It’s true enough that Erenzo dodged death by a whisker several times last winter, following a rather spectacular automobile accident in which the roots of the tree that his Volkswagen knocked over after hitting an icy patch on Route 44/55 unearthed a huge boulder, and the engine was found lying 20 feet away from the car. He spent the better part of three months in intensive care units, unconscious for the first month and enduring 14 separate surgeries and innumerable complications.
But today, Erenzo is back on his feet (albeit still leaning on a cane and undergoing physical therapy), and he still has a ten-year plan for the business -- maybe even a 20-year plan. The smart money is on New York State’s first farm distillery since Prohibition being around for a while, and becoming a major player in both the revival of the Tuthilltown hamlet and the branding of the Hudson Valley as a hotbed for the creation of artisanal spirits.
The phenomenon that is Tuthilltown Spirits started life as a seat-of-the-pants operation, fraught with risk but timed exquisitely to catch a newborn wave of public appetite for the right to “drink locally.” People have gotten used to the idea that wine doesn’t have to come in a screw-top bottle anymore, and are starting to compare microbrewed beers with the same level of connoisseurship that fine wines enjoy. So why should they have to settle for characterless whiskeys, ryes, bourbons, vodkas and rums distilled in gigantic factories? The problem, up until recently, was that state regulations enacted at the end of the Prohibition Era made farm-based distilleries economically unfeasible.
So when Erenzo and his wife Vicki Morgan first bought the Tuthilltown Gristmill property from longtime Gardinerites, the Smith family, in 2001, making moonshine was not high on their list of priorities. An avid rock climber who ran climbing gyms in New York City and was frustrated by the lack of affordable accommodations near the Gunks, Erenzo’s original vision for the facility was Bunks in the Gunks, a combination hostel and campground for climbers. (Oddly enough, there was historical precedent for the name: A hotel known in the 1950s as Bunk’s used to stand right across the Shawangunkill from the Grist Mill in what had been Gardiner’s original commercial center.) Although the town government was amenable to the plan and awarded all the necessary permits, a small number of neighbors feared that Bunks in the Gunks would draw too rowdy a crowd and began to file lawsuits to stop the project.
Rather than fight a protracted and costly legal battle, Erenzo started thinking outside the box about what else he might do with the property to make it pay, without riling the locals. Gardiner building inspector Don Otis suggested that he open a winery. Erenzo decided that he didn’t want to compete with the 240 wineries already existing in New York State, and he says that he wasn’t really a “wine guy” anyway. Instead, he started thinking about the need to provide diversified income streams for local orchards by creating new markets for all the apples that normally go to waste at the end of the season, sold off for pennies to Southern cider-makers, are composted or turned into hog feed.
In 2003 he became friends, and then partners, with a man named Brian Lee, a broadcast engineer who had recently completed his MBA thesis on the rise of the microbrewery business. A Westchester native, Lee had worked as a volunteer on the restoration of a historic mill at Phillipsburg Manor in Tarrytown and was interested in the fate of the Tuthilltown Gristmill. And right around this time, the New York State Liquor Authority was beginning to discern the economic development potential of making it less prohibitive for small local distilleries to set up shop. The agency reduced the A-I class licensing fee from $60,000 to $1,250 for farms producing up to 35,000 gallons of spirits per year. And between them, Ralph Erenzo and Brian Lee came up with the audacious notion of starting their own distillery.
There were big hurdles to overcome, not least of which was the fact that neither one of them actually knew how to make booze. “There’s no manual for this kind of thing,” as various people at Tuthilltown Spirits keep telling me -- nor was there at the time any course you could take, and the distillation methods used by the huge corporations that dominate the industry simply don’t translate down to a small-scale operation. So Erenzo and Lee set out to educate themselves by trial and error, making a lot of things up as they went along. One early stroke of brilliance was the realization that they could start putting their product on the market a lot sooner if it were aged in five-gallon casks rather than the standard 55-gallon barrels, so that the spirits came into contact with more square inches of oak by volume. “Everything we do is breaking new ground,” notes Erenzo.
Another problem was that the regulations for the Liquor Authority’s A-I distillery category still did not allow for on-premises sales. A public relations man at heart, Erenzo found himself spending a great deal of time in Albany lobbying for additional changes that would enable Tuthilltown Spirits and the surrounding farms to become the agritourism destination that he envisioned. By 2008 he had succeeded both in having the A-I category amended and in creating a new category called a Farm Distillery License, geared specifically toward fostering small-scale on-site distribution operations.
It’s a bit of an irony that this legislative process took so much work, considering that for the first couple of centuries after European settlement, the orchards of the mid-Hudson Valley mainly produced the small, tart, tannic apple varieties that are best-suited for hard cider production, rather than for fresh eating or cooking. There was a time when pretty much every farm in this region fermented its own apples and sold the cider on-site. Nowadays you can’t even get heirloom cider apples like Esopus Spitzenberg and Kingston Black in the very region where they were first grown.
