey reflecting the unique terroir of the state. Then, in the 1920s, Prohibition forced all distilleries to close down, leaving the wellspring of American spirits to dry up.
In recent years, Americans have once again embraced the “spirited” properties of rye grain with reintroducing products in food and more so, drink—eventually bringing rye whiskey back to its home-state of New York.
“Because of the new grains that have come along, we’re witnessing a renaissance in the interest and production of small grains in the United States. Hudson Valley is a hotspot for small, organic farmers. We’re working to revitalize production on high-valued [rye] grains,” explains Mark Sorrels, director of the Small Grains Project at Cornell University.
Few farm distilleries have contributed to the success of bringing the 200-year-old tradition of small-batch rye production back to Hudson Valley, though with present-day approaches. These distilleries, set along the banks of the Hudson River and high above the rolling barley fields, include New York’s first distillery post-prohibition, Tuthilltown Spirits; Coppersea Heritage Distilling; Taconic Distilling, and Hillrock Estate Distillery who claims the first malt house in the states since debarment. All uphold a sustainable ‘farm-to-bottle’ practice—beginning with the locally harvested heirloom grain varieties (rye, corn and barley) that endure hardiness and richness in flavor and complexity than mass-produced types mainly used by factory malt operations.
Established in 2003, Tuthilltown Spirits Distillery was the first whiskey distillery in New York since Prohibition producing some of the country’s most-prized spirits. “When the spirits began to flow, that’s when we knew we had something very special,” says Ralph Erenzo, distiller and founder at Tuthilltown Spirits.
A point of reference is the recognized Hudson Manhattan Rye Whiskey—a blend of 90% rye and 10% malted barley that generates a rustic yet smooth expression. “The rye starts out with a peppery, spicy taste, but when you let it sit in a glass you discover it suddenly shifts to caramel and vanilla,” describes Erenzo.
The attention to detail starts with sourcing the rye grain from organic farmers less than ten miles away, crushing the local grain at the landmark gristmill in Gardiner, New York, then undergoing open-top fermentation allowing ambient yeasts to release extra ethanol flavors of terroir and seasonal variation to the mash—the flavors of Hudson Valley.
Another true expression of handcraft distilling, Coppersea Distilling wields a 75-acre, additive-free farm in New Paltz, New York sourcing all raw materials on-site. In early 2012, Coppersea became the first distillery in New York to floor malt its own rye and barley—enabling a commitment to 100% Hudson Valley grains.
Grain is not a fermentable material as it is made of starch. Through malting grain, starch turns into sugar, then converts into alcohol by the yeast in the mash. In this approach, Coppersea tricks the grain into thinking it is time to grow the plant. The grain is placed into a steep; spring water and air is added to the mix initiating germination. The liquid is drained, and the malt is moved to the floor. Over the course of one week, the team at Coppersea rakes and rotates the malt on the floor to create an even germination. The grain, now called ‘green malt,’ is baked in a kiln – allowing it to last longer for future distilling, make grind-able for milling, and add nutty and roasted flavors to its “spirit.”
Set in Ancram, New York, Hillrock Estate Distillery operates all floor maltings, like Coppersea, though they claim the first new malt house in the state since Prohibition. Surrounded by rolling barley fields, the elegant malt house bridges the ‘field-to-glass’ process of turning estate grain into fine whiskey.
With custom-made, copper distillation equipment, the team at Hillrock has complete control over the character and quality of each individual small-batch of premier whiskey. Every detail refined and quality steeped in the 200-year-old tradition of small-batch rye production.
The rich, golden amber Double Rye Whiskey rests in new #3 char American oak casks, then in #4 char American oak casks adding layers of caramel and vanilla—complementing the traditional rye spice. Today, the award-winning whiskey is sold in 14 states and counting, and continues to pay homage to their beloved, late master distiller Dave Pickerell.
Similarly, Taconic’s Founder’s Rye mirrors the deep terroir of Hudson Valley—undercurrents of woodiness and spice cooled by mineral-rich, artisanal spring water, resulting in an exceptionally smooth rye. On the contrary, Taconic Distillery, which situated in Stanfordville, New York, does not chill filter to preserve the complete flavor of the whiskey, hence the slight “cloudiness” in the liquid. It is common for distillers to sacrifice a small amount of natural flavor for clarity as they chill filter the whiskey, removing some of the fatty molecules, or flavor oils.
Instead, Taconic imparts as much flavor to the whiskey as possible. Aging obviously plays a large part in the flavor profile of whiskey, letting the Taconic team to experiment with cask finishing: Cognac, Madeira, even maple syrup.
Together, these farm distilleries stand at the forefront of the craft distilling movement and continue making waves in the industry of rye—still holding the provenance of the past.