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A Spirited Discussion with Hudson Valley Distillers

Longtime friends Chris Moyer and Tom Yozzo open Hudson Valley distillery featuring local ingredients to make their spirits.

By Stephen E. Hadcock

This Spring, I visited with Tom and Jen Yozzo and Chris Moyer of Hudson Valley Distillers — the newest distillery to open in the Hudson Valley region of New York State. The tasting room doors of Hudson Valley Distillers opened for business in March, 2014, but much work had taken place prior to the successful public launch of the company.

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A complete picture of the still at Hudson Valley Distillers. The still separates the alcohol from water and other components in the fermented product.

From Dreams to Brick and Mortar
The process to start the distillery was a long one. Tom and Chris had talked about partnering on various business ventures for many years. Once they agreed to pursue the idea of starting a distillery, they began the research to learn what is entailed to operate a farm distillery. The two families searched a fairly large geographic area looking for a good place to start the business. The Hudson Valley ranked near the top because of all the states and locations they were interested in, they felt there was “room to grow” in New York State. In their estimation, competition is higher in some other states, since those states have a more developed locally produced spirits and alcohol business.

The two families settled upon purchasing a farm consisting of almost 12 acres in Clermont, NY. They already had in mind the mix of spirits they would like to produce and sell, and this property met their needs. One of the products they intended to produce (and have started selling) is vodka made from apples. One of the appealing features of the property they purchased was that there was already an established orchard of approximately 4 ½ acres there. The orchard had been let go, but Tom and Chris have been working slowly to do what is needed to bring the orchard back.

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Thomas Yozzo and Chris Moyer met in 1990 as fraternity brothers at Bloomsburg University Photo by Dave Ashby

Although not subscribing completely to the concept of terroir, the parties involved do take very seriously either growing as much of the raw ingredients to make spirits themselves or purchasing them from local sources. Tom used the term “dirt to glass” as the philosophy he has in producing the spirits the distillery makes and sells. The apple orchard is one example of this, but Tom stated that this summer they are going to be growing heritage corn in another section of the property to use in making whiskey. They are planning to use the greenhouses already located on the property to grow sugar cane in order to make rum. The greenhouses will also be used to grow botanicals needed for producing gin and other spirits. The partners even want to obtain barrels made from New York white oak. It is currently difficult to source barrels crafted in New York, so right now, they are sourcing barrels from the Midwest

One of the limiting ingredients for them is barley. Right now, malting barley is in short supply in the Hudson Valley. However, the potential to produce the right type of barley here is promising. Cornell Cooperative Extension and other organizations are exploring how to successfully grow malting barley once again in New York State. The other constraint is a facility to malt barley and other grains. These facilities are called “malting houses” and are rare in New York State. However, other entrepreneurs are interested in investing and starting malting houses. Therefore, it is hoped in the next few years more malting grains will be available as an ingredient for beer and spirits.

Find out more

For those interested in learning more about what it takes to establish a farm distillery, brewery or winery in NYS, here is information from NYS: http://esd.ny.gov/NYSBeverageBiz/faq.html

To learn more about Hudson Valley Distillers, visit their website at http://www.hudsonvalleydistillers.com

Chris and Tom mentioned it is not easy to start a distillery in New York State. A farm distillery is a capital intensive business. Not only do you need land and buildings for a farm, but also need all of the capital items (still, wooden barrels, fermenting tanks, supplies, etc.) for making the spirits. All of this equipemnt needs to be in place prior to applying for the necessary permits and licenses from New York State and the federal government. Significant investments have been made to develop the business over 1 ½ years without any income. They have developed a plan to start and grow the business. To start with, their distillery is smaller than some others. They sized the business to what they felt they could successfully invest in and not become too heavily leveraged.

One word of advice that the partners have for those who are considering starting a distillery is that unexpected issues will arise. As with many value added agricultural businesses, there is a variety of machinery that is needed to process spirits. The most important piece of machinery is the still. Once installed, there have been “glitches” in proper operation of the still and other machinery. The glitches have been mostly resolved but Chris and Tom continue to proceed with production.

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The (almost) Finished Product.

To better appreciate what is entailed in producing a spirit, here is a brief overview of the process. One key component of making spirits or any other alcoholic product is yeast. A critical nutrient that yeast need to grow is sugar or starch. A wide variety of different agricultural products can be used to provide starch and sugar for the yeast. If grains are used, some types of grain are allowed to sprout and then dried. This is the malting process. Whole malted grains, or other food products for the yeast, are added to a tub along with water. The mixture is heated to release the sugars and starches and the grains are removed. Yeast is added to the mixture and the magic begins. Two byproducts produced from the yeast eating and growing in this liquid are carbon dioxide and alcohol. Once the process is completed, the fermented liquid is transferred to a kettle and is heated. Since the boiling point of alcohol is different than water, a distillation process (still) is used to capture the alcohol. Depending on what spirit is made, it may be distilled actually several times to obtain the desired qualities. Tom mentions that this is where the art of making a spirit comes in. It is knowing when the good part of the distillation process starts and how much of it to capture. Aged spirits are then placed in oak barrels and aged until ready for sale. Tom emphasizes it takes a trained pallet to recognize when a spirit is ready and can be bottled.

All involved in the distillery have given thought to their marketing plan. The partners are relying on social and print media to let consumers know about the business. Chris and Tom have joined the Hudson Berkshire Beverage Trail and are also promoting the business by participating in festivals. The partners continue to look for new marketing opportunities.

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11 acre farm in Clermont, NY

Tom and Chris acknowledge that they and their wives bring a variety of skill sets that will help the business be successful. Tom has produced his own wine and beer and is focusing on the production of the spirit. Chris has talent and experience in financial and business management. They are not only focused on establishing the business but are also thinking strategically on how to grow the business. Plans are already in place to use larger barrels for aging and possibly upgrading the still.

With careful planning the right mix of products and good marketing, the future looks bright for these two longtime friends in the Hudson Valley to produce and sell a variety spirits produced from locally grown crops.

Stephen Hadcock is a Senior Resource Educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension Capital Area Agricultural and Horticultural Program. He can be reached at 518-380-1497 or seh11@cornell.edu

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