How to Malt in America
A small-scale distiller in upstate New York embodies the American spirit.


Patrick Brennan

What do they distill for their Spirit of the Hudson Vodka and Half Moon Gin (named after Henry Hudson’s ship)? “Every two weeks, we buy 800 gallons of cider at top dollar from an orchard three miles up the road,” Erenzo explains. “We buy everything he can make; he can’t keep up with us.” What about the corn for their bourbon? There are 60 acres of top-quality heirloom corn now being grown within miles of Tuthilltown’s whiskey stills. Erenzo says they’ve basically revived the local farming industry, and diversified it, too: “The heirloom varietals were not grown around here, so we bought the seeds and brought it to the farmers.” They’re “much lower yield, but very rich in the oils and sugars we’re looking for.” Profit margins are much higher for Hudson Valley farmers when their product ends up getting poured into a 375-milliliter bottle that sells in Paris for $85.

But there’s one product they haven’t yet been able to get in New York: the malted barley that goes into their single-malt whiskey. Barley for malting is normally grown above 45 degrees latitude — New York’s northernmost border, with Quebec. Because the main ingredient in Tuthilltown’s single malt has to be imported from Canada, New York doesn’t let the distillery sell it directly to customers. It’s worth getting hold of, though: With a sweet, vanilla aroma, the single malt offers a woody, spicy flavor with hints of honey. It’s a distinctly made-in-America single malt — offering some of the refinement and complexity of a world-class scotch, but with the bold oak character of American whiskey. And as with the heirloom corn, Erenzo thinks he can get New York farmers to start growing barley soon enough, too.

Some of the single malt’s character comes in large part from yet another federal regulation: A 1938 law mandates that all American whiskey must be aged for a certain period of time in new oak barrels. (The story goes that the lumber lobby wanted a steady market for oak, but no one quite knows.) Traditional single-malt whiskey, like that made in Scotland, is aged in casks that have already held another liquor, such as bourbon or sherry. New casks impart much stronger, bolder flavors to whiskey than used ones.

Alcohol aging in a charred wooden barrel acts as a solvent on its container, breaking down various compounds in the wood and absorbing the sugars and other molecules. Each variation in the density or water content of wood, each knot and imperfection, adds unique flavors to a barrel of whiskey. A blender of single-malt whiskey combines varying amounts of the same whiskey from different barrels, each with its own distinctive flavor notes, to get the profile he wants. In order to stand up against the strong flavor influences of oak, Tuthilltown, like other American distilleries, takes care to keep its spirit stronger and more flavorful throughout the production process.

For instance, after the malted barley and water, single malt’s two main ingredients, have been mixed together in a “mash,” Scottish distilleries will filter out the solid clumps of wheat that remain, but American distillers leave them in. When the mash is pumped into large fermentation tanks, where yeasts break down the barley sugars into alcohol, the presence of more solids helps ensure that there is more flavor to balance out the strong influences of the new oak.

Ever innovating, though, Tuthilltown and other American distilleries plan to start experimenting with Scottish-style used casks in the near future. This year, Tuthilltown will produce close to 70,000 gallons of liquor, but will sell just a fraction of that; much more is going into barrels to age than is being bottled and sold. Today, in addition to gin, vodka, and single malt, Tuthilltown turns out rye whiskey, unaged corn whiskey, a range of bitters, and bourbon; brandy made from heirloom apples is soon to come. Erenzo explains that, like Tuthilltown itself, the small-scale spirits industry is in its infancy, “where craft brewing was 20 years ago.” Their growing business blends a spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation with sustainable agriculture and buying local. Americans of any political label can toast to that.

— Patrick Brennan is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.