To get to the new frontier these days, a person has to be willing to hitch their proverbial wagon to some pretty wild horses. The kind that perhaps drag you away from a secure job and a place you've been happily living, and run full force into the hinterlands of financial insecurity, to a town or city or state in which you've possibly never dwelled, toward a topic you've never studied further than "bartender, I'll have a...," and sometimes to the craziest place of all: back into your childhood bedroom at your parents' house.
This is what the modern-day breed of pioneering craft distillers do—they take big chances. With their lives as much as with their products and their money (or the money of others). In the Northeast, that gumption has also lead to lobbying to revamp or dismantle old laws on the books since Prohibition that made it awfully difficult to distill any kind of alcohol for production or sale. New York, in particular, has seen an overflow of distilleries like free run off the still—there were only two operational in the state in the aughts; now there are over 50, with more approved licenses on the books every day. Other states, like Massachusetts and Vermont, aren't too far behind, if not ahead. And while there are only a handful of producers in New Jersey, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New Hampshire, they've been wrangling against rigid old laws with the other Northeastern states in mind as successful models.
To get a sense of the best spirits coming out of the Northeast today*, I tasted my way through over 40 thoroughly unique bottlings, not a single one like another and each with its own story to tell. These spirits are the cream of the crop: well worth your attention and hard-earned do-re-mi, not just because these distillers are the hard-working underdogs of the booze industry, but, most importantly, because these gins, whiskeys, rums, and other assorted liquors are delicious. The revolution, you see, will not be televised (actually, it looks like it's on social media)—but it looks like it may well be distilled in a column or pot near you.
*Of course, no list is perfect. I know that as I type this, someone is within an inch of launching a new, gorgeous sipping rum or gloriously fragrant gin or single-malt whisky that would bring a tear to a Scotsman's eye. And, truth be told, there were some distilleries I reached out to that just couldn't get their product to us before deadline. If you don't see your favorite here, send a smoke signal telling us what it is and why you love it. We always want to hear about talented producers making a stand-out spirit.
Indigenous Vodka ($35)
New York State has long been a big producer of apples, and if you drive anywhere upstate you are bound to see orchards of both the apple and pear ilk (something that's been making hard cider production a pretty interesting topic around here these days). That's why Tuthilltown's latest Indigenous series of NY fruit-based spirits caught my attention. Ralph Erenzo can thoroughly take credit for kick-starting New York's craft-spirit boom by helping to tear down the once extremely restrictive booze production laws of the state by working to usher in the 2007 Farm Distillery License Law. He's remained abundantly passionate about making that farm-to-flask connection since he launched Tuthilltown Spirits in 2003. His Indigenous Vodka uses Hudson Valley apples that are pressed whole, fermented, and distilled. The result has a mere whisper of apple aroma and flavor, as well as a clean, bright flavor that's a lovely complement to everything from bitter and spicy spirits to fresh juices and herbs.
Greylock Gin ($29)
Traditionalists will love the fresh juniper core and tight rope-like balance of this spirit from Berkshire Mountain Distillers, a group that's managed to create an impressive lot of quality in a short amount of time. Made in a pot still with its botanicals infused into the base spirit via steam, there's a delicious creamy slipperiness to the texture of this gin. Let the gentle sweetness of the spirit roll around on your tongue for a moment, and you might swear it starts talking to you: "Please make me into a martini. Please?" As for the aroma, there's juniper first and foremost, but also lemon and lime peel, fennel bulb, and Granny Smith apple. From the first distillery in Massachusetts since Prohibition, this is a stand-up gin to keep as a steady on your home bar.
Barr Hill Reserve Tom Cat Gin ($32)
I used to have this issue with every new Wilco album that came out: I wasn't ready to let go of the prior one because I loved it so much, and so I'd furrow my brow at the next. I needed to be ready to move on, but when I was, what lay ahead was intensely rewarding. This is the same exact experience I had with Barr Hill's Old Tom gin from Caledonia Spirits in Hardwick, Vermont. I fell in big love with their regular gin (at the time of this writing, they only make three spirits: two gins and a vodka), although regular isn't really the word you want to describe it. The juniper-only spirit has raw Vermont or New York-sourced honey added prior to bottling (the bottle is also sealed with a soft ring of beeswax), which adds an alluring chamomile-like quality. For his Old Tom, owner Todd Hardie has chosen to age that delicate flower in new charred and toasted American oak barrels for up to six months. That sounds crazy, right? Yes, it imparts a toasty quality to the spirit, but also makes the juniper note intensely focused, if not downright cedar-like, and turns that gentle floral quality into something more like late-summer geranium and tomato leaf. I hope owner Hardie doesn't come out with something new anytime soon because I'm not going to want to let this go for a long, long time.
Djinn Spirits Distilled Gin ($34)
This is a fun gin—which makes sense coming from Andy and Cindy Harthcock, two 30-year veterans of the engineering field who wanted to shrug off the old and try something new. It reminds me more of the kind of Italian digestif my Pugliese mother-in-law would bring out after a holiday meal than your average, workaday gin—and it kind of looks like one, too, with its pale yellow hue. If you're ever crunched a fennel bulb after a big meal, that's where you should put your expectation. The base spirit is crafted in a pot still. As the liquid turns to vapors during the distillation process, they pass through myriad herbs and flowers, infusing the spirit with its traditional juniper core and the lovely entangled aromas of anise and elderflower. This gin has a pleasant viscosity and a bright herbaceous amalgam of flavors runs rampant around your mouth, leaving you with a pithy, peppery finish.
Bootlegger 21 Gin ($34)
For the core grain used to make his vodka, Brian Facquet has committed himself to using 100 percent corn, more often than not sourced from New York farmers. And that first bottling from his Prohibition Distillery in Roscoe, NY, changed some minds on that old chestnut about vodka's general neutrality being a big ol' snore. His version is sweetly floral and creamy on the palate—a vodka you actually want to sip on its own. He used that spirit at the base of his latest release, Bootlegger 21 Gin, flavored with juniper, coriander, orris root, lemon verbena, and bitter orange peel. Facquet says that it's the proper maceration time on the orris root (e.g., the root of the iris flower) that makes the spirit taste mildly citrusy without the actual addition of citrus. What I like is the balance of all the botanicals in each sip—they are bright and alert and just flavorful enough to work well with the spirit's creamy base. This is going to be my gin and tonic spirit of the summer.
Privateer Amber Rum ($25)
The deft hand of distiller Maggie Campbell is a wonderful thing to behold, especially in this Ipswich, Massachusetts distillery's multi-barrel aged and finished Privateer Amber. Molasses is the base, and the nose is all vanilla bean, honey, and butterscotch pudding. It feels full and plush on your tongue, like liquid apricots laced with white pepper, with an orange-zest finish that hangs on for a bit. Sure, you can mix this up for a spectacular swizzle or some such, but sipping this 90 proof rum straight is a treat that shouldn't be overlooked. Fun fact: Privateer owner Andrew Cabot is a sixth-generation descendant of his same-named ancestor—a successful rum maker and privateer during the Revolutionary War.
Owney's Rum ($34)
While dozing off in her childhood bedroom in Far Rockaway, Bridget Firtle may have questioned her choice of leaving a perfectly good job as a financial analyst to distill Owney's Rum in her Brooklyn-based Noble Experiment distillery (a kind of winking name aimed at Prohibition)—but like the rum runner she named her Southern-sourced molasses-based rum after, Firtle isn't about to look back. Her white rum has a gently earthy quality to it and a mild, balanced, tender sweetness that makes it a most excellent choice for a traditional daiquiri.
Hillrock Estate Distillery Solera Aged Bourbon ($79)
Hillrock was the first, to my knowledge, to usher in a version of the now popular-with-whiskey, traditional sherry aging methodology called the solera, in which younger versions of the spirit are gradually blended into older barrels. This bottling of Hillrock Estate Distillery Solera Aged Bourbon was master distiller Dave Pickerell's first release, and it was quite a horse out of the gate. He and owner Jeff Baker have since released several other outstanding whiskies, sourced from their own sustainably farmed fields of barley and rye, but the bottle that kicked it all off is a testament to what New York whiskey can be—not merely a good start; but very, very good, with its notes of butter, caramel, and hazelnut, and a spicy attack on the palate from the good chunk of estate-grown rye in the mash bill. From myriad barrels of mixed age, a little is removed from each and blended into the other, and the youngest whiskey in the mix clocks in at around 6 years old; the whole shebang gets finished in Oloroso sherry casks, adding that lovely bit of dried apricot and fig cookies to this bourbon.
McKenzie Bourbon Whiskey ($40)
Thomas Earl McKenzie and Brian McKenzie (the name-matching's a coincidence, they're not related) make many products—multiple gins, vodka, whiskeys, brandies, and liqueurs. And they do them all quite well, but their flagship bourbon is the one I go back to over and over. Though it's mostly made from corn sourced in New York, you can taste the zippy rye spice in McKenzie Bourbon Whiskey as well. It's fresh and lively—and if I can take it so far, one of the whiskeys in the Northeast that, to my mind, might be part of a larger conversation about terroir and spirits—but also knits its flavors together well. The final touch of finishing the aging in used Chardonnay barrels gives it a buttery, thoroughly elegant edge that is as much about flavor as it is texture. It's a whiskey new producers should aspire to: while many rush to simply get product moving, this is a bottle worth waiting for.
Rough Rider "The Big Stick" Cask-Strength Rye Whiskey ($61)
Richard Stabile started his Long Island Spirits distillery in Baiting Hollow, Long Island with the idea of using that area's famed potatoes in what would become the creamy vodka that put him on the map. But Stabile had whiskey dreams, too, and set to work on an excellent line of whiskeys when he opened in 2007. His latest release, Rough Rider "The Big Stick" Cask-Strength Rye Whiskey, is sourced from the rye that grows as a cover crop over the area's acres of potato fields. It's bottled at 121 proof after a year in American oak. To me, this rye is like a Christmas cake in liquid form, or perhaps a whiskey I'd like to drizzle on a cake, or use to make a cake (hmmm...), vibrant with hints of pear, fig, and brioche, plus a spicy nutmeg and caramelized sugar finish. It's rich! (Baking frenzy aside, making a Manhattan with it is mighty fine idea, too.) This rye makes me wish it were snowing outside, and man, that's saying a lot (last winter was a shoveling nightmare and I was quite happy to let the door hit Old Man Winter in the keister on the way out, you feel me?).
Mad River Rye ($20 for 200 mL)
I suspect the world at large links Vermont with syrup and dairy products (Ben & Jerry's! Cabot cheese!), but these days, I'm starting to look to this land of pastures and mountains for really good spirits. Like this one from Mad River Distillers in Warren, VT. I don't tend to think of rye as a spirit of subtlety, but there's a lot of nuance going on here that is nothing less than enchanting. You might roll your eyes and say, "Come on, really?" But yes, every time I went back to this glass I felt like I was walking through a spice and sundry market: anise, white pepper, white chocolate, licorice, almonds, almond shells, maple. Damn, if this isn't one of the loveliest sipping ryes I've had. (Honestly, I wouldn't hide it in a cocktail.) It's the product of three different strains of locally sourced organic rye, one of which is a dark roasted chocolate rye that kicks up the aromatics here. Mad River is just two years old, and has gone the way of many young distilleries, using a combination of smaller new charred American oak barrels, from 15 to 25 gallons respectively, to age their rye up to nine months. That's not a long time, but the smaller barrels impart flavor a little more quickly and help Mad River get its product to shelves sooner. It doesn't always work, but this is great-tasting whiskey. (Co-founder Al Hilton told me they plan to move to the more generally accepted 53 gallon barrels soon, though I'm not sure the change is necessary.) Also of note from this distiller: Their 4-year-aged nod to French apple brandy, Malvados, made with heirloom Vermont cider apples. It smells like the most lovely, warm, buttery, caramelized apple tart you can dream up.
Coppersea Raw Rye ($60)
To call the guys at Coppersea committed to historical accuracy is akin to saying George Washington was committed to the colonies. They've sourced local New York grain from the get-go (and are in the process of growing their own ingredients); they have their own malting floor where lanky chief distiller Christopher Briar Williams may well be found pulling an old rake to and fro; they use gravity instead of mechanization to get the fermented mash to their hammered pot still; and they age their whiskey in barrels honed from New York white oak. But that's just particulars, really; you can do all that and still make a cruddy product. Williams aims to show off what New York State-grown heirloom ingredients have to offer, and Coppersea Raw Rye is the naked truth—not-barrel-aged and clear as water, with an aroma that's bready and vegetal, it has an unusual sense of freshness to it. This exceptional spirit is at once sweet and spicy in your mouth. If you're willing to sacrifice the allure of color, it makes for an interesting Sazerac.
King's County Rye ($40 for 200 mL)
Three years in the making, distiller Nicole Austin's New York State-sourced rye started as a trio of experimental batches in three- and five-gallon barrels that Austin returned to over and over, pulling them out and putting the deep, amber liquid into stainless when it was at its zenith. "I'm particularly fond of it," she says, "because I know I really touched every stage of every drop that went into the bottle." And while awards are whatever you want to make of them, the double-gold Austin got for this in the San Francisco World Spirits competition was, in her words, "acceptance of craft production and small barrel aging as legitimate ways to produce the highest quality spirits." Dig it. I sure do, with its butter-rum candy aroma and subtle smell of fresh wood extinguished after a fire, and flavors of caramelized, buttery apples, and pepper. A touch of orange zest lingers on the finish of this rich-textured rye.
Mister Katz's Rock & Rye ($27)
As we wait for distiller Allen Katz and his partners in this Williamsburg, Brooklyn-based distillery to release the years-long-awaited, upstate-sourced rye, they've offered up a tease with one of the few versions of rock and rye, a once-popular mix of the spirit with rock candy. Katz makes what is, in my opinion, the best one around: a melding of spicy rye with a touch of raw sugar along with sour cherries and orange peel. It's sweet but not over-the-top, and its delicate fruity influences, sipped in a glass with a healthy tumble of ice, make it go down maybe just a little too easy. Katz launched with a couple of outstanding gins—the navy-strength Perry's Tot and the alluringly floral Dorothy Parker, as well as the Chief Gowanus gin, a sort of Holland-style gin made with hops. But that rock and rye, man—it's the kind of the thing you want to grab by the case and never run out of.
And Other Bottles We Love
Bosco Monte Vecchio Grappa ($68 for 375 mL)
Monte Sachs found his way to distilling in not quite the usual way: he was studying to be a vet in Italy. While there, some grappa-making friends took him under their wing and taught him how to make the elegant Italian digestif-with-a-punch. Grappa has a reputation for being Italy's version of firewater, and yes, it is a strong, naked spirit—but when done well, it's also gently evocative of dried and fresh flowers and herbs. It can haunt you a little, and indeed, it haunted Sachs. Eventually, he settled into a veterinary practice back in the town of Bethel in New York's Catskills, but he couldn't get distilling out of his head. Today, he makes several thoughtful products with whimsical names, like a buckwheat-based, whiskey-like spirit (named The One and Only Buckwheat—Otay!). But his version of grappa from Riesling grapes sourced from the Finger Lakes, with its gently floral and fresh pear aroma and taste of grapefruit and white pepper, is a pretty special nod to Sachs' discovery of spirit-making.
Greenhook Ginsmiths Beach Plum Liqueur ($45)
When I was a kid, the late summer and early fall always brought about jars of beach plum jam from family friends in our small eastern Long Island island town. Greenhook Ginsmith owner Steve DeAngelo remembers those plums, too, but he hunted for them along the shores of Far Rockaway, where his family would take him to the beach to run wild in the surf and sand. So when this Wall Streeter-turned-Brooklyn-distiller found it sticky to procure damson plums, which are more abundant in northwestern England, to make a sloe gin, his mind turned to those summer days in Queens and the wild treasures he'd nab. Like damsons, beach plums have sweet flesh but skin that has a tart, snappy bite. When macerated (which DeAngelo does for seven months in his flagship gin), the ruby-like color leaches out and that wild-plum flavor—simultaneously sweet and sharp, and a little spicy—comes to the fore. Greenhook Ginsmiths Beach Plum Liqueur is maybe one of the most creative, locally inspired spirits I've found to date that really celebrates its core ingredient, as opposed to twisting it into a contorted, unrecognizable version of something else (hello, flavored anything!) DeAngelo's liqueur smells a little like wild raspberries and a bit like sweet vermouth. It has a jam-like, concentrated sweetness that's not too sugary, balanced by spice that veers toward freshly grated nutmeg. It's pricey, but because more often than not you're using it as an accent to a drink, it tends to stick around on the bar. It's also just about the nicest thing you can add to sparkling wine.
Note: Tasting samples of all spirits except McKenzie Bourbon, Hillrock Estate Solera Bourbon, Bosco Monte Vecchio Grappa, and Greenhook Ginsmiths Beach Plum Liqueur provided for review consideration.