The McKenzies at Finger Lakes Distillers

It is no secret that the edifice of Finger Lakes tourism has been built on the pillars of wineries. More recently, microbreweries have added some flying buttresses. Now, Finger Lakes distilleries are trying to add their support. 

Distilleries in the Finger Lakes are becoming more popular, with Finger Lakes Distilling in Hector, and Myer Farm Distillers and Firehouse Distillery in Ovid leading the way.

The products from the region have been so successful that even those in whiskey country are taking notice.

Myer Farm Distillers’ Cayuga Gold Barrel Gin won Best of Category and Silver Medal honors from the American Distilling Institute (ADI) during the ADI’s Ninth Annual Judging of American Craft Spirits. Results of the competition were announced on March 31, as part of the association’s annual conference, held this year in Louisville, Kentucky.

“Quality has always been a priority for us,” said Joe Myer, president of and master distiller for Myer Farm Distillers. “We are honored to have one of our spirits recognized as Best of Category by such a distinguished panel of experts through our nation’s premier craft distilling association. With this recognition of Cayuga Gold, our region is soundly located on the nation’s craft distilling map.”

Myer noted that Brian McKenzie at Finger Lakes Distilling set the standard for what a Finger Lakes distillery could be. More recent additions such as Myer Farm a few years ago, and Firehouse Distillery just within the last year has created the potential for distilleries to join wineries and breweries in the region as reasons to visit.

“McKenzie was early on over at Seneca Lake,” Myer said. “There’s been others in the area too. The growth has been extremely strong. In fact, we’re looking to open up a distillery trail, which would be a New York State distillery trail, but with the growth around here, I think we’ll soon have a Finger Lakes distillery trail.”

If the path is currently being cleared, Finger Lakes Distilling would have to be considered the trailblazer. Founders Brian McKenzie, a former vice president of an upstate New York bank, and Thomas Earl McKenzie, a winemaker, brewer and distiller from Monroeville, Alabama, met at that craft distillers’ conference in 2007. Although they share the same last name, they aren’t related, but they do share a passion for craft spirits. Through the years, their distillery has become well known in the area for its vast product line, with 17 different kinds of spirits including whiskeys, vodkas, gins, brandies, and grappa, along with other liqueurs. 

Thomas said their vision was to bring a taste of Kentucky to the Finger Lakes.

“Our process is the same as what they do in Kentucky,” he said. “We do what the big distillers do, we just scale it down. Some distilleries take shortcuts, but we take the long way, and it shows in our products. We do everything the ol’ fashioned way.”

Despite distilleries becoming more common since Finger Lakes Distilling opened in 2008, Thomas was wary about describing the development as a “distillery boom” in the region. 

“It’s emerging all over the country” he said, “but I don’t know how many we’ve got in the Finger Lakes. The only other one I know of is Myer Farm. It’s not like wineries and breweries. It’s a little different with distilling, and a more complicated process. You’ll see some people start distilling, and they just don’t know how to do it.”

Luckily for Myer Farm, it seems like they have found a process that works well for them.

“We distill my brother John’s certified organic grains,” Myer explained, “from winter wheat, spring wheat, rye, barley, corn and we produce flavored vodkas such as ginger vodka, coffee vodka, and pineapple vodka. We mill grain, make a mash—which is much like cream of wheat or oatmeal—we raise that to a temperature where it starts to produce enzymes, we use commercial enzymes, you can also use malt. 

“From there,” he continued, “we cool it down to a temperature that yeast can be active at and ferment it. Then we transfer the fermented yeast and use what’s called a stripping run, where the beer, which is at around 10-percent alcohol, increases to about 30-percent alcohol. If we’re making whiskey, we do a final whiskey run. Whiskey has to be 160 proof or less, so it’s quite strong, but in the scope of distilling, it’s actually lower proof. Vodka, you bring up to 190 or higher. The higher you go, you’re then stripping out the heavier alcohols and components so you have a more pure, higher ethanol by volume product.”

Just down the road, Firehouse Distillery is searching for its own formula for success. Owner Bill Heary, who also owns Dill’s Run Winery and Lost Kingdom Brewery, is leaning on distiller Bobby Massarini to give him the adult beverage trifecta.

Since Massarini just started his spirit line in October, all that is available for tasting is vodka, but more is on the way.

“We’re just getting our spirit line out right now,” he said. “We’ve got our vodka out. It’s a process because you have to go through labeling and approvals. We should have our corn whiskey and our apple pie-flavored whiskey out hopefully for the Fourth of July. After that we’ll have some more flavored vodkas, and Irish whiskeys for the fall.”

As for what Firehouse Distillery can bring to that community largely remains to be seen. However, Massarini is confident their product line will offer a quality range of products for an affordable price.

“We’re a fun place to visit. We don’t take ourselves too seriously. As our tagline says, ‘It’s a unique blend of spirits, bold, big, smooth and serene.’ All of our spirits are both moderately priced and they’re all very smooth. We think drinking spirits should be extremely fun. You want a unique flavor profile, but you also don’t want that burn. You want a nice warm feeling in your mouth, but you want it to be mellow. That’s really what we strive for.”

Massarini hopes, in time, Firehouse Distillery will become yet another Finger Lakes distillery people go out of their way to visit, and that the Finger Lakes distilling scene is trending up: “Oh, it’s growing. Along with the breweries, the distilleries are growing. We have some very good distilleries in the area, with Finger Lakes Distilling down the road on Route 414; you’ve got Myer Farm right down the road. Everyone works with each other. It’s a community.” §

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