That is about to change, though, thanks to the efforts of Tuthilltown Spirits’ production manager Joel Elder. Joel has been cultivating collaborative relationships with apple producers like Jenkins & Lueken Orchards of New Paltz, Dressel Farms of Gardiner and Poverty Lane Orchards in New Hampshire to graft scions of Colonial Era varietals onto existing apple-tree stock. After three years, there are now about 200 trees in production of 13 varieties. Although neutral-tasting vodkas made from leftover or “too ugly to sell” eating apples were among Tuthilltown Spirits’ very first products, the true test of the company’s vision begins this fall, when the distillery undertakes its first experiments in making apple brandy -- unaged eau de vie -- with the fruits of these grafts of traditional cider apples. As yet, no one in America is even close to making a world-class apple brandy fit to compete with the French Calvados, but that’s the cornerstone of the Gardiner distillery’s ten-year plan. “We’re three years ahead of anyone else,” Elder says proudly.
Another relationship that is about to bear fruit involves noted Francophile food writer Colette Rossant, who became passionate about restoring the lost art of farm-based distillation when an old orchard neighboring her upstate home was torched to clear the land for development. Rossant is partnering with Tuthilltown Spirits, several other Hudson Valley farmers who want to get on the microdistillery bandwagon and the prestigious Cold Spring-based sustainable agriculture think tank the Glynwood Institute to organize an international Apple Exchange Program. A delegation of French farmer/distillers from the terroir of Le Perche in Basse-Normandie is coming to visit the Hudson Valley in late October, and a local delegation including Elder, as well as Tim Dressel of Dressel Farms, is headed to La Perche in early November. Elder has begun taking French lessons in anticipation of learning the traditional techniques of these master artisans.
“We want to plant a flag with apple brandy,” says Elder of Tuthilltown’s long-term vision of the Hudson Valley becoming internationally recognized as a regional appellation or terroir of its own. Part of that process is cultivating a local palate for local products. “What we’d like to see is people advocating for their own agricultural landscape, like sports teams.”
One of the distillery’s secret weapons in cultivating its markets has been Ralph’s son Gable Erenzo, who joined the staff full-time in 2006 and now bears the title “brand ambassador.” He has parlayed his degree in Business Management from SUNY-New Paltz, his Manhattan connections from several years of working for a public relations firm and his youthful enthusiasm to make key connections with young liquor retailers, bar owners and high-end restaurateurs who are looking for the Next Big Thing to engage their trend-conscious clientele. This is another example of where Tuthilltown Spirits caught the locavore wave just as it was starting to crest: A “cocktail culture” has become fashionable among young Americans again for the first time in decades.
Lately, Gable Erenzo has been attending trade shows for bartenders all over the country that are conducting “aged cocktail contests.” This works especially to the Gardiner distillery’s advantage, since to make a trendy “barrel-aged cocktail,” you need a whiskey-cured keg -- preferably a small one. So Tuthilltown has secured a market for resale of its five-gallon oak casks, each of which can only be used once for whiskey-making. “They’re now selling faster than we can make them,” he reports.
That seems to be the case for all of the company’s products. Demand is high; press coverage is enthusiastic; awards keep piling up for Tuthilltown’s Four-Grain and Baby Bourbon, Corn Whiskey, Manhattan Rye and Single Malt. Whisky Magazine named Tuthilltown Spirits Craft Whiskey Distillery of the Year for 2011. Thus far, distribution has expanded to 15 states, the European Union and Australia. China, Japan and Canada and several additional states have also expressed interest. The staff, which started as two people in 2003, now numbers a couple of dozen. “Our biggest problem is that we can’t make it fast enough” is another mantra that one hears a lot around the Tuthilltown compound these days.
So what comes next? Economies of scale that will permit the company to expand its line, for one thing. They’ve got a shiny, brand-new 540-gallon still with gorgeous brass and copper fittings that looks like something out of a steampunk novel; they had to cut a big hole in the distillery roof to lower it into place. Master tinkerer Lee designed a custom “helmet” for it, and his next big project is to install an array of photovoltaic solar collectors in the adjoining farm field, intended to provide 95 percent of the electrical power needed to run the operation. A high-tech vacuum still that distils at half the temperature normally required is the next item on the equipment wish list.
Such capacity-building and technical upgrades don’t come cheap, but that’s part of the reason why, in 2010, Tuthilltown Spirits struck a worldwide distribution rights contract for its Hudson Whiskey line with the 128-year-old Scottish firm William Grant and Sons, the only family-owned independent spirits manufacturer in its class. It’s still a big company -- it owns such brands as Glenfiddich, Balvenie, Stolichnaya, Tullamore Dew, Hendrick’s, Galliano, Lillet, Bols and Milagro -- but contrary to rumor, it hasn’t bought out or taken over the Gardiner firm. Tuthilltown Spirits is still the exclusive producer of Hudson Whiskey.
Meanwhile, the income generated by this seven-year contract is helping this small local company create more jobs in the community and new markets for local farm products like apples, corn and rye. It’s all part of Ralph Erenzo’s long-term plan to revitalize the Tuthilltown hamlet. He has sold the former Gristmill -- the oldest building in Gardiner’s original town center, built in 1788 by miller Selah Tuthill -- to the Gabriello family, who are now running it as a lovely restaurant specializing in American cuisine featuring local ingredients, called TuthillHouse at the Mill. “I want to bring back Tuthilltown as a place where people want to spend an afternoon,” says Erenzo.
Another thing that Erenzo really wants to do is to get fit enough to go rock climbing again in the foreseeable future. I for one wouldn’t put it past him. Like Mark Twain in his lifetime, rumors of the death of Tuthilltown Spirits are indeed greatly exaggerated.