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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.