In 2001, Ralph Erenzo acquired thirty acres of land on the west side of the Hudson in Gardiner, New York, that included Tuthilltown Gristmill — a 220-year-old landmark still used to produce kosher matzo flour for several Hasidic communities in Brooklyn — and breathtaking views of the river and cliffs. Lots of cliffs. He wanted to open a climber’s ranch. The neighbors had other ideas. They didn’t want a bunch of climbers invading their town, so they hired lawyers to keep Erenzo locked in municipal process. They battled for three years until Erenzo ran out of money.
With limited options, Erenzo sold half the property. Out of frustration, he called the local zoning officer — whom he knew pretty well by that point — and asked, “what can I do with this property that I have a right to do?”
The officer told Erenzo he was in a farm district, and that gave him a right to farm; no one could stop him from making the noises or smells that went along with that profession. The officer also mentioned that wineries fell under farm law in New York.
So Erenzo looked into it. At the time, there were 128 other wineries in New York, and none of them produced world-class wine. Growing grapes in the Northeast is a problem, and it would take years to get his first crop. Erenzo wasn’t interested enough to pursue it. But, while reading about wineries, he tripped over a new law that lowered the fee for a distillery permit from $65,000, which was what it had been since prohibition, to $1,500, for three years.
Today, instead of spartan cinderblock structures, the buildings of Hudson Whiskey distillery are warm and inviting. Their original capacity, 50 gallons per week, is now up to 1,000.
I could make whiskey, thought Erenzo. That winter, he built a still out of a teakettle. He fermented apple cider in the basement and distilled it off his stove, just to see how it all worked. By the end of the winter, he felt that, if he had better equipment and a little more knowledge, he could do it.
Like most success stories, this one required a little serendipity. Not long after committing himself to building a whiskey distillery, Erenzo met the man who would eventually become his business partner, Brian Lee. Lee, an electrical engineer, was in charge of the buildout of ESPN’s High Definition Studio in Bristol, Connecticut. But he wanted to stop doing electrical engineering and buy Erenzo’s mill to make artisanal flour. Erenzo asked him to spend time with the milling team before deciding on the purchase for sure.
A few days later, Lee had decided. “It’s not a job change — it’s a death sentence”, he said. Erenzo, who needed a partner, pitched his idea to Lee. Lee thought about it. Three days later, he agreed to be a part of the distillery.
Over the course of the next three years, Erenzo and Lee built their distillery, called Hudson Whiskey, by hand. Today, instead of spartan cinderblock structures, the buildings are warm and inviting. Their original capacity, 50 gallons per week, is now up to 1,000.
On a brisk Manhattan morning, we met with Erenzo for a taste test. He introduced us to the Hudson Baby Bourbon Whiskey ($45), the first bourbon whiskey ever made in New York, and the first legal pot-distilled whiskey made in New York since prohibition. One of five spirits in the Hudson Whiskey line — which also includes Corn Whiskey, Four Grain Bourbon, Manhattan Rye, and Single Malt Whiskey — the 92-proof Baby Bourbon comes packaged in the company’s distinctive hand-waxed, hand-numbered bottles, which, if you live in New York, you’ve probably seen hanging out with the other whiskies at classier establishments. Made from 100 percent New York corn and aged for at least two years in American Oak barrels, it proves that not all good bourbon needs to come from the South.
Before we move on, we want to reiterate an important number: 100 percent corn. By definition, bourbon must be made from at least 51% corn, but Hudson decided to go full out. This unique creation process gives the drink a distinct flavor: the nose contains caramel and strong notes of vanilla, and the drink lands sweet on the tongue. Compared to older bourbons — Knob Creek 9, for example, which is aged for nine years — the Baby Bourbon (get the name now?) is young and fresh. Much of the taste comes from that fact that it’s aged in three-gallon casks, meaning that the wood-to-whiskey contact ratio is much higher than it would be than in the industry-standard 53-gallon casks. The finish yields an alcoholic bite that lingers in the sinuses. It’s extremely smooth, great for sipping, and a step-up from ordinary.
At $45 for 350ml, you won’t buy a bottle every day, but once or twice, for a special occasion or as a gift for someone who knows his stuff (or maybe just to try a sip of New York history), it’s definitely worth a try.