On Craft: Finger Lakes Distilling

finger lakes distillery whiskey whisky barrel aged seneca lake rickhouse warehouse storage

Craft spirits, while for some instantaneously synonymous with “quality,” can sometimes get a bad rap among whisky aficionados. Even though prevailing wisdom suggests that small batches,  local materials, and “handmade” (or at least small-scale and hands-on, rather than industrial and fully-mechanized) techniques  make for better product, the truth is that a lot of distillers laying claim to these principles turn out mediocre—and occasionally downright terrible—spirit. And some “craft producers” (yes, Michter’s included) are circumspect—even cagey—about the fact that they source their aged whisky. (While sourcing isn’t something to be ashamed of, a lack of clarity in brand messaging can confuse the non-savvy. To really know the provenance of a whisky, you have to read the label. For quick reference on particular brands, Sku’s Recent Eats provides a comprehensive list of American whiskey distilleries and brands, including those who source.)

For uninformed consumers who want to patronize independent, local, or small-scale whisky brands but aren’t sure which bottles are worth the price point, it can be intimidating to figure out where to start, especially considering that words like “craft,” “small-batch,” and even “single barrel” are essentially undefined (or inconsistently defined) in a legal sense—meaning, therefore, that anyone can define for themselves what is and is not considered “craft.” Even though I run with the whisky nerds, there are so many new “craft” brands appearing lately that it’s darn near impossible to keep up. Sifting through the marketing noise of folksy backstories and snappy packaging to find whisky that actually tastes good can turn an enjoyable hobby into a chore.

bar tasting room distillery microdistillery Finger Lakes Distilling bottles whisky whiskey spirits

Tasting room at Finger Lakes Distilling

I rely heavily on the trusted recommendations (and warnings) of fellow whisky lovers when seeking out and trying brands that are new to me. So a few weeks ago, when a friend with an excellent palate and serious whisky chops praised Finger Lakes Distilling as the only craft distiller he doesn’t “avoid like the plague,” my interest was piqued. This distillery flies under the radar, bottling their whiskies under the name McKenzie, and I hadn’t heard of it up to that point. Serendipitously, I had a weekend in the Finger Lakes planned, so I got in touch with the distiller, Thomas McKenzie, to arrange a quick visit.

I could tell right away that Thomas is a man who respects and enjoys whisky as, indeed, a craft—something to tinker with, develop over time, and (perhaps someday) perfect just as an artist would a sculpture or painting or eventual magnum opus. The office space of the distillery is lined with shelves of whisky bottles, many of them old and rare, that Thomas tastes not just for pleasure but research, comparing his own products with whiskies of the past.

old whisky whiskey bottle rare dusty

Thomas McKenzie’s shelves of dusty whiskey.

Thomas and his partner, Brian McKenzie (no relation, oddly enough) opened Finger Lakes Distilling about five years ago. The distillery itself has a very modest footprint, with a teeny column still (only 25 feet tall) and thumper, and equally wee (350 gallons) pot still and rectifier. They have a small warehouse for on-site barrel storage and bottling, with plans for a larger rickhouse someday. Most of Finger Lakes’ whisky is sour mash; they use 50% setback (rather than the more standard 25%). Amazingly, they grow their own yeast—a rarity even among so-called craft distilleries these days.

continuous column still copper thumper distillery whisky whiskey Finger Lakes Distilling microdistillery

25-foot continuous still

Finger Lakes barrels spirit at an unusually low 100 proof, which brings out a different spectrum of flavors in the finished whisky than might appear with a more standard proof of 125 or above. Using 53-gallon barrels, they put only 50 gallons in them to age because, Thomas says, the headspace allows the spirit to begin maturing immediately. The angels’ share is surprisingly high—about 13% annually—and, because the warehouse is quite dry, whisky comes out of the barrels at a higher proof than when it went in, about 104.

grain silo storage whisky whiskey distillery microdistillery Finger Lakes Distilling

Grain storage

Considering the distillery’s young age, I was surprised at the variety of aged expressions it offers. Besides brandy and grappa (a natural fit, with grapevines and vineyards surrounding the distillery site), vodka, gin, white dog, and liqueurs, Finger Lakes sells bourbon, wheat whiskey, rye, and an Irish-style pot still whisky. They’ll soon have a wheated bourbon for sale—and, having tasted a bit, I am desperate for a bottle. It’s astonishingly good.

