There seems to be a new brand of whisky popping up every week now, or at the very least a new expression and its hard to keep up. Well, not really, but what is tough is to find the good stuff out of the ‘not-so-good’. There also seems to be a number of new distilleries being granted licences, re-opening and joining the party. The one brought to my attention recently was Tuthilltown Spirits in the Hudson valley, New York.
Before the introduction of Prohibition in 1920 there was a healthy business around New York as the farming community, rich with grains and fruits, distilled alcohol, in fact there were over 1,000 distillers in the Hudson Valley area. We all know that prohibition was a waste of time really, the church lost in the end and we all went back to drinking, but not before it had taken its toll on these small producers, forcing them to close or switch business to something viable.
Tuthilltown Spirits is the first legally distilled and aged grain spirits produced in New York since Prohibition.
OK, so thats the facts. but what about the people behind the facts? Whisky buffs? Distillers from another state? A large company seeing an opportunity? Far from it…and this is where it caught my attention.
When I sat down with Ralph Erenzo at the recent Whisky Live event, I was immediately struck by his friendly, open nature and youthful energy. And once we started to talk, the magnetism of the man grew. Ralph was a professional rock-climber who had thought to buy a ranch in the Hudson Valley close to a the rock range he loved to explore. The idea was to open the ranch up to fellow climbers who could use it as a ‘base camp’ and jump off point for their own explorations. Alas, the neighbours, if you can call them that, being on the edge of a 35 acre ranch, objected to the application to change this 220 year old gristmill, into a ‘rockers retreat’ so Ralph had to re-think.
It was his friend Brian Lee who suggested they maintain the mill and start producing flour again, but Ralph didn’t seem to keen on this as there really wasn’t much ‘dough’ in dough, so in 2001 they turned one of the mill granaries into a distillery. Not before a fortunate change in the law, which allowed smaller operations to hold a “farm distillery license” and the tax was greatly reduced from $60,000 a year to just $1250 for three years! and farm shops could be run alongside producing distillers. This was the foothold that helped Ralph and Bill start up Tutthilltown and in 2003 the first spirit ran from the still. it was actually vodka, made from apples, but it was the start of something great.
By his own admission, Ralph knew nothing about whiskey, neither making it nor drinking it. Bill was similar, coming from an engineering background, but the skills they did have made them formidable and it is clear to see today that they approached everything with a logical mind and a bit of ‘try and see’. They learned about distilling from the internet and books, worked out a few things along the way, added here, took away there and generally made it work for them. The bottles, which are already award winning were designed by Ralph as was the label. “it was just to expensive to pay a designer” explained Ralph.It didn’t all run smoothly though, and at times the guys found themselves at stumbling points. Ralph told me that he would remind himself that in the deep south there were guys making moonshine without any education (or teeth) and if they can do it, why can’t he.
The barrels they use are smaller than normal, 3, 5, 8, 10 and 20 gallons were tiny in comparison to the normal standard used in the US for bourbon, but it was all they could afford at the time. These 3 gallon barrels became a bit of a cult in the NY bar scene because you could make a Manhattan cocktail and keep it in barrel on the back bar, further ageing the cocktail.
Another strange practice, but one that if you think long enough, seems right is Ralphs way of agitating the whiskey whilst it matures. Normally, giving the barrels a turn by hand, or moving them in general helps the spirit and wood interact better but Neither Ralph nor Bill liked the idea of hand turning hundreds of barrels on a weekly basis, so they introduced sound waves. “sonic maturation” as they have termed it is simply large bass speakers in the warehouse which pump out rap music and the low bass line bounces through the barrels and shakes the whiskey. I am not sure if other music will mature the spirit in different ways, but keep an eye out for releases such as “The symphony range” or “Lullaby 4yr old”
Coming away from the interview I couldn’t help but be impressed with Ralph’s story, his openness and passion coupled with such a relaxed attitude just seemed so right, so different. It apparently is encouraged throughout the distillery that all the team get involved, are relaxed and ideas flow freely which are listened to and in most cases acted upon. This is so much more than New Yorks first whiskey distillery since prohibition, this is the American Dream in action.
There are 5 current whiskey releases from the distillery (they also produce vodka, rum, eau de vie, brandy, absinthe, and infusions) and I have my notes below for all of them. The Hudson Whisky range is available to purchase in the UK now.
Hudson Single Malt 92 proof 46%ABV
Color: Copper with rose gold
Nose: Big on the vanilla and lovely new fresh oak makes the base for this spicy, rich dram. Lighter floral notes appear with a dash of water.
Taste: Again, there is no surprise that wood and vanilla drive this forward, but there is a rounded feel to the palate and lighter notes (with water) of candied orange and honey do appear.
Hudson Manhattan Rye 92 proof 46% ABV
Colour: Copper with light polished bronze.
Nose: Clove studded orange peel with rich spice and an underlying syrup note holding it together.
Taste: Spice leads the way with mace, clove and bell pepper before being calmed by drifts of balsa wood and nutmeg. Lingering with buttery corn.
Hudson Baby Bourbon 92 proof 46% ABV
Colour: good deep gold
Nose: Powerful nose of spicy rye with buttery cream behind, slightly minty and then the warm vanilla drifts in with a floral note (lillies)
Taste: Spice driven yet rounded, full bodied mid palate with butter and toasty vanilla. Towards the end there is a slightly edgy mineral note, almost drying amongst the heady butter and spice but in a good way.