story and photos by Jason Feulner
Tucked away in the “industrial” section of Corning between Denison Park and the Chemung River is an old car garage that, at a glance, hardly betrays the treasure found within. Self-billed as Corning’s oldest distillery (i.e. its only one) Four Fights Distilling is a fairly new enterprise that owners Matt and Donna Bowers hope to grow into the Crystal City’s mecca for homegrown spirits.
Matt grew up in Corning, and after a stint with the Marines he returned home for further education and to begin a career with Corning Inc. Neither he nor Donna have a family background in distilling, but at some point they became a bit intrigued by fermented beverages and began to experiment with home winemaking and brewing. Having had an opportunity tour Kentucky bourbon country as an extension of a work trip, Matt decided to double down on the hobby and turn it into something more.
“Matt bought books about distilling and watched how-to videos online,” recalls Donna. “I thought he was going to lose interest eventually, but he became more and more determined.”
Four Fights Distilling is located in Corning and is open year-round for tasting, cocktails, and events.
Eventually, Matt and Donna formed a vision to found their own distillery. Matt wanted to focus on bourbon and whiskey. Donna, a lover of gin, wanted to create her own blend of infused botanicals that give that spirit its distinct taste. They officially founded the distillery in 2014, and within a year had located their still and tasting room in an old auto garage in Corning.
The result is a site that is simultaneously warm and gritty. The front end – the tasting area – is tastefully decorated with funky fixtures, warm colors, and video game stations, but the industrial facade and the large open area in the back give the entire place a real workshop feel. It’s a blend that feels right.
Four Fights doesn’t sport the huge 20+ foot tall still that some distilleries feature front and center, but it has a sufficient copper column and plated beast that was cooking along when I recently paid Four Fights a visit. Nearing the end of a run, Matt was taking samples from the stream of alcohol pouring forth to try to determine when to shut it down. “I’m looking for the right balance of harsher flavors and vapors that follow the purer stuff,” he explains. A little funk adds depth and character. Too much and the alcohol will quickly disappoint.
Matt and Donna want Four Fights to be a reflection of the local scene, and 75% of their raw material is sourced in the region. They’ve dedicated themselves to holding local events that bring together their customers (the recent Harry Potter themed tasting parties were such a hit they will continue the series). In addition, Four Fights serves cocktails made from their spirits. Customers can come do a traditional tasting, or they can show up and hang out with a few drinks among friends.
With a full series that has the serious stuff – vodka, gin, whiskey, and bourbon – as well as Emperial Apple Pie and Emperial Cinnamon, there’s a little something for everyone at Four Fights. While they are still focused on expanding their production and distribution, both Donna and Matt are extremely proud of what they’ve already accomplished in just a few short years.
“It’s very gratifying when you go home at the end of the day and you’ve made a product that people enjoy,” Matt states.
“Those first few years when it took so much time and effort to get this place going, it’s hard to take a breath,” Donna adds. “But, when you hear people say they love it … that’s the aha moment that makes it all worth it.”
I tasted through the entire flight at Four Fights. It’s an impressive lineup. The more casual fare – the Emperial Apple Pie, for instance – is well-made and handcrafted, not overwhelming in its mass appeal.
The Crystal City Vodka, and by extension the Suite 101 Gin, has a depth and texture that is hard to find in mass-produced spirits. Matt tells me that they don’t filter at Four Fights, and this is a good thing.
The Bowers American Whiskey and Bowers Bourbon are really good, with a long finish. The aging treatment really shows on these. Serious whiskey and bourbon drinkers will want to check them out.