Frankly, all their aged expressions are good—I’d say very good. The whiskies, which show their young age with a pleasant heat, all have a thick sweetness offset by the wood character which lends a surprising freshness. Bourbon, rye, and wheat whiskey are bottled at 91 proof. Even young as they are, Finger Lakes’ whiskies show remarkable complexity that continues developing in the glass. I’m guessing (hoping!) that in future years there will be older, even more interesting expressions to try.

barrel cask whisky whiskey Finger Lakes Distillery wooden oak aged spirits

Barrel storage. As you can see, more space is needed.

This distillery exemplifies “craft” as I understand it. One brief visit, followed by a tasting, handily bore out my belief that true craft is about the process as much as the result. Finger Lakes Distilling thoughtfully makes spirit using well-tested and proven (some might call it traditional) equipment and methods, constantly refining their process. (For example, while they used to age some spirit in 10-gallon barrels, they’re phasing them out in favor of larger barrels which produce the desired flavors, even though the whiskey might be ready sooner in the smaller ones.) The people at Finger Lakes—from Thomas and Brian to the meticulous assistant distiller to the friendly guy pouring in the tasting room—all genuinely care about the products. There is no marketing speak, no backstory hokum. Just an airy room overlooking the distilling equipment, open for everyone to see, and a whole lot of bottles that need no introduction.

barrel cask whisky whiskey Finger Lakes Distillery wooden oak aged spirits tasting room

The tasting room, overlooking production

Finger Lakes Distilling backs up its craftsmanship credentials with a solid local footing—despite being around for only five years, it’s clearly a beloved institution already. As a licensed New York farm distillery, Finger Lakes sources the majority of its ingredients from within the state. (The law requires at least 75%, but Finger Lakes gets closer to 90% of its grain and other materials from New York.) The company seems to have not only an awareness of the economic impact it has on its neighbors, but a real investment in the mutual benefit of both the distillery and the people, land, and businesses—especially agricultural businesses—around it. Obviously, this was part of the reason New York state created its farm distilling license to begin with (which Brian worked to make happen). But it goes beyond financial gains. Together with the care that it puts into making spirit, the strength of Finger Lakes Distilling rests on its connection to the community—by purchasing locally-sourced ingredients and materials; employing more than a dozen area residents; and acting as a tourist attraction in its own right.

I would recommend any of the Finger Lakes whiskies, but am only providing tasting notes for those that I’ve been able to drink multiple times. If you get the chance to travel to the area, make time to swing by the distillery and taste a few of their other offerings, chat with the staff, and watch the magic happen from their beautiful tasting room.

McKenzie Wheat Whiskey Rye Whisky Finger Lakes Distilling microdistillery

McKenzie Wheat Whiskey
A beautiful sweet nose starts off  right off the bat, with butterscotch, vanilla, and brown sugar underscored by a hint of cantaloupe. The mouth-watering palate is rich with molasses, vanilla, and black cherries, and lingers on a sweet, spicy finish. Give it time to develop in the glass but don’t add water—it mutes some of the more subtle flavors.

McKenzie Rye Whiskey
Baking spices, thyme and butterscotch on the nose meld with a surprising undertone of watermelon. The palate is all fresh-baked bread, caramel, cherry cough syrup, and a bit of caraway, with a current of old-fashioned hoarhound candy. Adding water enhances the spicy-sweetness without dimming the intense warmth, so enjoy it either way.

Thanks to Thomas McKenzie, Brian McKenzie, and the staff of Finger Lakes Distilling for showing me around, answering my endless questions, and providing the bottle of McKenzie Rye.

