Raising a Glass (Ceiling): Women in Distilling | Craft Beverage Industry | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine

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Raising a Glass (Ceiling): Women in Distilling

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Last Updated: 05/02/2022 9:56 am
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Louise and Sophie Newsome behind the bar in the tasting room at Cooper’s Daughter Spirits in Claverack, the distillery the mother and daughter jointly own. - PHOTO BY MIKE ALTABELO
  • Photo by Mike Altabelo
  • Louise and Sophie Newsome behind the bar in the tasting room at Cooper’s Daughter Spirits in Claverack, the distillery the mother and daughter jointly own.

From former firehouses to village storefronts to historic farms, Hudson Valley distilleries come in all shapes and sizes. And, increasingly women are taking the reins as the industry expands. (There are currently 160 distilleries operating in New York State.) “The future looks bright,” says Amy Litt of the Hudson Valley chapter of Women Who Whiskey. “A lot of people who have been left out of the spirits industry are bringing their own chairs, to paraphrase Shirley Chisholm.” Litt, who happens to have a gender studies degree and who can quite easily offer a dissertation on the history of women at work in this country and the conflicts from industrialization and war to domestic labor or the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, continues: “Instead of just putting out a new vodka, bourbon, etc., that will compete for shelf space, women in our region are elbowing open other categories in really risky, exciting ways.”

There have been women-owned or women-led distilleries since the Farm Distillery Act kicked off the craft beverage boom in 2007. No matter how long or short their tenure, the glasses they pour are varied, complex, and celebrate all that’s grown and nurtured in the region.

Catskill Provisions, Callicoon

When you walk into Catskill Provisions in Callicoon, the echo of the building’s former life as a firehouse makes sense, and yet the way owner Claire Marin has had it transformed is a sight to see. Split into three vast spaces with plenty of walking around and sitting space inside and outside, it is part shop, gallery, tasting room, and restaurant. With the help of designer Hadley Wiggins-Marin (no relation), the space has a minimalist sensibility and yet a warmth from the honey-colored furniture and objects filling the space. Everything is intentional. Just like every spirit in Marin’s collection has honey, even minimally, running throughout it.

Claire Marin left a career in publishing to start Catskill Provisions in Callicoon.
  • Claire Marin left a career in publishing to start Catskill Provisions in Callicoon.

Like many highlighted here, it took professional pivots, countless conflicts, and lab-like experiments to get to where Catskill Provisions and her award-winning Pollinator Spirits line is today. From a career in publishing and media to a focus on bee-keeping and honey, Marin soon married her honey operation to the world of spirits in 2011. She worked with local farmers, many of whom were facing real concerns surrounding fracking, and she got an education on the ins and outs of Sullivan County. Marin spent three years learning the trade, exploring possibilities and creating before selling her first bottle, a honey whiskey, in 2014. “I was a nomad at first and worked with other distillers,” Marin says, before deciding to go solo. “There was a point in 2018,” she says, “that I wondered if I was on the right path.” And yet, she says her partner redirected her and reminded Marin that the buzz of “what if” would always be there. They bought the building in 2019 and just barely assembled the operation before the pandemic hit. 

Today, Marin and her team sell honey and spirits to over 300 restaurants in New York City, not to mention ketchup, apple cider vinegar, and maple syrup. Most of her visitors, she says, come from Philadelphia and New York City, or Connecticut, Litchfield, in particular.

“The brand is a feeling,” Marin says. She believes her line is soft on the palate, which can be due in large part to the kiss of honey running throughout.

From the lineup: award-winning Pollinator Spirit line: Vodka, Gin, Bespoke Gin, Maple Bourbon, Honey Rye, Hone-Barreled. They are now experimenting with their own Amaro that will challenge Campari. A personal favorite (and surprise), their latest, limited batch called Bonfire Rye, with a hint of smokiness.

Denning’s Point Distillery, Beacon

In an old brick warehouse, just off Beacon’s main drag, Denning’s Point Distillery has the most citified vibe on the list. The interior feels like a large, open industrial loft with piping and tanks, with a small cocktail bar running along bags of grain, and a tasting nook near the entrance. The actual aging happens at a warehouse in Newburgh. The (possibly apocryphal) story goes that George Washington met with his officers at the spit of land in the Hudson called Denning’s Point during the Revolutionary War, and, although not confirmed, that Hamilton wrote the foundation for the Federalist papers there. Susan Johnson, owner of the distillery, revels in the area’s history which is noted as signatures on every bottle. “And to this day,” she notes, “there are the remains of a cidery at Denning’s Point.” Johnson, who married her former marketing experience in both large corporate and small start-up businesses with the world of distilling in 2014, says “celebrating local history has been very important to us and is incorporated into each aspect of our brand.” Even the bottle tops beckon to the area’s role in the American Revolution.  “Our signature turquoise wax was the color of the officers’ sash during the Revolutionary War that distinguished them from the foot soldiers,” Johnson mentions. “The Beacon Bourbon was named for the fires set on Mt. Beacon to alert enemy troop movement; the Great 9 Gin is a dual reference to the land grant of Dutchess County—the Great Nine Partners Patent (and the nine botanicals we use in this spirit),” she continues. Even the bar in the tasting room is studded by reclaimed “DPBW” bricks from the Denning’s Point Brick Works.

