We recently had the opportunity to visit Tutthilltown Distillery, home of one of our favorite bourbons (their renowned Hudson Baby Bourbon). It was a great opportunity to learn more about their history, their process, and their gorgeous location deep in the heart of New York’s Hudson Valley.
Before we go much further, I want to give a special thanks to the folks at Tuthilltown Spirits and especially to our guide for the day, Fadi Rabie, for giving us a tour of the facility. Not every distillery is staffed by people who seem to love their job and sharing the history of their product, but that’s absolutely the case with the folks at Tuthilltown. It really seemed like every single person we met loved the work and the product they were crafting, and the feeling was infectious.
The history of the facility dates back to well before it was a distillery. The first building was erected in 1788, a grist mill owned by the eponymous Mr. Tuthill, who had redirected the nearby stream to power the facility. It’s this original business which gave the area its original name of Tuthilltown.
Fast forward to 2001, professional rock climber Ralph Erenzo arrived in bucolic upstate New York and decided that he wanted to construct a bed & breakfast to share the peace and quiet with the rest of the world. He purchased 36 acres of land, dubbed it “Bunks in the ‘Gunks,” (for the nearby Shawangunk Ridge) and applied to the local city for a permit to start construction. Which was immediately denied. Apparently, the locals also wanted to protect their peace and quiet, and didn’t like the idea of Manhattan-ites intruding on that.
Ralph spent the next two years battling the city to get a building permit, slowly selling off an acre of land at a time to fund his legal challenges. By 2003, he had burned through most of his capital and only had a fraction of land remaining, so he started looking for other business opportunities that he could use the land for.
The land was zoned for agricultural use, which usually would mean that the former rock climber would have to turn in the carabiners for cows, but he found another idea. There hadn’t been a new distillery in New York since prohibition, mostly thanks to the intentionally prohibitive cost of licensing such a facility in the state. But a wrinkle in NY state law allowed for a farm distillery license to be obtained for a fraction of the price, provided that 75% of the ingredients came from New York State and the distillery was restricted to 35,000 gallons maximum production for the first three years.
Ralph had a plan, but he needed a business partner to actually figure out how to make the whiskey. Around this time a man named Brian Lee, an engineer by trade, arrived and wanted to buy the centuries old grist mill building to start producing artisinal flour. Ralph thought that Brian would be the perfect person to bring a bit of engineering genius to the business, but Brian only wanted to mill grain.
Ralph let Brian use the mill for free to start grinding some flour to see if he really would prefer that business to whiskey. Five hours later Brian emerged from the mill, told Ralph he was in, and Tuthilltown Spirits was born.
The original still purchased for the new business (still used today for their vodka and gin) was purchased off an auction site from Germany and arrived in pieces — without an instruction manual. After putting it together and getting it running, they started with an apple vodka (undoubtedly aided by the local regions amazing apple orchards), not selling much but instead using it as a test bed to perfect their methods. The pair lived on site the entire time, literally eating, sleeping, and drinking Tuthilltown Spirits.
Like most new distilleries, they didn’t have the time to make a ton of product and wait for it to come of age — so instead they used significantly smaller barrels and higher temperature swings to encourage a rapid aging of their spirits. When the first batch was ready, they brought some to nearby Red Hook, New Jersey to try and sell a couple bottles. They sold out in their first outing.
Instead of staying local, Tuthilltown Spirits decided to take a different approach. Rather than trying to convince a few local bars to start stocking their product and working their way up the food chain, they figured they could short circuit a bit of the startup time if they were able to claim that their whiskey was already popular somewhere else that was associated with sophistication and style. So they went across the pond to Paris, where Ralph conducted what they called “commando tastings” — he would bring a tiny bottle of their whiskey wherever he went and casually offer it to bar owners and other influential business people at bars or dinner or wherever else they were.
They were so confident in the quality of their product, they knew they just needed people to taste it to convert them into believers as well. Sure enough, the tactic worked and they were picked up by the well-respected Maison du Whiskey in France for international distribution. As predicted, that international approval immediately made them desirable at home and sales took off domestically as well.
Having built the brand and created a successful business, Ralph and Brian were looking to move on. In 2010, William Grant & Sons, the third largest producer of Scotch whisky in the world, purchased the Tuthilltown Spirits brand but, importantly, not the product. The actual contents of the bottle remained in the hands of local ownership until 2017 when the remainder was purchased in order to maintain the consistent quality. Since then, it has been wholly owned and operated by the larger corporation but oversight and daily production of the product remains operated by native New Yorkers.
The Distillation Process
According to our guide at the distillery, the change in ownership did mean a change in some operations. Instead of forecasting production out only a couple years, the Scotch whisky producer started helping Tutthilltown forecast out much further, more like what they do with their Scotch products (which have a longer aging period and therefore require significantly more planning). It also meant that there was a significant investment in the distillery in terms of new equipment and additional throughput.
Their product remains the same as it was prior to the purchase — just a whole lot more volume at one time. Each whiskey starts with a mixture of four ingredients, specifically corn, rye, wheat, and malted barley. Rye is an especially important grain, as New York was known for its rye and rye whiskey prior to the end of prohibition, so the Manhattan Rye product (90% NY rye, 10% malted barley) follows in that deep tradition.
From there, it is added to the first of the new operational ivestments to the mill: this 3,000 gallon stainless steel fermenting tank. Before the investment, a 900 gallon former pasta sauce cooker was being used for the fermentation and cooking of the grains, but thankfully that has been retired for now.
The cooker releases all of the starches in the grains and turns them into sugar, which is perfect for the next step in the process.
Initially, the mixture cooks at 192 degrees. Barley is added at about 150 degrees, and the whole thing cooks for six hours. But that’s too hot for the yeast, which need about 80 degrees to be happy. That’s where the next investment comes in, a worm tube and a heat exchanger that harvests some of that heat and stores it for the next cook while reducing the internal temperature to a point where it’s OK to ferment.
Over in the next building are eight 3,000 gallon fermenters. Back when the old cooker was still in use this would take multiple cooks to fill, but now one cook in their 3,000 gallon drum fills an entire 3,000 gallon fermenter. The temperature in each is tightly regulated using cooling jackets on the outside of the vessel while the yeast does it’s work. After three to four days, roughly 10% of the mash has turned to alcohol and it is ready for distillation.
Side fun fact: the used grains are returned to local farmers to be used for animal feed.
The fermented mash is pumped to another building where it is distilled into the finished alcohol. The whiskey typically comes off the still at about 139 to 140 proof (~70% alcohol) and is reduced to 114 proof before being put into the barrels with some water from their on-site well that is run through a reverse osmosis machine. That same water, by the way, feeds their cooking process, but without the reverse osmosis filtration which leaves some of the delicious minerality in the water.
From the stills, the whiskey is placed into barrels from the Kelvin Cooperage which have been steamed (as opposed to filled with water) to ensure they are watertight, while conserving as much water as possible.
And this is where things slow down. The barrels are placed into one of Tuthilltown’s seven rickhouses where they sit for a significant period of time. Sometimes that’s as little as a year, other times it can be significantly longer.
Each barrel is labeled with the date when it was filled. Our tour guide was doing a blending class that day and had already set aside some of the older barrels in the building, and helpfully cracked open a four year old barrel of (not so) Baby Bourbon so we could have a taste, at the time one of the oldest barrels on the site. BTW, it was absolutely delicious.
This process isn’t without its perils. On September 24, 2012, one of the rickhouses at the facility caught fire and destroyed a number of barrels. Not one to let that get them down, they turned the tragedy into an opportunity by offering a one time only “double charred” whiskey that was pulled from some of the remaining barrels in that warehouse. A damn smart idea and, from what I’ve heard, a delicious one as well.
This is where the trail ends for Tuthilltown’s production. At one time Tuthilltown bottled their own whiskey on site, but since the acquisition the whiskey is unloaded into stainless steel containers and trucked ($1.3 million in whiskey at a time) to William Grant & Sons’ bottling facility in Edison, New Jersey. But honestly, all of the important elements have already happened at this point. The grains are mostly from New York, all of the distillation took place on site, and the whiskey was aged at the same beautiful place in upstate New York.
While you may never get to stay at a bed and breakfast in this beautiful place, you can buy a bottle of whiskey that has spent its whole life there.
Things To Do at the Distillery
There’s some really cool things to do at the distillery. While I may have just given away the details of the tour, it doesn’t compare to actually experiencing it in person and smelling the amazing aromas that come out of those rooms.
If you don’t have time for a tour, then you might just pop in for a tasting flight, or even a proper cocktail prepared at the recently renovated bar.
For those with a little more time to kill, there are also classes available in their testing and research area. Tuthilltown is always looking for new ideas, and instead of doing a massive run of whiskey that might not turn out right they bought an old Cognac still and lovingly restored it. They now use to try out new stuff. In the same room as this beautiful still, they also offer classes such as a blending class that was being set up while we were there.
And, of course, there’s a room filled with their whiskey for purchase. In fact, some of the varieties can only be found in their tasting room and nowhere else. There’s even an option at times for customers to decide which color wax seal they would like on their specific bottle of whiskey.
It’s a bit of a hike for those in the New York City area, but it’s 100% worth the trip. This is certainly one of my new favorite distilleries, with a knowledgeable and engaged staff, an amazing product, and a beautiful location.