What better is there to do on a sunny fall day than blow off work and drive out to a local distillery for a private tour? I can’t think of much, so here’s my take on a tour of Adirondack Distilling Company in Utica, New York.
Living in Syracuse I’ve always felt away from the action going on in Kentucky. Over the past year or so I’ve really started to realize that great local distilleries are just a short drive away. Except for those folks living in the middle of nowhere, I would guess that with six hundred something and growing distilleries around the country most anyone can jump in their car and get to at least one craft distillery within the confines of a normal day.
On this day we had the opportunity to tour Adirondack Distilling Company, aka “ADK,” located in the small city of Utica NY, about an hour east of Syracuse. Of the three Breaking Bourbon co-creators, Eric and I attended. Through some good fortune I was given an introduction to the founders / owners / master distillers… call them what you want they put their heart and souls into the business... Jordan Karp and Bruce Elwell.
In addition to distilling, Bruce is a practicing Physician, so I’m guessing he’s waiting until retirement to catch up on sleep. He’s well spoken, sincere, approachable, and immediately I can tell he’s smart as a whip. He later tells us he built his first distillation equipment when he was a young boy and it would have worked had the welds not broken. I said BUILT if you didn’t catch it the first time. He grew up in the area and his pride in his hometown is evident.
Jordan’s a younger guy, about my own age, and has a gung-ho spirit about him. He’s passionate about the business and gave the best explanation of how the distillation process works I’ve heard yet. He’s obviously technically savvy even after just a few years in the business. He grew up on Long Island, moved to DC to work in politics, then decided one day he’d much rather distill spirits. He described his epiphany as looking at a bottle of vodka one night wondering what making it was all about. He started to dig deeper into that question and decided it’d be a hell of a lot better than what he was doing. Through a mutual friend they joined forces and started ADK.
ADK’s building is an historic landmark and once served as a bank. It’s odd-shaped, being on a corner that’s at about a 30 degree angle, so it’s kind of like the shape of a slice of pizza. You enter right at the tip through large glass doors. Tall windows adorn the walls allowing for a great deal of natural light to highlight the distillation equipment. It’s a Carl system, which I estimated a cost of about $150,000 although they didn’t confirm the exact figure. They have the space and plans for a second system that would sit to the left of and mirror the first. A cook was happening back in the far left-hand corner. Their single mash tun sits with it’s top about about knee high so you can easily see the mash being stirred. Through a round hole cut into the floor the mash tun comes to rest down on the floor in the basement. There’s a balcony overlooking the entire distillery, which I would guess is where their offices are located... we didn’t go up there. The distillery cats, Gin and Tonic, were also perched up there watching over the distillery.
I was really surprised to learn that they have a basement. I was thinking they aged their bourbon off site, but it turns out it’s all aged down in the basement. Bottling, filtering, and storage also take place down there, so everything from start to finish happens on site. Because the building is an old bank there’s a vault which is used for storage. We asked about the temperature fluctuation for aging because it felt pretty cool, but Jordan said it does change quite a bit and gets warm in the summer. On a side note, I remember seeing a Chip Tate (Balcones) video where he talked about aging in a cool place deliberately, so maybe there’s something to it.
We got talking about other distilleries, and it’s interesting that Jordan and Bruce think of neighboring craft distilleries as collaborators rather than competition. They talked of the other spirits produced locally that they enjoy and actually have on their own shelves at home. Jordan considers the bourbon boom more of a craft explosion than of increases in sales from the large brands. We’ve all seen the articles out there on what’s considered craft, but we have to agree that consumers seem to be after the different, better, often pricier stuff. I certainly am. Craft fits that bill.
They cook twice a week. Every one of their spirits is 100% corn mash, plus local water of course. Jordan says the 100% corn mash bill was chosen for a few reasons. It’s gluten free, which caters to a growing market segment. Corn is plentiful in the area - they don’t need to go farther than 100 miles to get it and they take pride in keeping things local. Corn also makes for fairly sweet, approachable spirits, which we later taste and agree with, but I’ll get to that. They don’t use any artificial coloring or additives, and made it a point to make that clear. That’s been the talk recently and I’ve wondered how many non-straight bourbons may have some artificial additives in them.
The ADK Gin is Bruce’s baby. To get the special flavor profile he spent over a year experimenting with different processes and ingredients. The first batch came out purple before it was filtered! The end result is a top secret recipe and process that contains a mix of 10 essential oils and botanicals. I asked how he made it, but he wouldn’t tell me. Good man, it was a test anyway and he passed. Even more exciting is that they’re in the final stages of developing an aged gin, which is aged for about 8 weeks in their used bourbon barrels. We had the opportunity to sample it and it’s good. Real good. I’ve never really thought more about gin than mixing it with tonic and throwing in a lime. Drinking this stuff neat got me thinking I might take to sipping it on occasion. I will certainly be looking for a bottle of the bourbon barrel aged stuff, appropriately named “Old Oak Gin,” which they expect to be released in 375ml bottles in the beginning of January 2015. As of now they’re just waiting on the label to be approved.
The ADK Vodka is good too. Again, I’m not really a clear liquor type of guy, but the past few times I’ve had craft vodka I’ve been really surprised how good it was. Jordan says it’s vodka made the way it’s supposed to be. They end up with only about 6% volume of what they start with because they discard the bad stuff. Jordan says this is the difference between craft and cheap stuff, and based on taste alone I’d have to agree.
The 1,000 Stills White Whiskey is also good, for white whiskey of course. I’m not a huge clear whiskey fan, but like the vodka this craft stuff has its place. It’s aged for a few weeks in new oak barrels and comes out yellow. They chill filter it to get it back to clear using Herkimer Diamonds, which are really just quartz crystals, but if you knew the area you’d know Herkimer is right down the street and it’s famous for these crystals. I thought this was a really cool concept considering I was always really excited about collecting Herkimer Diamonds as a kid.
This brings us to the 601 Bourbon. It’s the newest addition to their line of spirits that you can currently buy and was first released in June of 2014. It was a 346 bottle release that sold out in 24 hours. Every bottle was sold at the distillery. It’s named after their street address, 601 Varick Street. It’s aged in small 5 gallon Black Swan Honeycomb oak barrels that produce about 28 bottles each. Black Swan Cooperage has a patent pending on the Honeycomb barrels… which appears to involve the insertion of drilled wood staves to speed up the aging process. Like everything else it’s a 100% corn mash bill. It surprisingly tastes more mature than it is (less than 1 year so far) and it’s easy to sip and approachable. They’re experimenting with different ages and barrel sizes to see where that takes them. According to Jordan the end product has been fairly consistent so far. They’re truly in their infancy when it comes to aged whiskey, but the start is promising and worthy of your attention.
I’d highly suggest a trip out to ADK. They do tours by appointment only, so be sure to plan ahead. You can also find them at the Syracuse farmer’s market. Bruce gets up at 4am to be there, so you’ll get the chance to talk with one of the actual owners if you make it down there. Not only that, talk to your local liquor stores, wherever you live. Encourage them to set aside dedicated display space for the local craft distilleries and educate customers about the stuff and the wonderful people behind it. I’m certainly going to.
The ride home inspired discussion between Eric and I of opening our own distillery someday. Ironically, this has been the trend of my recent distillery tours. For now we’re happy writing articles and drinking the stuff, but the dreams to do more may actually be starting to materialize.