Booze Becoming Big Business in Hudson Valley

Times Herald-Record
Published: 2:00 AM – 06/10/12

The climate at the top of Gumaer Falls Road in Wurtsboro is a lot like the hilly Korean province where farmers grow an exotic root called sweet ginseng, according to Rosalyn Kim. She has for years cultivated the slow-growing root on her property, but has only a month after harvest to sell it before it loses freshness and flavor.

Her solution for maximizing sweet ginseng’s potential? Letting it infuse rice beer, a milky-looking alcoholic drink she plans to sell to the Asian markets in New York City within a few months. Quickly fermented rice beer will subsidize Kim’s more time-consuming project: sweet ginseng-infused whiskey that takes three years to mature.

Kim’s farm-to-tipple venture is unique because of its Asian flair. But it’s one of a growing crop of new booze businesses in the region , a trend in step with national patterns. New breweries in Orange and Sullivan counties are slated to open in the next few months, while hard cider producers are just now enjoying the craft renaissance that has touched the beer, wine and liquor industries.

The libations more than three-dozen local businesses distill or ferment range from basic beer and wine to kosher plum liqueurs and apple and pear eau de vie, a fruit brandy.

In the Town of Wallkill, David Pazdar of Pazdar Winery transforms western New York grapes into chocolate- and- hot-pepper-flavored vino at his microwinery in his converted garage. In Gardiner, two former payroll company employees overcame financial difficulties and started Prohibition Distillery.

The distillery, which makes gluten-free corn grain vodka, plans to move to Roscoe from under Tuthilltown Spirits’ roof.

Tourist spending at tasting rooms — promoted by the Shawangunk Wine Trail — gives the businesses a boost. So does “The Little Wine Bus,” which departs year-round from midtown Manhattan and local points, carting thousands of drinkers from winery to winery. Company owner Tania Dougherty of New Windsor also operates a “Little Beer Bus.”

“People are desiring locally sourced, locally produced products, and that follows through into the alcoholic beverage market,” said Todd Erling, the executive director of the Hudson Valley AgriBusiness Development Corp., a policy and business development group.

Erling has seen the Hudson Valley’s craft beverage industry explode in the five years since his organization was founded, partly because of state legislation.

The farm-distillery license, which permits booze-making from products farmed in New York state, went into effect in 2007. Gov. Andrew Cuomo introduced a similar bill in March for farm breweries, according to Bill Crowley, a spokesman for the State Liquor Authority.

Having eight million people only 60 to 90 miles away has helped the Hudson Valley’s vineyards and breweries take off. Some of the region’s best-known drinks — Tuthilltown Spirits’ whiskey line and Keegan Ales’ Mother’s Milk — have extensive New York City distribution networks and cult followings in the boroughs.

Both businesses, forerunners of the Hudson Valley craft revolution, are growing rapidly. Tuthilltown is wrapping up a $1 million expansion project at its Gardiner location, while Kingston’s Keegan Ales will double its output to between 12,000 and 15,000 barrels per year in the next six to nine months.

“I can’t make beer fast enough,” said Keegan Ales owner and brewmaster Tommy Keegan. “Every drop is sold before it’s made.”

Newbie beer-maker Rushing Duck Brewing Co. in Chester hasn’t set its sights on New York City — at least not yet.

Co-owner and brewmaster Dan Hitchcock of Bergen County will self-distribute in Orange County the 600 barrels of beer he will make his first year.

The brewery’s tasting room, scheduled to open in July, fits Rushing Duck’s hyper-local angle. The room, which will sell 3-ounce suds samples and 64-ounce growler fill-ups, will be a cozy hangout that looks like the neighborhood bar. Hitchcock and his girlfriend, Nikki Cavanaugh, who is working on sales and marketing, hope it will become the epicenter of the local beer scene.

Production of Rushing Duck’s stable of year-round beers — a hoppy pale ale, coffee porter and partially barrel-aged English-style barley wine-style ale — will start in June. Hitchcock plans to occasionally supplement the trio with quirky one-off brews featuring ingredients like orange peel and chamomile. Recipes calling for off-kilter flavors are one of the hallmarks of the craft beer world.

The quirky and downright weird

Hudson Valley wineries number in the double digits, but a creation Scott Wilkinson of New Windsor has billed “wine sorbet” is a bit more rare.

The sorbet, sold under Wilkinson’s label, “Mr. Cannoli,” is made from wine, fruit and a few other natural ingredients like sugar. The newly released sorbet, produced in a Middlehope warehouse, has 5 percent alcohol content and a sweet-tangy wine taste.

Wilkinson’s wine-and-fruit pairings include Cabernet with blueberry puree, Merlot with cherries and Riesling with strawberry. He also makes non-alcoholic Italian ices.

Wilkinson, a truck driver by trade, does not identify himself as a wine drinker. He’s a food tinkerer looking to innovate existing products — a trait he shares with many of the Hudson Valley’s craft beverage entrepreneurs.

“I enjoy making different products — taking traditional things and putting an edge on it,” he said, adding that that drive led him — working with Giulio Pistolesi — to make a Guinness World Record-setting 123-pound cannoli in 2010.

Wilkinson sources his wine from local vineyards, including Brotherhood and Benmarl, and envisions his sorbet — not quite an alcoholic drink, nor a run-of-the-mill dessert — featured on the menus of high-end Italian restaurants and country clubs.

The sorbet is Wilkinson’s passion project.

“Some people go into business just to make money at it,” Wilkinson said. “But I want people to eat old-fashioned quality desserts that are rich.”

 

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