Ithaca is known for its wide range of food and drink as diverse as its music, nature, and cultural scenes. Ithaca is the place to be to feed and drink for any foodie, bon vivant, and anyone in want of a good stiff drink, a thirst quenching local brew, a glass of full bodied wine, or even a crisp cider.
One of Ithaca’s main attractions is its plethora of wineries that encircle the Ithaca downtown and stretch all along the Finger Lakes region are the main pull for many tourists and visitors to Ithaca and the surrounding areas. What you might not know is that the number of distilleries and cideries is rising and they keep popping up. And it’s happening faster than even the region’s touted wineries.
According to Bill Crawley of the New York State Liquor Authority, farm cideries and distilleries are definitely growing at a faster rate than wineries. Cideries saw a 720% increase since 2014, and distilleries a 375% rise since 2012. This is due in part to the plethora of regulatory and legislative changes -- new licenses for farm breweries and cideries, modernizing the Alcoholic Beverage Control laws, relaxing regulations, the elimination of fees and investments in promotional campaigns to make it easier to launch and grow new craft manufacturing businesses.
Jennifer Smith of the New York State Distillers Guild agreed that wineries in the Finger Lakes region have been and continue to be outpaced by distilleries, cideries, and even breweries. Some of these distilleries include the Krooked Tusker opened in 2016 and on Keuka lake best known for their award winning gin and vodka, Last Shot in Skaneateles, NY offering everything from moonshine to bourbon, O’Begley serving up whiskey, Myer Farm Distillers, the Finger Lakes Distillery nestled between the Finger Lakes National Forest and Seneca, Four Flights Distilling, Hidden Marsh Distillery.
In Marathon, NY, you can find the Dragonfyre Distillery founded in 2015 by Vincent and Donna Pedini. The Pedinis were in the beer brewing and wine business for years when the duo decided to tackle creating quality whiskey. Their products are mostly corn whiskeys and those made from bourbon mash. The corn comes from a farmer just down the road and they use 100 percent locally grown corn from a nearby farmer.
“The growth rate of distilleries has definitely been higher… from just a handful when we started in 2008 to almost 200 in just 10 years. It’s amazing how many have popped up. I believe NYS is 2nd or 3rd in the nation in terms of number of distilleries,” said Brian McKenzie of Finger Lakes Distilling (FLD), which offers a wide range of spirits including vodka, gin, brandies, liqueurs and our flagship line of McKenzie whiskeys. Their products are available as far away as California, and FLD is in the works to start some export business. McKenzie also noted that several NYS distilleries, FLD included, have received national press. He said they’ve worked with local tour companies to create the best experience and involve other distilleries and the like.
Last Shot is a farm distillery in Skaneateles, NY that opened in December of 2015 and is run by Chris Uyehara. Last Shot puts a real emphasis on supporting local businesses as well. Their 8 products are created using 90% local sources. Last Shot is all about their whiskey especially since their location used to be a dstillery in the 1800s. Uyehara’s son-in-law makes the grain and they use a similar process to what the distillers did in the 1800s.
“A lot of distilleries have especially been popping up around NYC but are starting to spread out,” Uyehara noted. “It’s just a slow process and it’s not an easy biz either… needs a lot of investment and minutiae involved, license, takes a lot of time to even get it approved and up and running.”
In the cider world, you have Bellwether Hard Cider and Wine Cellars, one of the first cideries in the US which opened in 1996. Bellwether is currently working on adding distilling spirits to their production process. Another is New York Cider Company, Ithaca’s true native cidery, was founded and is managed by co-cider makers and co-owners Steve Daughhetee and Joseph Steuer.
Daughhetee was a cider hobbyist and home brewer for 25 years. When he moved to Ithaca for grad school and realized he was living in a mecca for quality apples and an availability of farm wine/cider licenses with lower barriers, the ability to self-distribute and cooperatively distribute is really what makes their small commercial operation possible. And so began New York Cider Company.
“Thinking back 15 years, there were only two local cideries as far as I can remember,” Daughhetee said. “And now there are six who show up regularly for the Ithaca Farmers Market, and several more regionally.”
Steve Selin, founder of South Hill Cider noted that he has also noticed a sure rise in the number of distilleries and cideries in the area and in New York in general opening up every year in recent years. Selin jump started the business and production by sourcing his apples from local, already existing orchards in the area that were commercial orchards over 50 years ago.
“The cideries in and around Ithaca are mostly basing their production around apples directly from orchards in the region for the quality and source of flavor,” Selin said. “It’s something that sets our region apart a little bit.”
Simon Ingall of Grismore Cider Works noted that there are a lot of cideries that have opened since 2015, but that overall the peak for cideries in the US was in 2015. I think in the Finger Lakes region specifically there has been an educational boom.
Grisamore Cider Works creates their products from fruit specifically sourced from their family farm beneficial to the quality of their product, the farmers as these apples are fetching a higher value so they are able to make more money on what normally would be juice or dessert apples, and the Ingall family.
Grisamore also collaborates with other cideries, and Ingall says he gained a lot of knowledge and insight into the business and industry while attending a Beverage Conference in Geneva and by attending a cider class with Greg Peck, a leader on cider research in New York at Cornell. The infrastructure is clearly here to facilitate the growth that’s taking place.
Upstate New Yorkers, Ithacans, and visitors to the area should hit up the local distilleries and cideries in lieu of or in addition to the well known wineries if looking for a new experience and some high quality spirits.
“To me, distillery tours are even more interesting than brewery/winery tours,” McKenzie said. “We have similar fermentation equipment but have the added process of distillation which requires copper stills, and whiskey makers have barrel houses that offer a smell that you can’t put into words. A lot of our process can be observed by just visiting our tasting room which overlooks the distillery. That being said, you can’t really experience it without seeing everything up close with a tour.”•