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Musings on Michter’s

bourbon whiskey rye whisky Michter's single barrel American

Whisky drinkers can get pretty sentimental about their drams. We bemoan the loss of distilleries closed when whisky wasn’t selling; we decry the trend of whiskies with no age statement (NAS); we question the industrialization of traditional processes and ingredients. Most of all, we tear our hair and gnash our teeth at the soaring prices for whiskies aimed at collectors or “investors”—a trend which has driven up prices across the board. Looking back at the whisky of years gone by, we have a tendency to view it not only as cheaper (which it was), but as more pure—untainted by computerized processes, slick marketing, and gimmicky packaging—and therefore superior to today’s product.

Many of these criticisms have merit. The closing of any distillery making good whisky is a great loss indeed, and the trend of NAS whiskies is damaging to the industry overall, present and future. Naturally, every serious drinker feels frustration with people who buy whisky not to enjoy but to look at on a shelf or to re-sell later at a profit. But we should also look critically at our instinct to prize something just because it’s old or traditional or historic. Although there are numerous examples of great whisky from the past, there was certainly plenty of terrible whisky made throughout history, too. (And I bet much of it hasn’t survived because of that fact.)

I’ve been considering this question lately with regards to a few different whiskies, especially after some fascinating conversations with Joshua Feldman, aka the Coopered Tot, who has made an academic pursuit of tracking down and tasting old dusty bottles. We recently tasted a whole bunch of Michter’s together, a brand made in Pennsylvania from the mid-2oth century and affiliated with a distillery in Schaefferstown, PA that traces back to Revolutionary era. When Michter’s went bankrupt in 1989, thousands of gallons of unsold spirit remained in its warehouse. The Michter’s “jug house” and visitor center was a popular Pennsylvania landmark up to that point and probably for that reason the brand has remained associated with positive memories for many. (Read about Michter’s complicated history, along with some fond reminiscences, here, here, and here.)

In 1996, Chatham Imports registered the Michter’s trademark, which was then in the public domain. They began selling whisky under the Michter’s name that had been sourced from an undisclosed distiller. They also used language in their marketing and labels that implied an extension of the Schaefferstown distilling legacy (although a recent press release acknowledges the bankruptcy and subsequent revival of the brand in a more straightforward way). Since the mid-2000s, Michter’s has been “like a cook in someone else’s kitchen,” making their own spirit on another distillery’s equipment and aging it in their own barrels in rented rickhouse space. The earliest runs have been bottled as Michter’s US*1 range, while older Michter’s expressions continue to come from an unnamed source or sources.

whiskey whisky Michter's sour mash original old 1970s

Michter’s Original Sour Mash Whiskey from the 1970s/80s

Even though it’s difficult to find old Michter’s to compare with the new, it appears highly likely that what is labeled Michter’s today far surpasses the Michter’s of the 1970s and 80s in quality. The two can’t be compared at all, really, since the new stuff shares nothing with historic Michter’s but its name. Today’s Michter’s offers a range that includes bourbon, rye, and sour mash whisky at various ages while the Michter’s of yesteryear focused on sour mash whisky more or less exclusively, aging it for around six years. I can appreciate the emotional attachment some folks have to the old Michter’s site—and by extension to the brand name—but it seems the spirit itself wasn’t very good (corroborating opinion here). (In fairness, Ethan Smith’s post on the Whisky Advocate blog quotes the old Michter’s Master Distiller, Dick Stoll, as saying that the whiskey was “good stuff”—make of that what you will.)

I enjoyed tasting the current Michter’s range and am encouraged that Chatham is already making its own spirit. In fact, Michter’s now has a licensed distillery in Shively, KY and since December 2012 has operated two test stills there. In July of this year, they’ll install a full column still and will eventually be bottling only their own whisky. With this move (plus an additional micro-distillery and tourist facility in downtown Louisville), I look forward to the future of the brand, especially tasting it over the next several years to see how well they can transition from sourced to own-made whiskey. Having spoken quite candidly with Joseph Magliocco, Michter’s President, I am convinced that he is invested in making great whisky, both in financial terms and in bringing in the right equipment, processes, and people to make it happen.

Michter's Joseph Magliocco distillery micro-distillery Louisville Kentucky bourbon rye whiskey

Joseph Magliocco shows off a mock-up of Michter’s planned Louisville micro-distillery and tourist center.

Magliocco also has not hidden his ambition to elevate American whisky to levels that are currently more common in the Scotch market. Last year’s Celebration release, priced at $4,000 a bottle, points to what will likely become a trend among American distillers, as they test the market’s taste for it, just as it is now an accepted part of the Scotch industry. I can’t blame anyone for wanting to make money off their product, especially when it’s a genuinely excellent whiskey, and I think there are American whiskies every bit as deserving as Scotch of “premium” and “luxury” designations. And of course as drinkers get priced out of the premium Scotch market, they’ll turn to alternatives, thus igniting the economic cycle of increased demand and higher prices among domestic whiskies. But selfishly—because I’m not in a position to purchase a $500 bottle of 25-year-old rye, no matter how much I desire it—I wish we could keep the American whisky market where it is, where I can afford, without too much sacrifice, an amazing bottle like Four Roses 125th Anniversary Limited Edition Small Batch ($90).

As far as Michter’s is concerned, marketing itself as an extension of the historic distillery is not, in my opinion, necessary. Although they are trying to play on the cachet of history and its associations with better quality, many people (well, many whisky geeks) have been turned off by what they see as deceptive language and “cashing in” on a legacy which the brand, with its undisclosed sources and location in Kentucky rather than Pennsylvania, hasn’t continued. Maybe these people aren’t a significant part of Michter’s target market; I’m sure the brand knows what it’s doing. But I think the whisky can stand on its own without any attempts to relate it to a backstory that is, at best, fanciful and, at worst, deliberately misleading.

Going forward—especially now that they’re making their own spirit—I think Michter’s should gently honor the legacy of their name and let their whisky do the rest of the talking. The stuff they’ve bottled well deserves to be appreciated on its own merits, without taking the old Michter’s into account. Even setting aside all the sourced whisky, just tasting the Michter’s US*1 range that has been made by the brand shows that they’re off to a good start. With a few more years’ time, I anticipate the whisky made in Michter’s own distillery will prove itself genuinely good and even great in its own right.

In the meantime, while we wait for the new Michter’s to come of age, let’s acknowledge that we can enjoy sourced whisky if for no other reason than it tastes good. And let’s support the ambitions of a brand that wants to make other good-tasting whisky to sell to us—hopefully at prices we can afford. 

Tasting Notes
Rather than sourcing, Michter’s currently makes these expressions itself using another distillery’s equipment. They retail for $40-45 in most states.

Michter’s US*1 Bourbon
Aged around eight and a half years, it has a floral and citrusy nose with light herbaceous notes. The palate is grapefruit, spun sugar, lavender, and chicory—a lovely, spicy, lingering dram.

Michter’s US*1 Rye
With roses, vanilla sugar, coconut, and toffee on the nose, it has a comfortably rounded palate—spicy, chocolatey, gingery, with a hint of arugula—and lingers well. It’s about six years old and one of the best entry-level ryes I’ve had.

Michter’s US*1 Sour Mash Whiskey
Neither a bourbon nor a rye, this whisky offers something to love from both ends. It has a beautiful nose of cotton candy, caramel, and spearmint, with more mint on the palate mingling with walnuts, fruit, and floral notes. At about six years old, it shows lovely complexity. (Note that this whisky, while not meant to replicate the original Michter’s sour mash, is a sort of hat-tip to it.)

Michter’s US*1 American Whiskey
This whisky is a free-for-all, both in terms of how the distiller can make it and what it smells and tastes like. The nose has interesting notes of coffee and kettle corn—sweet and a little woody. I taste mint chocolate and orange peel with strong wood influence and a honeyed sweetness that reminds me of Bit O’ Honey candy. The finish is all cherry cough syrup—not unpleasant, but very unlike the other expressions.