How the Farm Distillery Act changed distilling in America

It's entirely possible we have booze to thank for the rise of agriculture as we know it. Photo by Glenn Carstens Peters.

It's entirely possible we have booze to thank for the rise of agriculture as we know it. Photo by Glenn Carstens Peters.

Ten years ago, if you wanted to drink local gin in New York, you’d have to make it in your own bathtub. It wasn’t always like that, though. If you were to go back much further, there was a time when state enjoyed a plethora of distilleries, many of them set up on small farms. Mean old Prohibition, however, put that era to an end. Even after the repeal, things never really got back on track—that is, until 2007.

Over the past decade, New York has seen a major regrowth of farm distilleries. What exactly is a farm distillery, you may ask? It’s the epitome of our fascination with dining—or in this case, drinking—locally. To be considered a farm distillery, the company’s spirits have to be crafted from local ingredients, with at least 75 percent coming from inside the home state. Although this might sound like a limitation, it’s actually led to a lot of growth and innovation. The entire movement started with one little distillery, which played a big role in shepherding one important piece of legislation: the Farm Distillery Act.

Hudson Whiskey and the Farm Distillery Act

2017 marks the 10-year anniversary of the Farm Distillery Act. While that’s something everyone should celebrate, the party wouldn’t be happening without a guy by the name of Ralph Erenzo. He and Brian Lee founded Tuthilltown Spirits back in 2003, which would give birth to craft darling Hudson Whiskey. Hudson is perhaps best known for its flagship Baby Bourbon, which is the first pot-stilled whiskey to come out of New York since Prohibition. Well, it’s the first legal one, anyway.

“When Erenzo founded Tuthilltown Spirits in 2003,” explains Amy Zavatto at Edible Manhattan,  “he was the only farm-based distiller in the state.” But Erenzo went on to champion the Farm Distillery Act, which created some important changes in local legislation. The act dramatically reduced the cost of licensing for new distilleries—as long as they stuck to using local grains from local farms. This made it much more realistic to start a small distillery without massive capital, and paved the way for dozens of other distillers to set up shop. And set up shop they did. It was the start of a whole new movement across New York for craft spirits.

The act did a few other key things as well. It allowed farm distilleries to sell directly to consumers, and to open on-site tasting rooms for visitors to enjoy. As Amanda Gabriele at The Manual puts it, “The creation of the Farm Distillery Act in 2007 had a significant impact on the boom of craft distillers in New York State,” and not just because it was easier to get started. These changes also created a more sustainable system to keep fledgling distillers in business, all while helping to support local farms at the same time.

It’s worked out rather well. Erenzo is currently a member of Governor Cuomo’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Law Working Group. They’ve continued to update state laws, reduce fees for small businesses, and help craft distilleries to grow the state’s economy. As of 2015, New York boasts over seventy farm distilleries, and that number only continues to grow.

The Big Impact of Small Distilleries Continues

I recently sat down with Hudson’s Brand Ambassador, Han Shan, to discuss the link between craft spirits and New York agriculture. He told me that when Tuthilltown recently celebrated its 10-year anniversary, Mayor Cuomo sent a proclamation to say thank you, and to congratulate the distillery on a decade of Hudson Whiskey. “It wasn’t because Andrew Cuomo is a big whiskey nerd,” Shan said with a smile, “but it’s about the fact that it’s been great for farmers, great for the tax base of the state. It’s put a lot of folks to work.” The mayor, Shan explained, has done a lot to bolster NY agriculture, partly by encouraging “the drinks culture that has helped invest in it.” Whiskey, it seems, is bringing new and growing lifelines to farms across New York. 

Today, though Hudson Whiskey has grown leaps and bounds since its early days, the team continues to keep it local. From their Baby Bourbon to their Maple Cask Rye, they source 90 percent of their ingredients from within a 60-mile radius of their home in the Hudson Valley. In addition to the corn and rye that make up their whiskeys, Tuthilltown also makes vodkas and gins from farm-fresh apples that grow a mere five miles away.

Hudson started distilling back in 2005, at a time when micro-distilleries were few and far between in the United States. Fast-forward to today, and there are now more than 700 of them dotting the map, from coast to coast. So while Tuthilltown has certainly made a major impact on New York, the craft distillery movement that they helped fuel stretches across the country. That’s a legacy to be proud of, and a movement that hopefully continues to flourish for another ten years—and far beyond.

Chad Eschman