How Do You Like Them Apples?

Ed Brennan, fourth-generation owner and manager.

The same climate and soil conditions that result in excellent grape growing in the Finger Lakes also contribute to the successful cultivation of apples. While they are grown in nooks and crannies throughout the Finger Lakes, it is on the outer boundaries of the region that the apple harvest takes on commercial proportions.

The major apple production area is in Wayne County, just north of the Thruway and the Finger Lakes, and tucked under the influence of Lake Ontario’s vast waters. Of the secondary centers of apple production, the apples grown in the large glacial valley of LaFayette – just east of Skaneateles and Otisco Lakes, and south of Syracuse – are also well-known for their quality.

It is the hills of LaFayette that Beak & Skiff’s 1,000 acres and 250,000 trees call home; perched on the apex of a north-south ridge that hugs the western portion of the valley. Founded in 1911 by George Skiff and Charles Beak, the company has evolved over the years from a commercial wholesale grower to a pick-your-own destination; then to a cider mill, and a comprehensive producer of spirits, wine, and hard cider.

To celebrate its 102nd year and to mark its emergence in the alcoholic beverage business under its brand “1911,” Beak & Skiff opened a grand new tasting room during the 2013 apple harvest season.

“We have a 100-year history of being in lots of different businesses,” says Ed Brennan, owner and general manager for the 1911 brand, and a Skiff family member by marriage. Ed notes the orchard’s proximity to the Finger Lakes (Skaneateles lies just a few minutes’ drive west on Route 20) in their decision not only to get into the wine, cider, and liquor business, but also to create a tasting room experience much like the wineries found throughout the region.

“We spent a lot of time studying everything in the Finger Lakes when we designed this building,” Ed explains, motioning to the large barn-like tasting room that can easily accommodate hundreds of thirsty patrons.

Vodka and gin
Beak & Skiff is not entirely new to the beverage business. After spending almost 30 years honing its sweet cider production, the orchard began to make hard cider and apple wine in 2001, opening a small tasting room on Route 20 just down the hill from the main orchard. In 2010 the company opened a distillery across the street from the wine and cider tasting room, hoping to take advantage of the burgeoning spirits market. “We have the first distillery license in Onondaga County since Prohibition,” Ed jokes.

The master distiller on the premises is Steve Morse (also part of the extended Beak & Skiff family) who leads the vodka and gin program year-round. Like any organic product with glucose, apples can be turned into a mash that is fermented, distilled, and blended into the alcoholic products with which consumers are familiar. Beak & Skiff favors long and multiple distillations for its vodka, cutting the result with pure water to bring it to its 80 proof (40 percent alcohol) mark.

Gin is treated with botanicals to create its distinctive herbal notes. The gin made at Beak & Skiff is Recipe #17, found after many trials that tried to create a distinctive yet familiar flavor for the popular spirit. “Our gin has 10 different botanicals,” says Ed Brennan. “We tried to keep the ingredients as local as possible, although not every flavor is found in the Finger Lakes. We are proud that we can make this spirit using local apples as the base.”

The tasting room is open all year long
The wine and cider offered in the Beak & Skiff lineup is hardly an afterthought. The wine comes in three distinct flavors, relying on Empire, Gala, and Northern Spy apples to create varying tastes. The hard cider is of high quality. The mill produces a central 1911 Cider as its leading brand, but creates variations though a sweet and dry version of the main cider while also offering raspberry and blueberry infusions as well. The mouthfeel of the cider is particularly smooth due to fine filtration, allowing for the taster to focus on the subtle qualities and flavors found within the apple-based drink.

Asked why Beak & Skiff decided to add such a comprehensive lineup of spirits, ciders and wines to its already robust retail and commercial apple and sweet cider business, Ed Brennan says that diversification seemed like the order of the day as the apple business has gotten tougher over the years. The families felt that focusing on their history with the 1911 brand would create new opportunities for the next generation of owners. Ed’s son Steve recently moved back to LaFayette from New York to help with marketing and sales, becoming the fifth generation of the family to work in the business.

The challenge, Ed admits, is creating an attraction that extends beyond the traditional August-October busy season for apple orchards. He hopes that visitors begin to frequent the Beak & Skiff grounds throughout the year, and consider making their way to the new tasting room in the spring and summer as well as well as in the fall.

Although Beak & Skiff’s products are found in 50 liquor stores throughout the region, and its vodka was recently picked up to be served on cruise ships, Ed Brennan wants the new tasting room to be the focal point of the new brand. “We have over 200,000 visitors annually,” Ed says about the entire Beak & Skiff operation. “We want this new tasting room to be part of an even larger experience.”


by Jason Feulner