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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Canadian Whisky: My First Foray

Mail time!

The best kind of mail.

Sometimes I forget how short a time I’ve actually been drinking whisky. For the record, I first tasted whisky in December 2007 as a freshly-minted 21-year-old, and I hated it. I probably offended my friend’s kind father who had generously poured a flight of three different Scotches to try. I wasn’t ready yet.

But in September of 2011, I had just moved to Edinburgh and wanted to fully immerse myself in my new surroundings. Simultaneously, I was re-entering student life and didn’t have much disposable income for new hobbies. Luckily, the Edinburgh University Water of Life Society came through with a massively good deal: buy a £10 membership and, twice a month, taste 5-6 whiskies for only £6. Thus, it didn’t take long for me to fall deeply in love with Scotch whisky and, since then, it feels as if I’ve always been enjoying it. Each tasting with the Society was a new adventure, as we never repeated drams, and I continue to approach my whisky drinking in this way, as an education, preferring to try something new rather than stick with what’s familiar. (Though, to be sure, I do have bottles of some of my favorites.)

Since returning from Scotland last August, I’ve been casting about for ways to keep learning. I love New York City, but it’s not a town for whisky lovers on a budget. Even the cheapest tastings run upwards of $50 or more, making them an infrequent treat. And while New York’s bars and liquor stores have probably the best selection and availability of Scotch whiskies in the country, eventually you get around to trying them all (except those that are $150 per pour). I haven’t gotten to that point yet, but the day is coming.

What’s a drinker who craves the novelty of varied drams to do? Expand my palate, not with just Scotch, but with other whisky iterations. Bourbon is the obvious first choice, and I’m slowly feeling my way down this long and interesting path. But North America produces other whiskies, too. Recently I got the opportunity to venture north of the border and begin exploring Canadian whisky, using Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert by Davin de Kergommeaux as my guide. Paired with “mystery tastings” on Twitter led by Davin and Johanne McInnis, I spent four weeks reading, re-reading, nosing, tasting, and asking questions about the complex spirits made up north.

A brief review of the book: If you ever wanted to know anything about Canadian whisky, this is the resource for you. Davin has spent years mapping out the distillation process, visiting distilleries (not a mean feat in Canada, where distillery access requires security clearance due to post-9/11 US import regulations), researching the history of great Canadian distillers, and learning boatloads about chemistry. He expressly dispels well-accepted myths about Canadian whisky (e.g. it always contains rye) and he takes the reader from grain to glass in a clear, detailed yet understandable way. The book is a pleasure to read. You can choose to plow right through from A to Z (or zed if you’re Canadian) or jump from a chapter on enzymes to one about the Seagram family. Historical and contemporary photos and helpful diagrams support the text and provide helpful visual references.

I learned some things that surprised me, like Canadian whisky is (nearly) always a blend—even single cask bottlings, as the spirit can be blended before it goes into the barrel. The blending process is pretty fascinating: most distilleries have recipes for “base whisky” and “flavoring whisky.” Each has a different grain profile and ABV, as the spirit interacts differently in the barrel depending on what sort of congeners (aka flavor makers) are present. (Typically, more distillation=higher ABV=fewer congeners.) Depending on what grains are available in a given year (crops vary, of course, according to weather and growing conditions), distillers must adjust their recipes to account for any differences that could show up in the finished product. I can’t even imagine what their formulas look like, but I have an immense respect for the people who do this job.

Also of note is the importance of yeast in making Canadian whisky. Obviously, all whiskies require yeast to carry out  fermentation, but I’ve never heard anyone in the Scotch world discuss yeast with as much emphasis as here. Especially for flavoring whiskies, yeast really matters, and each distillery carefully cultivates and “fingerprints” its yeast to ensure the right fermentation takes place. Such a tiny micro-organism makes such a big difference!

One of the best features of the book is its extensive tasting notes, covering 100 expressions on the market at the time of publication. (The notes, organized throughout the book to match up with the chapters about their respective distilleries, are handily indexed so you can easily locate them, which I found a thoughtful touch.) It was from these notes (with one exception) that Johanne and Davin chose the mystery whiskies for each week’s tasting. Although I never guessed correctly, it was great fun to try!

Below are my notes for each whisky. If I had to pick a favorite, it was the Forty Creek Port Wood Reserve. Every one of these was exceptionally delicious, though, and I’d go back to any of them in a heartbeat.

Lot No. 40
Nose: Caraway galore! And gingersnap.

Palate: Sweet like a dark butterscotch, spicy with cloves and cinnamon. Fresh herbal notes too, especially mint. Adding water reveals white pepper, ginger, and dried orange peel.

Alberta Premium Dark Horse
Nose: Fruity and floral with cherries, plums, notes of peony, lavender, and lilac. Also a hint of rubber or slate, not unpleasant.

Palate: Cloying with cherry cough syrup and cigar smoke. Water opens up a more nuanced profile with spice notes, notably fenugreek.

Danfield’s Limited Edition 21 year old
Nose: Big fruit, especially cherry at first, then brown sugar, fresh sawdust and something earthy like slate.

Palate: Warm butterscotch with zesty citrus peel and bitter pith. Floral topnotes and lingering spice (white pepper, cinnamon bark) finish. Adding water brings out more herbal notes but mutes the spice.

Forty Creek Port Wood Reserve
Nose: Tons of spice (cinnamon, black pepper) and herbs. Wet earth and a slight mustiness, like a mushroom. Over time it picks up fruit and flower notes, too.

Palate: Sweet and spicy in a perfect mix, with cooked ginger, leafy greens, and birch syrup.

I am so grateful to Johanne and Davin for inviting me to participate in this project. Their passion for Canadian whisky really shines, and they are dedicated and fun ambassadors. Furthermore, Johanne’s organization of the event and Davin’s willingness to thoroughly answer each and every question showed off the famous Canadian generosity of spirit beautifully. Huge thanks to both of them, and to Davin’s publisher, McClelland & Stewart Ltd., for the book. I learned so much and I feel like it’s only the beginning. I can’t wait to see (and taste) what comes next in my Canadian whisky explorations.