Susan Johnson behind the bar at Denning’s Point Distillery in Beacon. - PHOTO BY MEGHAN SPIRO PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Photo by Meghan Spiro Photography
  • Susan Johnson behind the bar at Denning’s Point Distillery in Beacon.

When asked about how she got into distilling, Johnson says, “When my business partner, Karl Johnson, started talking about this business, I knew it was the perfect opportunity to weave everything together.” As a marketing generalist, she fully develops the brand strategy, which involves every aspect of the business—from the overall vibe for visitors on the weekends, to the visuals of the brand, the business development strategy. “It’s really the culmination of everything I’ve done before the distillery [and] far and away the best job I’ve had.”

Instead of focusing on the many trials that have halted some women in the business, Johnson believes, in her experience, it has been a benefit. “In fact, I think being a woman-led business has opened some doors. People have been open and curious to hear my perspective and interested in learning more about what we are producing,” Johnson says. “I’m not the guy with the beard in a plaid flannel (which is a look I happen to love) so I think it’s been a new experience for some industry veterans to work with a woman. I’m sure I’ve been dismissed by others without even knowing it, but those wouldn’t be relationships I would have been interested in cultivating anyway.”

A personal favorite of mine is the Maid in the Meadow vodka, with hints of herbs and honey, which, at time of print, had just been awarded a Gold Medal at the San Francisco World Spirits competition; and the Beacon Coffee Bourbon, a collaboration with Beacon’s Trax Espresso Bar & Coffee Roasters that tastes like an Italian affogato.

Cooper’s Daughter Spirits, Claverack

What a way to come full circle. Not only did the Newsome family fall in love with the land along the Claverack Creek, but they later discovered that there was a distillery there back in 1805, when it was owned by Jacob Rutsen Van Rensselaer, Speaker of the New York State Assembly. When Sophie Newsome and her husband Rory Tice began experimenting with infusions back in college at SUNY Plattsburgh, they had no idea that just a few years later, their experiments would end up becoming one of the area’s most popular local brands.

Although it is a family affair, Newsome and her mom, Louise, are the owners. And, Cooper’s Daughter is not just a clever name; Newsome is in fact the cooper’s daughter. The distillery is actually one of just two in the country with an actual cooperage on site, according to Newsome. Her father, Stuart, spent a lifetime as a contractor before shifting his focus to barrel-making. Wanting to maintain, yet bolster the history of the barn, he makes every barrel at the distillery.

“I’ve always been passionate about the farm-to-table movement,” Newsome says, and honoring traditional methods has been an integral part of the business. From apples or ramps to walnuts and roses, they work with neighboring farms for all their ingredients, and, after just five years, their small-batch whimsical concoctions have become popular selections in their outdoor cocktail garden or at the many markets they attend. In terms of being a woman in the business, she says, “there were definitely times when people looked to my dad in a meeting, but thankfully, with experience and confidence, that has changed.”

Cooper’s Daughter Spirits offers a wide variety and highlights the agricultural stars of the region. From Black Walnut Bourbon (my personal favorite) or Smoked Maple to Pumpkin Spice or Ramp Vodka, their line of bourbons, whiskeys, vodkas, and liqueurs creatively utilize the harvests of each season.

C. Cassis

Although there’s no public space yet, newcomer Rachael Petach and her sensational sipper/mixer C. Cassis get around. I caught her just before a mad dash to Chicago for a tasting event. After 12 years in Brooklyn, including many years at the Wythe Hotel and experience in food and beverage since she was 15, Petach had an itch for more. Something that brought her professional experience in line with her personal taste happened, to her surprise, while she was pregnant a few years ago. Looking for a non-alcoholic alternative but something akin to what she’d like as a cocktail, Petach began experimenting. 

