Upstate New York might share a state with that big city to the south, but the rural land outside of Rochester, New York, feels a million miles away from the Big Apple. Instead of finance and show tunes, these towns and villages were built on a foundation of agriculture and manufacturing—and when major factories in the region started to close, residents began to worry that their communities’ vitality would dwindle, too.
But for many upstate New York communities, the rise of craft spirits has revived a local industry with even deeper roots than manufacturing. Before Prohibition, New York was a distilling powerhouse. Today, distilleries like Honeyoye Falls Distillery in Honeyoye Falls, New York, are aiming to build on this fertile region’s natural strengths to revive an industry that once powered the Northeast. We caught up with John Barchitta, Honeyoye Falls Distillery’s Northeast Brand Ambassador, to learn more about this rye-centric distillery in northern New York.
The Early Days of Honeyoye Falls
Salesman Scott Stanton and biochemist and botanist Teal Schlegel founded Honeyoye Falls Distillery in 2013. “They were basically sitting on their back porch, drinking whiskey, and Teal turns to Scott and says, ‘I could make this,’” explains John. “Scott said, ‘If you can make it, I can sell it.’ So they took combined their skill sets and created the distillery.”
Together, they found a suitable location in the village of Honeyoye Falls, a community of about 2,500 along the banks of the Honeyoye Creek. A former mill town, Honeyoye Falls is about 20 miles from Rochester, New York, and offered Scott and Teal a beautiful, bucolic setting in a thriving, tightly knit community.
From the beginning, Teal and Scott knew they wanted tom make their products onsite rather than source finished spirit from other distilleries. So they installed a 600-gallon pot still fitted with an offset column, a hybrid setup common in craft distilleries that enables the production of full-flavored spirits like whiskey as well as more neutral spirits like vodka.
“Teal is very detail-oriented with all his spirits,” says John. “They’re all extremely smooth—that’s something they really pride themselves on.”
Today, Honeoye Falls Distillery is the second most widely distributed craft spirit brand in New York, one of the nation’s leading states for craft distilling. It’s a remarkable rise for a distillery that’s just six years old, and it’s all built on a staple of the New York agricultural economy: Rye.
New York’s Rye Revival
“New York was to rye what Kentucky is to bourbon,” says John. “We’re trying to reclaim our old glory, and I like to think that we have some of the best rye in the country.” In honor of New York’s rye-centric history, Honeyoye Falls Distillery uses locally grown rye—and by “locally,” we don’t just mean grown in New York. “The rye field is actually directly behind the distillery,” says John.
Early European immigrants brought rye with them to America. It’s one of the hardiest grains, able to grow in climates that are colder and harsher than almost any other cereal crop. Coincidentally, it also makes terrific whiskey, producing a spirit with a distinctive herbal, spicy character.
The early New York distillers made, perhaps surprisingly, rum. Imported from the Caribbean, molasses was easy to come by during the early days of the nation’s history, and rum was a valuable trading commodity. In the 1810s, however, war led to an interruption in New England’s supply of molasses, so distillers turned to grain instead of cane.
Rye whiskey proliferated up until Prohibition, when the American spirits business was virtually entirely wiped out. Even after booze was legalized once again, New York never returned to its former position as a leader in the distilling industry. At the same time, Americans seemed to lose their taste for bold, spicy rye, preferring lighter, neutral drinks like vodka and gin (remember that Absolut craze of the 1990s?). Rye whiskey, it seemed, was destined for the history books.
Fortunately, that wasn’t the case. Boosted by intrepid bartenders in the late 1990s and early 2000s who valued its ability to add body and heft to a cocktail, rye whiskey began its resurgence. