Words by Christine Dionese | Photos by Caitlin McGrath
The boutique distilling business is booming in New York State, from the Hudson River Valley up to the Finger Lakes — all the way through Rochester and Buffalo.
Apple Country Spirits, a fourth generation fruit farm situated on more than 500 acres in Williamson, jumped into the distilling game in 2012 with sustainability in mind. (Apple Country’s fruit forward spirits celebrate a zero-waste philosophy.)
But Apple Country Spirits really caught Boomtown's attention when West Coast Editor Christine Dionese sampled a hopped vodka in their tasting room this past summer.
And she was blown away. By a vodka.
On a recent trip to New York, Dionese chatted with Collin McConville, Apple Country’s distiller.
BTT: Collin, you’re all about keeping it local. Tell us how you found yourself distilling spirits for Apple Country Spirits.
Collin: I started working in the alcohol industry directly out of college. I graduated with a degree in history and a minor in philosophy ... which were not the best degrees to have at the time. While I was looking for something to do, a farm distillery opened up in my hometown of Valatie (Va-Lay-Sha, it's Dutch) and my girlfriend at the time (now wife) worked for the farm attached to the distillery. She connected me with the owner and we hit it off pretty well. I started working in the tasting room that weekend and haven't looked back since. At the time, it was a two-man operation so eventually he started teaching me how to do the other work ... starting with bottling, labeling, cleaning, etc. After that, I got into the fermentation and finally the distilling. I worked there for about four years and moved on to do my own thing here at Apple Country Spirits.
BTT: What is it about homegrown spirits that intrigues you?
Collin: I like the fact that small and local means different. We are able to experiment with what we have available to us in our region. This makes all of the products different — unique — even if they fall into the same category. We are also more willing to take chances. If I get a call from our local maple syrup guy who has a hundred gallons that he doesn't want to sell, I’m able to take that off his hands to try making it into something special (true story, by the way).
BTT: How do you see Apple Country Spirits connected to the greater Rochester region and the restaurants and bars throughout the city?
Collin: We try to do a pairing or tasting menu once every couple of months. Our biggest hurdle is always the fact that we make things that you don't see often, namely brandies and applejack. Because of this, we try very hard to educate consumers and retailers who carry our products, and that has led to some great projects. We have done many pairing dinners and plan to continue in the seasons ahead.
BTT: Why distill with hops? How did the inspiration evolve?
Collin: The hopped vodka came about because we had some extra hops sitting around after experimenting with them for other projects. As a distiller, I’m accustomed to working with whatever we have left over — which is why we have obscure products like Slivovitz (a plum brandy). I took the hops and macerated them in some neutral spirits for about two to three months. This resulted in an overpowering, extract-like product that I did not like. I took a little experimental tabletop still that I had and redistilled the liquid (much like you would with gin) and came out with something that was much more approachable and enjoyable. Since hops are so popular, it grew into what we will be calling our first seasonal vodka. We figure the beer guys aren't the only ones that can do seasonals; so can we!
There's a measure of risk involved in producing something special when you're distilling. McConville says the natural environment surrounding Apple Country Spirits explains the quality and success of the small-batch spirits and ciders the distillery is becoming known for.
BTT: Any special considerations when distilling with hops?
Collin: Hops really behave just like many of the botanicals used to distill gin, absinthe and vermouth. It is all about balance and quality. This is why we are now working with Pedersen’s, a local farm in Geneva that has been growing hops for a number of years, to source the hops.
BTT: The initial taste was a hint of lavender coupled with citrus, maybe citrus leaves. What herbs or other plants could have influenced the hops?
Collin: I believe the hops we used were cascade, which generally have a citrus note to them. The extraction process will tend to pull forward some flavors, making them much more prevalent. In terms of the growing region, the hops we used for our experiments came from the Geneva area which sits at the top of one of the Finger Lakes — so I am sure they received some influence from local flora. (Seneca was just granted its own AVA as a subregion of the Finger Lakes, and it is known for having a very distinct profile).
BTT: Apple Country Spirits maintains a keep-it-local, zero-waste, sustainable practices philosophy. Was it difficult to find another local farm that practices equally sustainable methods when you sourced the hops?
Collin: Because we are not just a distillery and cidery but also a farm, we are very conscious of what makes it into our products. Up to this point, we have only used what we grow on site. The hops are the first plant we are sourcing off of our own farm.
From the start we knew we wanted to stay as local as possible because we have built our distillery around that core idea. We have sourced most of our equipment from the United States, with a majority of that being from our own backyard in New York. Our fermentors came from Geneva, our press from Buffalo, and our bottles from Waterloo.