Joe Myer’s family has been farming in Ovid since the 1860s. His brother John went organic in the 1970s, making it one of the earlier organic farms in the state. In October 2012 they opened Myer Farm Distillers and began selling spirits that had been made from the organic grains grown on their 1000-acre farm.
“I had done a lot of research,” said Joe Myer when asked what kind of experience he had with distilling spirits. “I went to a conference at the Geneva experimental station, and I grew up working a dairy farm, so I know what pasteurization and sterilization. I’ve got a practical background; I’m used to working with equipment.”
Myer came back to the farm after growing up as a Suzuki kid, playing violin and piano from an early age, and then going off to college to earn a degree in writing. He went on to work in graphic design, but when it came time to create the labels for his products, he found someone else.
“A friend recommended Q. Cassetti [of Trumansburg],” he said. “It would have been too much for me to do, but she’s really great to work with anyway. I love the simplicity of her work. I think it all speaks together.”
Myer also let his assistant distiller, Mark Thomas, serve as the construction manager for the building of the distillery itself. “He has the craft skills,” Myer said. “He’s a timber framer, and he repairs barns and houses.” The building is modelled after a Scottish malt house, right down to the tower built of hand-trimmed stone.
His brother John grows all the grains that go into the spirits. “He has been farming for over 30 years,” said Myer. “He chooses the varieties that he thinks will work the best. He goes by flavor, and narrows it down to a particular strain [of wheat or corn]. We use a different wheat for the aged versus the unaged whiskey.”
Right now Myer Farmer Distillers has unaged whiskey made from “soft winter wheat.” They will have bourbon by the end of the summer; it has to spend at least nine months in the barrel.
There was an impressive amount of paperwork to be done with the state of New York and the federal government in order to establish a distillery.
“It is a lot more stringent than the process for wine,” said Myer, “but I was well forewarned. First you have to get the license started with the state, and then you apply for a federal permit, and only then can you finish the state process.”
The regulations and requirements were detailed and specific, right down to what kind of locks they had to put on all the doors.
There are also extensive reporting and legal obligations. Distilleries have to send the excise tax they collect to the state every two weeks; wineries have to do it quarterly.
“I spent a few years working at Cornell,” Myer laughed, “which is pretty good training for doing paperwork.” At Cornell he had been in charge of assembling grant applications.
Not surprisingly Myer is now regularly putting in 60- to 70-hour weeks.
Myer Farm Distillers is not a member of the Cayuga Wine Trail. The board of the association is still deliberating about whether to accept members that do not make wine.
Anyone who thinks that they do not like to drink spirits might be surprised by an experience in the tasting room in Ovid. For example, to make their ginger-flavored vodka they use only fresh ginger. At present they are down to their last few bottles because ginger is harvested in the late summer and early fall, so they will not be making their next batch until August.
Their gin is a “London style,” which is to say very dry. Tasting room manager Lindsay MacIntosh compared it to Bombay Sapphire. “Somebody told me that gin is vodka that someone has dropped a tea bag into,” said MacIntosh.
All gin is flavored with juniper berries, but Myers Farm also adds coriander and other herbs, which gives it a distinct floral taste that is much more nuanced than most gins.
“Spirits that are produced commercially have such a limited range,” said Myer, “so because this is an artisan operation we thought ‘Why not experiment?’. People who haven’t had gin in years because they thought they didn’t like it try ours and get a surpise.”
One wall of the tasting room includes large windows that look into the distillery proper. One of the first features one is likely to notice is a pair of copper-plated towers rising about 20 and 40 feet into the air.
As the spirit rises through the column it becomes more and more pure alcohol. Gin and vodka, MacIntosh explained are made using the tall tower.
“It is 90 percent pure alcohol when it comes out of there,” she said. “Then they cut it with water until it’s 40 percent. The lower tower is for whiskeys. It is cut a lot less, which is why you can still taste the grain in a whiskey.”
Myer Farm has four whiskies aging in barrels: the aforementioned bourbon, a single wheat, a four-grain whiskey, and a rye [Canadian whiskey].
MacIntosh, who has previously worked in winery tasting rooms, is enjoying the reactions that she gets from visitors to Myers Farm.
“Everyone wants to know how to mix them,” she said of their spirits, “but ideally we don’t want them to mix them, but enjoy them alone.”
Some people don’t get the farm-to-table dimension and are baffled that Myer Farm does not produce rum. Others are surprised that all vodka isn’t made with potatoes.
MacIntosh said that wine is inherently romantic, while spirits are ... less so. So she anticipates some work ahead of her to get people to appreciate vodka, gin, and whiskey with a reverence something like that associated with wine.
Myers Farm Distillers has four employees now: Myer himself, Thomas, MacIntosh, and Darlene Zaharis, who works in the office with Myer. He anticipates gradually increasing their production, noting that his first full season has started out well.
The tasting room is open from 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Thursday through Sunday. See www.myerfarmdistillers.com for more information.