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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Tasting the Range: Balcones

Balcones Baby Blue True Blue Texas Whisky Whiskey Bottles

Last week, I went drinking on a school night. (And by school night I mean a night before work, obvs.) When I make choices like these, I usually face regret the next day and vow never to do it again. And yet, rarely do I choose to go out and drink through the entire line of one of America’s finest craft distilleries.

When that happens, there are NO regrets.

I trekked all the way to Hell Gate Social in my old hood, Astoria, for a tasting of Balcones whiskies led by Chip Tate, the bearded genius who founded the Waco, Texas distillery. His presentation ranked among the best I’ve ever gotten from an actual distiller, overpowering not by volume but by sheer gentle magnetism the noise of the backyard BBQ going on around us. He put the small crowd at ease immediately by chatting like we were all old friends and displaying the kind of understated hospitality that the best Southerners are known for.

Chip Tate Balcones Texas craft whisky whiskey distillery

Chip holds forth on his whisky

Plus, the whiskies were out-of-control AWESOME. I’d had some Balcones before, but never the opportunity to taste them all in one sitting, from the Texas Single Malt to the Brimstone with some special treats besides. Chip says he tries “to obey the flavor rules and not just do something weird to do something weird,” a refreshing position at a time when many craft distillers resort to gimmicks to distinguish themselves. Chip seeks to create a flavor profile that is unique and uniquely Texan, and boy, does he ever succeed. It was easy to connect the dots between the pours, and yet each expression stood on its own. Even if Balcones made only one of these spirits, the name would command same the respect and admiration as its full line of seven expressions.

Balcones Texas craft whisky whiskey glass

Examining my whisky

Chip’s “brand of whisky science” is that you have to start with quality to get quality. So he uses ingredients, like Hopi blue corn, and processes, like rigorous wood management and even building his own stills (he sported burn marks from recent welding), that he has tested and vetted and found to result in an excellent product. I think almost every distiller would claim the same philosophy, but when Chip says it, he can genuinely back it up. He’s turned down investors who wanted to increase production but on terms Chip didn’t agree with. Luckily, some investors came along who see the wisdom of letting the man behind the magic do things his way, and Balcones is building a new facility in Waco’s downtown that will increase production without sacrificing quality (hence the newly-welded stills).

Balcones Texas whisky whiskey craft

Josh is excited about the many bottles of Balcones

The evening passed too quickly, with excellent company and superb spirits. I can’t write about everything we tried, but I can hint that Balcones is releasing something pretty special in a few months’ time. Aw, heck, they’re all special, but this one will really catch people’s attention. I’d be mad that it’s not yet available, but Chip made us promise we wouldn’t be angry at him for pouring us things we can’t get.

Here are a few brief notes from the lineup. The atmosphere wasn’t conducive to my style of drawn out, thoughtful tasting, but I look forward to revisiting each of these drams again to discover new pleasures.

Balcones Texas Single Malt (53% ABV)
Sweet nose of caramel and brown sugar, with a hint of mocha. Sweet (cherry, jelly sweets, bubblegum), nutty and oaky palate with well-balanced spice (cinnamon, nutmeg).

Balcones Rumble (47%)
Note: this is not a whisky. It’s made with figs, honey and sugar. The nose is sugary and floral, the palate all molasses, honey, candied violets, and layered spice. In Chip’s words, it “came from years of sauce-making.” And indeed, it tastes like something I’d gladly spoon over my roast pork tenderloin.

Balcones Baby Blue (46%)
Nose of vanilla, mint, and toasted marshmallows. Palate of leather, sugar, tropical fruits, vanilla, and a slight smokiness. Chip called this the “reposado tequila of the corn whisky world”.

Balcones True Blue (50%)
A vegetal and smoky nose—like grilled steak over dark greens. The palate holds incredible mint and spice flavors, reminding me of certain Indian chutneys. It is so sweet, dark, vegetal, meaty, and benefits well from a few drops of water.

Balcones True Blue Cask Strength (58.3%)
The nose is pure maple syrup with a hint of tobacco; the palate also has maple, vanilla, lemon, and wood notes. A gut-punchingly good dram.

Balcones Fifth Anniversary Bourbon (64.2%)
This thing is so rich you could pour it on pancakes (but please don’t). I tasted it for the first time at WhiskyLive last spring, and you can hear my reaction here. Needless to say, this is one of the bottles you’ll have a hard time finding in stores and I am exceptionally pleased to have had it twice.

Balcones Brimstone (53%)
Chip says this whisky creates a psychosocial reaction in most folks, bringing back old memories, usually of something very primal from early childhood. It certainly reminds me of camping trips when I was a kid—it’s pure steak cooked over a mesquite fire, with sweet vanilla, mango, brown sugar, coriander penetrating the dense meatiness. This whisky might remind scotch drinkers of peated expressions, but unlike with Scotch malt whisky, where the barley is dried over fire for that smoky flavor, Brimstone—the spirit itself—is smoked through some secret, mystical hoodoo. Josh, the Coopered Tot, compares it to “bubbling through like bong water”. I’m going to just leave that there.

Balcones Brimstone Resurrection (59.2%)
The whisky that was “snatched from the jaws of hell” (i.e. corn burnt to a crisp, chiseled out of the bottom of a still and re-processed into something drinkable, then bottled after three years—see what they did there?) blew me out of the water. If I had to choose a favorite from the evening, I think this would be it. The nose is more subtle than the Brimstone—much less meat, much more fruit. The palate is one big WOW of honey, butterscotch, cardamom, and Fun Dip (yup, Fun Dip) riding beneath the smoky goodness. I could see myself drinking this for a week straight and still coming up with new revelations (wordplay!) with each sip. Too bad it’s another of those hard-to-find bottlings, created to celebrate Balcones’s fifth anniversary.

The only regret I woke up with was that the evening didn’t last longer. I think Chip and I could have had some interesting theological conversations to rival the complexity of his whiskies. Maybe next time. Have no doubt, I’ll disregard any school night for Balcones.

Find more whisky in Astoria at the Astoria Whiskey Society.