My wife and I have a constant debate about what defines “upstate” New York — as someone who lived in Westchester county, I think that anything north of Westchester is upstate. She, having grown up in Orange county, disagrees. But the one thing we agree on is that her former college town (and the state capital), Albany, is decidedly “upstate”. And, for the first time since prohibition, that upstate town has an upstanding distillery that is cranking out some stand-up spirits.
The story of the Albany Distilling Co. starts roughly the same way most bad ideas start: as a drunken exuberance. As the story goes, co-founders Matthew Jager and John Curtin — both teachers by trade — were drinking at the Albany Pump Station when they had a sudden and undeniable urge to open their own bar. After sobering up a bit, they decided to not open a bar… and instead open a distillery.
Founded in 2011, the Albany Distilling Co. follows in the footsteps of other New York craft distilleries by using locally sourced ingredients to make their spirits. When asked in 2012 about whether the duo had any concerns about opening a distillery without any industry experience, Curtin replied “Almost nobody in New York State has made whiskey before, if they have, most of them were breaking the law — or lying about it.”
As for the location of their distillery, the stars seem to have aligned on that one. After having little luck finding a good location and lamenting that fact loudly at the Albany Pump Station, the bartender overheard them and offered a 1,500 square foot space adjacent to the building that just happened to have been Albany’s original first distillery (and whose equipment is on display at the New York State museum) prior to prohibition.
The business did well, opening a second location in the nearby town of Troy in 2015 (which unfortunately has since closed) and expanding to a new location in Albany.
Jager left the company in 2014 to found another distillery called Yankee Distillers in an area north of Albany, and Rick Sicari stepped in as co-owner. Curtin and Sicari remain the co-owners of the distillery to this day and continue cranking out craft spirits in Albany, New York.
- Learn More: What Is Bourbon Whiskey?
Albany Distilling Co’s line of whiskey is titled “Ironweed” after the Pulizer Prize winning book of the same title by William Kennedy. (The novel features a drunken Albany native during the Great Depression and was adapted into an Oscar nominated film starring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep in 1987.)
This whiskey starts off with a grain bill of 100% locally sourced New York grains — specifically, a combination of 60% corn, 25% rye, and 15% malted barley. Those grains are milled on-site (not a common practice for small distilleries, which makes this pretty notable) before being cooked and fermented to create a mildly alcoholic liquid.
That liquid is then distilled in their column still to create their white dog whiskey, which is then put into charred new oak barrels for a minimum of four years to age. The distillery takes pride in the fact that no additives (besides water for proofing) are used in their bottles, so the color and the flavor in the bottle is exactly what came out of the barrel.
The bottle design is simple, but effective.
Starting out with the physical bottle itself, it’s a straightforward shape: a rectangular cross section with a flat face on the front and back and straight walls. There are no curves until you get to the shoulder, where it rounds nicely to a short neck. The bottle is capped off with a wood and cork stopper.
I’ve seen bottles like this, but I’ve never seen this specific one before. It reminds me of a simplified version of the Whistle Pig bottle.
That simplified design extends to the label as well, which does a great job of being large enough to grab your attention without covering up the beautiful color of the whiskey inside. Especially for a distillery that takes pride in the fact that they don’t add any coloring to their spirits, this is a great way to showcase that beautiful color. The design is nice and simple, as well. It conveys the information you need to know without being flashy or ostentatious.
This is a beautiful, amber colored spirit, with a twinge of orange coloring that really gives it that extra visual appeal. It smells nice as well, with a bit more fruity and darker notes than usual. I’m getting some apple, dried apricots, raisins, figs, banana, mango, and finally, underneath all that, the usual brown sugar and vanilla from the bourbon.
Most of those fruity components make it into the flavor, making this almost closer to a well-saturated highland scotch whiskey than a Kentucky bourbon. I’m getting some honey sweetness up front followed by figs, ripe apple, orange citrus, and then some cherry. As the flavor develops, there are some heads-y aromatic components that give a cedar wood like impression, and then the more traditional brown sugar and vanilla starts to mix in. Near the finish is a bit of black pepper spice, and the lingering flavor is that of some dried apricot and a bit of black cherry.
If this is acting like a highland scotch whiskey with the flavor profile, then that could mean a problem with the addition of some ice. Lighter and fruitier flavors tend to get buried when the ice goes into the glass, leading to a flatter flavor profile.
There’s a little bit of that going on here, but thankfully I think there’s enough saturation here to keep things from getting too watery.
Instead of the nice progression of flavors we saw when taken neat, the experience is shortened to pretty much just one flash of flavor that lingers for a minute. I’m still getting some interesting fruity components — specifically, the apple, banana, fig, and cherry combining together for a slightly richer profile than normal — but the brown sugar and vanilla aren’t nearly as prominent as they were before. Even the orange citrus is nearly imperceptible. I’d almost say it has been absorbed by the other flavors at this point.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
I personally like a richer version of an old fashioned, one with more depth and character. Which is good news with this bottle, because that’s exactly what I’m getting. The dried apricot and fig in particular are coming through clearly, with the apple and other fruit flavors in a supporting role. It all mixes nicely with the aromatics in the bitters to present a well balanced flavor profile with some interesting tones.
I do feel like this strikes a good balance — the addition of the ice has toned down the other flavors just enough that it isn’t too dark and brooding. Sometimes, the richer flavors edge into the “dark chocolate” territory… which isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But in this case, I feel like the bourbon is doing a good job of keeping out of that range and just making for an enjoyable and flavorful cocktail.
On the one hand, this is pretty good. There’s more fruit in this flavor profile than we usually get, which makes this almost like a lighter version of a Dark and Stormy (usually made using rum) but with more orchard fruit instead of tropical versions. The dried apricot and apple are both making an appearance, and I think these components do a great job counterbalancing the bright (and often too shiny) ginger beer.
What I’m not getting a whole lot of is some textural changes to the flavor, specifically around the finish. Usually, when you have a whiskey with a higher level of rye in the mash bill, a black peppery kick comes through and adds some texture to the finish… but in this case, I’m just getting a smooth and even experience.
This is a well-constructed bourbon for a newer distillery. I like the flavor profile they are working with here and I appreciate the fruity components that they were able to put into the bottle. I also appreciate the packaging, which does a really good job of showing off the spirit and looking appealing. If there’s anything I can fault this spirit for, I think that in this price range I’d be looking for a touch more saturation in the flavors and a bit more character overall — but still it’s a strong competitor for the price point.
|Albany Distilling Co. Ironweed Straight Bourbon Whiskey|
Produced By: Albany Distilling Co.Production Location: New York, United States
Classification: Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 43% ABV
Price: $60 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating: 4/5
A fruity and complex spirit made from local upstate New York ingredients at a damn reasonable price.