Just before the pandemic, she landed on a confluence of flavors using the once banned bad-boy fruit of agriculture: the black currant. For nearly 100 years black currants had been banned due to the threat it posed to white pine. Fortunately, with the determined help of farmer and botanist Greg Quinn, the ban was lifted and the fruit returned in 2003. Today, its potential is endless. “I love black currants,” says Petach with a contagious enthusiasm. “I love them as a fresh fruit. I think they are phenomenal; they are herbaceous and semi-savory and really bright. And, totally cool.”

Rachael Petach mixing up a batch of her currant liquer, C. Cassis. - PHOTO BY PHILLIP ANGERT
  • Photo by Phillip Angert
  • Rachael Petach mixing up a batch of her currant liquer, C. Cassis.

For now, the space she creates in is referred to as the Studio, shared with her husband, and graphic designer Steven Quested. However, those visiting in Catskill can get a tasting, since the studio is connected, for the moment, to Left Bank Ciders.

First bottled in December 2020 and originally envisioned as a spring or summer drink, C. Cassis gained instant popularity in the middle of the first pandemic winter. The sipper/mixer is much less sweet than its syrupy grandad, Creme de Cassis. It’s just 16-percent ABV, so it’s light on the alcohol, and blends well with other spirits like gin or vodka. Petach says she likes it with a little bubbly and a squeeze of lemon, like a spritz.

When asked about being a woman in the business, Petach admits, “It can be exhausting to sit in this gender-niche anomaly space. How often do we say, ‘Look, it’s a male-owned company.’ It’s complex. Between [distilling’s] roots in early patriarchy and cultural judgment around women and drinking, it has taken a long time to course correct.” 

Rachael Petach in front of a forthcoming line of textiles - PHOTO BY NAIRI AMIRKHANIAN
  • Photo by Nairi Amirkhanian
  • Rachael Petach in front of a forthcoming line of textiles

Petach says she’s technically a “rectifier,” “which falls somewhere between distilling, wine-making and alchemy,” she says. “We blend and balance and lightly ferment.” They wanted a quick, fruit-to-bottle process, so their fresh-frozen method has become a part of production, just one experiment of many to find the balance in flavor, color, and alcohol content she was aiming for.

Currently playing with barrels that come its way, C. Cassis recently added to its light and bright signature version a whiskey barrel-aged iteration. Although the first bottle was certainly vibrant, and as Petach believes, will be the rage for spritzes all summer, the deeper, more textural edition was a personal favorite.

C. Cassis (and their popular, graphic merchandise) is sold online, but also at select liquor stores across the country. When I told Petach that my local liquor store didn’t carry it, she made a note and said, “I’ll call them tomorrow!”

Catskill Mountain Moonshine, Saugerties

You’d swear you were in the South when sidling up to the bar, just six weeks old at time of print, but you’d actually be in downtown Saugerties. In what was previously a soda fountain, the long bar lends itself to a festive, communal space. “Just an hour before you showed up, women from a bachelorette party were dancing on the bar,” owner Allyson Barbaria says, proudly, of the Nashville-inspired bar and distillery, Catskill Mountain Moonshine. With cowboy hats along the walls, grain bags on the floor, and a clothesline of bras tagged with funny “pick-up” lines leading to the restrooms, Barbaria knows how to throw a party.

At Catskill Mountain Moonshine, Allyson Barbaria has created a Nashville-style roadhouse tasting room on Market Street in Saugerties.
  • At Catskill Mountain Moonshine, Allyson Barbaria has created a Nashville-style roadhouse tasting room on Market Street in Saugerties.

“For the last 29 years, my husband and I made cider and even tried our hand at wine. At the same time a friend of ours was trying his hand at distilling,” Barbaria says. After a 2019 visit to Tennessee, they fell in love with the family-get-together vibe they experienced in Nashville, and thought, “There must be a way to incorporate the two experiences together and create one unique atmosphere back home,” Barbaria says. After a decade in accounting and a dream to be her own boss, the possibility finally presented itself when a friend and former colleague bought the corner building that is now home to Catskill Mountain Moonshine. Being able to create distillates from all that is available locally is a big draw. “It’s amazing how much agriculture is available right here in the Hudson Valley, [but] it’s a challenge to divide the time between creating spirits and then creating an experience to offer patrons,” she says. 

When asked about being an owner in the spirits business, Barbaria admits, “tenacious, professional women will always push forward and build equitable environments where they will thrive; this industry is a prime example of just that.” 

Even those who are more recently starting in the business, like Meg Swett, assistant distiller of Coppersea Distilling in New Paltz, admits, “It is fascinating and rewarding work [and] the image of a rugged, strong, rebellious, cigar-smoking white man making moonshine or distilling…is a facade. While it holds some truth, it is only a piece of the ever-changing story. Whisky is adaptable to whoever drinks it and it is shaped by the current reality of those who enjoy its nature.”

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