A New Use for Grapes

Over the past few years, more and more wineries have sprung up around the Finger Lakes, with the total number now exceeding 100. In terms of wine, visitors to the region have never had as much choice as they do today. Adding even more beverage options to a Finger Lakes visit, a new operation opened this past summer, one that does not make wine, but rather spirits. Finger Lakes Distilling, located in Burdett along Route 414, wants to alter the preconception of what a regionally crafted drink can be made of.

That is not to say, however, that grapes do not enter into the equation. The Finger Lakes Distilling tasting room and production facility is located in the middle of a lush, mature vineyard that yields the fruit needed in some of the spirits created there. The distillery is a tall, sleek building inspired by traditional Scottish whisky distilleries. Patrons enter the second story from the rear of the building. The long wood floor in the tasting room is made from refurbished Kentucky barn wood. Large internal windows overlook the pot and still on the first floor below, with a 20-foot-tall copper rectification column reaching up to eye level, glistening in the sunlight.

Finger Lakes Distilling is the brainchild of Brian McKenzie, a young Elmira native with a background in finance and banking. McKenzie has always enjoyed spirits, and while he realized that the Finger Lakes Region is well suited to winemaking, he imagined that the potential existed for distilling as well. “The main problem,” McKenzie recalled, “is that New York distilling laws did not allow for direct sales to customers. We had to lobby for a change in the distilling law to make this business possible.” Finger Lakes Distilling is officially designated as a farm distillery, much like the farm wineries that are open for customer tasting and sales.

One of the main elements of McKenzie’s business plan is to use as many local products as possible. Vodka, a neutral spirit, can be made from any sugary or starchy plant matter, including grapes. The distillery makes its vodka from grapes grown in the Finger Lakes, imparting floral and fruit flavors to the vodka that are not often found in mass-produced versions made from grain. The gin produced there uses grape vodka as a base, then adds a special blend of local botanicals and imported juniper that gives the gin some familiar tastes but with an enhanced profile. Additionally, the corn whiskey offered for sale is made from local corn, and the maple-flavored apple brandy is made from local maple syrup and apples.

While many of the products made at Finger Lakes Distilling are approachable and flavorful, the distillery anticipates that not everyone likes or has experience with strong spirits. In addition to the aforementioned spirits, the distillery also offers a series of cassis, blueberry, and raspberry liqueurs with a lower alcohol content. The sweet fruit flavors are derived from soaking local fruit in a neutral spirit. The liqueurs can stand alone or be utilized in cocktails. Most consumers who enjoy sweeter wines would have no problem sampling the liqueurs offered in the tasting room.

Finger Lakes Distilling is defined as a craft or micro-distillery in that it specializes in very small batches of handcrafted distilled spirits. Many commercial distilleries have the capacity to produce more spirits in a day – or perhaps in just a few hours – than Finger Lakes Distilling might make in a year. Craft distilleries do not necessarily compete with larger operations in a direct sense, but they do offer some alternatives. Adherents to craft distilling cite the attention to detail that produces subtle flavors and smooth profiles in the spirits. “It’s been a growing movement,” McKenzie explained. “Our small size allows us to be experimental and we can stress the local sourcing of our products.”

As involved as Brian McKenzie is in the processing, distilling, tasting and blending of spirits, he is not the master distiller. That honor goes to Thomas McKenzie, who is not related to Brian. In fact, distiller Thomas McKenzie is not a native of New York, but hails from Monroeville, Alabama. The two McKenzies met at a craft distillers’ conference several years ago, and Brian convinced Thomas to help him start the business. A friendly man with a deep Southern accent, Thomas claims his trade was “bred into me” after learning generations of distilling secrets from his family. At one point or another, Thomas also gained experience in brewing and winemaking, a background that makes him feel comfortable making a variety of distilled products from all kinds of natural ingredients.

The German-manufactured copper still that Thomas uses to make the spirits has a capacity of 300 gallons. Much like wine, spirits begin with simple fermentation of fruit, grain or other glucose-bearing substances. The fermented liquid is then placed in the distiller and heated until the alcohol vaporizes. The tall rectification column that sticks up from the still allows for an interaction that purifies the alcohol by promoting condensation on a number of plates that are cooler than the vapors with which they come in contact. As the vapors travel up the column, they become more concentrated with alcohol, and are ultimately condensed again to form a high-proof spirit.

Beyond what is already available in the tasting room, Finger Lakes Distilling plans to release a rye whiskey during the coming winter months. The distillery is also aging some brandy in small oak casks that will be released in a few years. Over time, the distillery hopes to add a variety of products to its lineup to attract customers of different drinking persuasions. Although there are many different kinds of spirits, Brian McKenzie emphasizes that all future products will have as much of a local emphasis as possible, which means that some popular liquors will prove impossible to make. “Rum is made from sugar cane and there’s not much sugar cane in the Finger Lakes,” he jokes. “There’s also not much agave around here to make tequila!”

Ultimately, Finger Lakes Distilling is a grand experiment in a region that is accustomed to destination drink producers but is dominated almost exclusively by wine and its related products. An associate member of the Seneca Lake wine trail, Finger Lakes Distilling is betting on visitors to cast aside their preconceived notions about spirits and embrace something new. “Some might be scared of high-proof liquor,” Brian McKenzie admits, “but we think most visitors will find something here that they like. We want to be known as the region’s distillery and be appreciated for our handcrafted products made with passion.”


by Jason Feulner
Jason Feulner writes for www.lenndevours.com, a New York wine website. He lives in Syracuse.