Recently, Gable Erenzo of Hudson Whiskey came to San Diego to offer tasting and education on his products. He was master distiller for a while, and as such was in a position to answer all of my minute and annoying questions, which was great. I got a bunch of nice photographs of this event, which I accidentally deleted because I’m stupid.
Distillery: Tuthilltown Distillery
Location: Gardiner, New York
Owned By: Privately owned
Major Products produced: Spirit of the Hudson Vodka; Hudson Whiskies — Manhattan Rye, Baby Bourbon, Four-Grain Bourbon, Single Malt, New York Corn
Origin: Since 2005
There are, as I see it, two big challenges facing anyone who wants to start making whiskey. And I’m not even talking about start-up capital or navigating permits or how to source malted barley, all of which I’m sure are very difficult. I’m talking fundamentals — the two obstacles that stop, say, me, from seriously thinking about starting a whiskey distillery at this point in my life are (1) time and (2) purpose:
- Time: any idiot can, and many idiots do, make vodka. Good vodka is another story, but vodka itself is not hard — it’s what happens when you distill something a bunch of times and then add water and bottle it. It’s what ramen noodles are to cooking. Whiskey, on the other hand, requires finesse, and more importantly, time. In a 53 gallon barrel (standard size), it takes a between 3 and 6 years to even start getting good. You can cheat with smaller barrels, but even in a tiny 3 gallon, you’re still looking at a few months before you can even consider starting to sell it as whiskey. But what if it’s not as tasty as you’d like? Tweak the recipe, another few months. Maybe it needs a bigger barrel, another 2 years. It’ll drive you mad, or broke, or both.
- Purpose: aside from it being super cool, why make whiskey? Even if cost isn’t an issue, which it totally is, there is already a kaleidoscopic array of transcendentally good whiskeys sold for not very much money at pretty much every liquor store. So what do you have to add? What’s so screaming fucking special about your idea that so necessitates its existence?
They’re worthy considerations, and Tuthilltown Spritis and their whiskey label Hudson, since 2005, has tackled these two obstacles better than any new whiskey I can think of.
In 2001, Ralph Erenzo bought some land and an 18th-century gristmill in the Hudson Valley, just outside Poughkeepsie some 80 miles north of Manhattan. He had run a successful rock-climbing business in the city for years, and had finally started actualizing a longtime dream, to create a rock climbing ranch/retreat up north. Fortunately for us, it was not to be: his neighbors, as it turns out, were a stodgy group of litigiously-inclined letter-writers who hated the idea of a commercial business in their little bucolic hinterland, and fought with everything they had. The fight nearly bankrupted him, and in the end he had was forced to admit that his rock-climbing ranch would never be built on that property.
One of the pillars on which the neighbor’s case was built was that the land wasn’t zoned commercially, but agriculturally. So he looked for new ideas, at first considering a brewery, but the gristmill’s history — combined with the prospect of being the first bourbon made in New York since prohibition — led him to a distillery.
He found a partner in the mechanically-inclined Brian Lee, and recruited his son Gable. Among them, they had as much experience with distillation as they did with space travel, but forged ahead anyway. After two years of permits, research, navigating archaic statutes and in some cases altering them, getting a still, sourcing grain, and learning what the hell they were doing, they founded Tuthilltown Spirits, released a vodka made from local apples in 2005, and their first effort, a “baby” bourbon in 2006.
Five different whiskeys carry the Hudson name, and they are indeed different, with four distinct grain recipes. But there are a couple of commonalities that they all share, unusual (and in some cases unique) distillation principles that help Hudson answer those questions in the above obstacle #2.
- Grains: They use largely heirloom varieties of of their grains, and are all locally grown. So the corn, for example, that goes into their corn whiskey is 40% normal “field” corn, and 60% heirloom, those maize-like multicolored varieties that are always bursting out of cornucopias around November.
- Fermentation: They use two different types of yeast, one brewers and one distillers.
- Distillation: There is, to all of their whiskeys, a curious and alluring cereal quality, a sensation of an actual dusty grain mill. Tasting them immediately evokes the actual grains — you can tell where these come from. I had always assumed that they distilled to a very low proof (à la Fortaleza) because you taste so much of the ingredients, but Gable told us that they distill as high as anyone else, that the graininess you taste is because they do a “whole mash” distillation: they keep the grain solids in the liquid all the way through the process. It’s a “fractioning” still (hybrid pot/column), and everything gets two runs, the first to about 40% and the second somewhere just shy of 80%.
- Small Barrels: Hudson’s answer to the aforementioned obstacle#1: they use tiny little barrels. Between 3 and 14 gallon. Whiskey will get overaged (too woody = pretty gross, believe me) in a 3 gallon barrel by 6 months, and a 14 gallon by 2.5 years. So smaller barrels means that they can make, age, and sell whiskey at a pace untouched by the Kentucky giants.
- Sonic Maturation: As Gable tells it, someone told them they should rotate their barrels once a month to hasten the aging process. Unthrilled at the idea of physically rolling every single barrel in their inventory, Lee showed up one morning with a trunk full of bass speakers, to agitate the barrels using sound waves. For a time, the whiskey would rattle away to dubstep and Tribe Called Quest, until one day a tour-goer volunteered his skills as a professional audio engineer. After a weekend of measurements and calculations, he returned with a CD, which cycles through different resonant frequencies to shake the different sized barrels. Which, I think you’ll agree, is pretty goddamn cool.
This is their white whiskey, an unaged 100% corn spirit. Untempered by oak, the dry grain hits right away. Very agricultural. Deep, rich corn, like buttered popcorn. No sweetness from the oak means the dry graininess is extremely dry. The best white whiskey I’ve ever tasted, but that’s not saying much. Still, surprisingly drinkable. I’d recommend it for mixing, or just to satisfy curiosity.
It used to be that bourbon could be a maximum of 80% corn, but that apparently ended in the 80s. Hudson’s Baby Bourbon is 100% corn, just an aged version of the New York Corn Whiskey. The oak adds sweetness but the size of the barrel also intensifies the bitterness. The corn is blunted by the wood, but still prominent. I found this hot, dry, and astringent, and was my least favorite of the five (though plenty of people around me disagreed).
If bourbon and scotch had a child, it would be this. Like all the best scotch, it’s 100% malted barley. But scotch is usually aged slowly in once-used barrels, and as such takes on much less wood flavor. The Hudson Single Malt is aged in new, charred oak barrels. All of this combines to another unique offering: still very grainy and this time earthy, the barley picks up more on the sweetness from the oak along with some vanilla notes, with a nice acidity and a finish like caramel and honey. Delicious.
One of my two favorites. 100% rye. This, to me, tastes like how rye is supposed to taste. The rye cereal graininess is out front and prominent, balanced with a perfect level of sweetness and spice. Interesting to drink on it’s own, but this makes one of the cooler Old Fashioneds I could imagine.
My other favorite offering of theirs. I don’t know a single other four-grain bourbon on the market right now (“four grain” referring to (1) corn and (2) barley, and then both, where there’s usually only one, of the “flavoring grains,” (3) wheat and (4) rye). I was not expecting this one to be good and it really surprised me. Very complex. Cereal grain, exactly the right amount of sweetness, perfectly balanced. Wonderful.
We tasted with about 20 other bartenders, and in a chatty little reception afterward, everyone discussed tastes and favorites. What was bizarre is that everyone had a different favorite. I found the Baby Bourbon too immature, but my friend Travis thought it was the best. Vikki liked the Single Malt best. This is to say that they are all very different, and all made well.
They all retail around $40 but only come in 375ml bottles (1/2 size), so each is really like an $80 bottle of whiskey. Which is a lot. On the other hand, it’s a flavor you can’t get anywhere else.
One last note about this idea of uniqueness, because it’s important: small barrels means that the spirit doesn’t just age quicker, but also ages in a different way. There’s more color and woodiness but it’s still relatively immature. There is no cheating time in the aging game. A 53 gallon barrel is like a crock-pot, and a 3 gallon barrel is like a frying pan: both achieve the same overall principle, but you simply can’t get the same product out of a small barrel. And this is one of the ways in which Hudson excels, and where they rise above most of the other new “craft” whiskeys being made today.
If you’re trying to make the same bourbon everyone else is making but trying to do it cheaper, then you’re going to get a cheaper version of the same bourbon everyone else is making. You can’t make Buffalo Trace better than Buffalo Trace does. Whether by instinct or education, the people at Hudson know this, so they make whiskey completely differently.
It’s formulated for those smaller barrels. Yes, the spirit is left a bit immature from the shorter time in smaller barrels, but there’s also the two types of yeast, and there’s also the heirloom grains, and there’s also the whole mash distillation, and when added together it’s not a cheaper or faster version of something that already exists. All of their products have struck their own unique balance, all the uncommon and/or bizarre decisions rest on each other and meet at a common point. That’s what’s so great about it. It is something completely new.