The wise man does not mix grape and grain.
That old adage isn't holding much water anymore in Finger Lakes wine country with the July 2009 opening of Finger Lakes Distilling in Burdett, Schuyler County.
Not only is the new farm distillery using grapes for its vodka and gin, but it is also producing whiskey, brandy and fruit liqueurs, grappa and other whiskeys this fall.
"We wanted to be in wine country. It's one of the brighter economic spots in the state," says President Brian McKenzie, a 32-year-old Elmira native and former banker who has spent the last couple of years bringing his vision to reality.
Finger Lakes Distilling is the first facility of its kind in the region devoted exclusively to hard spirits.
But it is quickly gaining company around the country.
When Bill Owens started the American Distilling Institute six years ago to train whiskey-making wannabes, there were only about 60 artisan distillers nationwide. Now there are about 160.
"The renaissance has already happened in wine, cheese, bread and beer. Now it's our turn," he says.
A state law passed two years ago allows Finger Lakes Distilling to operate much as farm wineries do, sampling and selling its products made with New York agricultural crops on site. Farm distilleries are also able to distribute their products for retail sales. There are six licensed farm distilleries in the state right now. A handful of Finger Lakes wineries are licensed to make fruit-based liquors. The total number of licensed distilleries in the state is 25.
Finger Lakes Distilling grows native Concord and Niagara grapes and buys local Catawba grapes. The distilled blend is used as a base for its vodkas, gin and other products. Local berries and currants flavor the distillery's liqueurs, and local apples and maple syrup are the foundation for its maplejack liqueur.
Locally grown corn, rye and wheat are used for its whiskeys, McKenzie notes.
American Distilling Institute's Owens says that taking advantage of local crops is the best way for micro-distilleries to distinguish themselves from the large multinational operations.
Bill Martin of Hidden Marsh Distillery, a sister operation of Montezuma Winery that also operates as a farm distillery in Seneca Falls, agrees.
Hidden Marsh's Bee Vodka, released last fall, is made with New York honey. Martin's father, George, is a longtime beekeeper, and the family honey and mead operation was based in Cayuga County before expanding and relocating to Seneca Falls.
"It gives customers a story to tell their friends and family when they get home," Martin says.
One challenge of breaking into distilling, say McKenzie and Martin, is the lack of education and training resources. There are no formal distilling programs at area colleges, universities or extension offices. Because home distilling is illegal, few people learn the craft the same way that home winemakers and home brewers do.
Admittedly, making moonshine is a long family tradition for Finger Lakes Distilling's distiller Thomas McKenzie, whose rsum includes professional winemaking and brewing.
"But I'd rather be making whiskey," says the 30-year-old Alabama native, who hooked up with Brian McKenzie (no relation) at a distillers' conference a couple years ago.
Right now, McKenzie has two different whiskeys — one made with rye, the other with wheat — aging in American oak barrels, where they pick up color and flavor complexities (whiskey as well as everything else is colorless after distillation). They should be ready for sale this fall. Also in the works are a bourbon whiskey and single malt whiskey, to be released next year.
Finger Lakes Distilling's 4,200-square-foot production facility and tasting room, built into a hillside overlooking the warm, scenic southeast end of Seneca Lake, has the minimalist feel of a Scottish distillery with pagoda roof (traditionally designed for ventilation) and block lettering on white faux stucco siding.
Inside, an upper-level tasting room accessorized with reclaimed lumber from a Kentucky tobacco barn and steel exudes a post-industrial feel.
The focal point, seen through tall windows from the tasting room, is a 300-gallon pot still and 25-foot tall rectification column, both made of copper and imported from Germany.
Distilling makes an already fermented solution made from fruit, grain or some other ingredient even more potent by separating the water and alcohol through boiling. Alcohol evaporates at a lower temperature than water, so distillers capture the alcohol vapor and then condense it back into liquid with a much higher alcohol content. You can repeat the process over and over to get to the desired level of alcohol.
The rectifying column is used for Finger Lakes Distilling's vodka and other products defined by a very high alcohol content. As the vapor climbs up through the column passing a series of plates, the alcohol concentrates even further.
Because the alcohol content of hard liquor is much higher than wines, tastings at Finger Lakes Distilling are limited to three quarter-ounce sips.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
Finger Lakes distillers
Here are wineries or distillers in the Finger Lakes area that are making hard spirits.
Knapp Vineyards makes brandy, grappa and limoncello. 2770 County Road 128, Romulus, Seneca County, (800) 869-9271, www.knapp wine.com.
Swedish Hill Vineyard makes brandy and fruit eau de vie. 4565 Route 414, Romulus, Seneca County, (315) 549-8326, www.swedishhill.com.
Hidden Marsh Distillery makes honey vodka, honey brandy, apple brandy. 2981 Auburn Road, Seneca Falls, (315) 568-8190, www.beevodka.com.
Rock Stream Vineyards, Rock Stream, Yates County, makes grappa and grape brandy. www.rock stream vineyards.com.
Six Mile Creek Vineyards makes vodka, gin, limoncello, grappa. 1551 Slaterville Road, Ithaca, (800) 260-0612, www.sixmilecreek.com.
Finger Lakes Distilling makes vodka, gin, brandy, corn whiskey, cassis and other fruit liqueurs, grappa and rye and wheat whiskeys. 4676 Route 414, Burdett, Schuyler County. (607) 731-2295, www.fingerlakesdistilling.com.