I meet a lot of dreamers in my role as editor of Chronogram. People seeking amplification and dissemination of their wild imaginings in these pages—they want to tell the most compelling story they know to the Hudson Valley. It's a big old goofy world, as John Prine sang, and dreamers come in all the colors of the cockamamie rainbow, from artists whose ambition exceeds their talent to would-be entrepreneurs whose grandiose business plans dwarf their capitalization to festival promoters with more marketing savvy than good sense to the select few who manage to actually succeed. The dreamers I meet can be roughly separated into two categories: Those who will realize their dreams and those won't. The confounding thing is: It's sometimes impossible to tell the two apart at first sight.
When Ralph Erenzo bounded up the stairs of my office back in 2004, I didn't know what to make of him. A short, wiry dude with a incredible amount of energy, Erenzo regaled me with the plans he and his partner Brian Lee had ginned up to open the first whiskey distillery in New York since Prohibition on an 36-parcel in Gardiner, the site of an old gristmill. Not drinkers themselves, Erenzo and Lee saw a business opportunity in microdistilling akin to what had happened in the craft brewing sector a decade earlier. They were determined to get in early and be pioneers of a craft distilling boom.
When Erenzo was done explaining what he wanted to do, I gave him a my stock response to dreamers: "Sounds great. Call me when you're up and running," I said, thinking I would never hear back from Erenzo, and that this quirky idea would wander off into the soft, nebulous space of unrealized ambitions. I mean, really—the first distillery to open in New York in 75 years? The flaming legal hoops Erenzo and Lee would have to jump through would be as onerous as they would be ridiculous, and ultimately, I assumed, dream-destroying. (Remember, this was back at a time when the state "blue laws" mandated that liquor stores couldn't even open on Sunday.)
Fast-forward one year: Ring a ding! It was Erenzo, who had acquired a high-tech still in Germany, received the first distilling license from the state since Prohibition, and made Tuthilltown Spirit's first batch of vodka, distilled from apple scraps he had gotten for free at a local orchard. Our correspondent Jennifer May visited Erenzo and Lee early in 2006 to witness their first run of corn whiskey. Here's how she described Tuthilltown's operation, housed in a rickety barn, for our March 2006 issue:
"On a chilly morning in the middle of winter, Erenzo and Lee are at work. Standing before the monstrous copper, steel, and glass contraption that looks more like it belongs in the Air and Space Museum than on the attic floor of a granary, a tremor of excitement is in the air. For four days, 500 gallons of corn mash, yeast, and water have been fermenting, and now boast an approximate 10-percent alcohol content. You wouldn't want to drink it, though; it would be a nasty, chewy mouthful. The concoction bubbles, ever so slowly, and the smell in the lower floor of the historic granary is thick, rich, and reminiscent of breakfast. The spirits are about to be coaxed from the mash.
Upstairs, Lee closes the hatch of the still, opens the valve, and the yellow glop flows through a large plastic tube from the fermentation tank and into the still on the upper floor. Erenzo charges the stairs two at a time and arrives to observe as the mash enters the still. The furnaces are on and the steam is forced into the double-walled chamber surrounding the copper pot. Inside, a huge metal arm turns and mixes and ensures even heat distribution. All eyes are on the temperature dials. After about an hour, Lee peers into the glass window on the still. 'It's raining alcohol,' he says."
A few years later, Tuthilltown Spirits would become the toast of New York City after an influential retailer in Red Hook, Brooklyn, LeNell Smothers, bought a case of Baby Bourbon and began proselytizing the product. This crucial endorsement occured just as the artisanal booze and cocktail craze was gaining traction. They say luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.
In 2010, Erenzo and Lee sold the business to international distiller William Grant & Sons, but they've stayed on to run the business. Another dream of Erenzo and Lee's was realized in 2012—the creation of a new class of farm distillery (shepherded by state legislators Kevin Cahill and John Bonacic)—allowing distilleries to not only offer samples but also to serve cocktails and full pours as well, just as wineries do.
Today, there are 109 distilleries operating in New York. A report by John Dunham and Associates from 2012 estimates their total economic impact at $1.5 billion. These numbers don't include the more than 700 wineries, breweries, and cideries operating across the state and the combined $13 billion of economic activity they generate. Governor Cuomo has been a big supporter of the craft beverage industry since taking office, offering millions of dollars of support in the form of marketing and business development grants.
I'm mentioning all this because I received an e-mail from Erenzo a few weeks ago mentioning that his operation would be celebrating its 10-year anniversary in June. Regardless of what you think about booze, or whether you drink it or not, what Erenzo and Lee created in a barn in Gardiner, starting with a single still, marks a kind of tipping in the economic evolution of the Hudson Valley. There will be no more employers on the scale of IBM coming to save us in one fell swoop. The economic vitality of the region will hinge on the success of a community of small-scale creative makers, people inventing artisanal products that tie in to the land and have a compelling story to tell—dreamers like Lee and Erenzo.
"We didn't know when we started that it would make such a big splash," Erenzo told me recently. "We didn't really even know what we were doing. But Brian and I would constantly remind each other: There are guys in the back woods with no teeth and a kindergarten-level education making money on this? How hard can it be?"