Monday, September 16, 2013

Hudson Whiskey: The accidental distiller who can't drink

Ralph Erenzo
Hudson Whiskey has more irony than age.

It was founded in 2006 by a guy who wanted to create a rock-climbing gym, but was stymied by his NIMBY neighbors, who didn't want climbing tourists around. So what did they get? Drinking tourists. Haha, take that, NIMBYs.

Hudson's creators had no idea how to make whiskey, so they just stumbled along production-wise, put the results in pretty bottles, overcharged for them and saw the brand gain high-end cachet.

And perhaps most ironic of all, founder Ralph Erenzo, who sold the Hudson Whiskey brand to the liquor giant William Grant & Sons but still owns and operates the Tuthilltown Spirits distillery that makes it, can't drink. At all. Probably forever.

"My kidneys stopped working for a month," Erenzo says, after a one-car traffic accident he doesn't even remember put him in a coma. "When I started peeing again, it was a big party on the (intensive care) floor. I spent three months in intensive care, had 21 surgeries. I'm missing three ribs."

 I sat at an event dinner with Erenzo last week. He's a fascinating guy who helped start the wave of small craft distilleries and sits on the board of the American Craft Distillers Association. He does still taste the cocktails made to showcase his products -- with one very tiny sip. That's it.

"Now that I've stopped drinking, it's not part of my lifestyle anymore," he says.

Tuthilltown Spirits was the first new distillery in New York since prohibition; now there are 34. Politically this is a big deal, because small distilleries opening across the country are having the same loosening effect on liquor laws as the growth of regional wineries.

But Erenzo says, "When we got into this business it wasn't because we loved whiskey. We loved the challenge of something new." And he couldn't build a climbing gym.

Erenzo originally built trade-show exhibits. Once he built a climbing wall for Danskin at a trade show, and soon saw the growth potential in climbing. He eventually opened four climbing gyms, including Manhattan's first, right across from the Lincoln Center. He staged the climbing competition at ESPN's X-games.

While in the Hudson Valley, Erenzo saw a beautiful old grist mill in Tuthilltown. He bought it intending to build a climbing gym there. The neighboring property was owned by retirees who didn't want more traffic.

"They told us, 'We're going to stop you until you run out of money and have to sell'," Erenzo says. He was stymied by local officials for three years. "After three years, I asked the local zoning officer what I had a right to do that no one could stop me. He said, 'You're in a farming district. You have a right to farm'."

At the same time, New York state decided to liberalize its liquor production laws to stimulate small craft distillers. The license fee dropped from $65,000 to $1000. Erenzo took a class, got a license, and Hudson Whiskey was born.

He really didn't know what he was doing, though. Sometimes that has its advantages. Most distillers have a drain on the tank in which they mash their grain, so that they get a liquid solution to ferment. Hudson didn't have a proper mash tank, instead using a honey-melting tank with no drain.

"We couldn't figure out a way to strain it, so we didn't," Erenzo says. "We left the whole grains in to ferment, and that gave the whiskies a grainy flavor. We still do that."

Sometimes not knowing what you're doing is messy. "Rye tends to foam up," Erenzo says. "We used to have rye paste all over the floor in the morning. We told another distiller about it one day, and he said, 'Don't you use anti-foam?' It's a silicon material, you just add a couple of drops."

"There's no manual for being a small distiller. We're making it up as we go along."

What Erenzo was good at was sales and marketing. For one thing, Hudson Whiskey comes in 375 ml bottles instead of the standard 750 ml. That disguises the price somewhat: It's easier to pay $40 to try it than $80.

The products might be tastier if not for certain US requirements. For example, the only product you can call "whiskey" that sees no time in an oak barrel is "corn whiskey," which is basically raw corn moonshine. Hudson makes one, it's a fast product to market, and at $40 for 375 ml, you can see why William Grant would want this brand. Too rough for me. (Utah's High West distillery claims its more drinkable Silver Whiskey spends "5 minutes in a barrel.")

Similarly, Hudson's popular "baby Bourbon" has to be aged in charred new oak barrels because of US law regarding the use of the word "Bourbon." Hudson uses really small barrels and less aging time. You can imagine what that leads to.

With fewer shoot-producers-in-the-foot regulations, Hudson's Manhattan Rye whiskey (now that the foaming problem is solved) is its most delicious.

Although he had a fabulous liquor market downstate in Manhattan, Erenzo initially concentrated on selling his whiskies in Paris. He said he was inspired by the great black jazz musicians of the 20th century, who had a hard time even getting a hotel room in the US until they made a name for themselves as stars in France.

"I thought, if I can sell this to the top hotels in Paris, it'll be easy to sell in Manhattan," he says. "I wanted the top-shelf places. If they picked it up, it would give us credibility here." They did, and the brand took off.

Hudson's story about its whiskies is especially great for New Yorkers. About 90% of its grains are sourced within 35 miles of the distillery. They just started making a Maple Rye for which they sell a maple syrup maker some used barrels to age their syrup in, then buy them back and age rye in it.

Let's face it, the spirits industry is at least 80% image. The Hudson Whiskey image is fantastic. Is that irony?

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.

No comments: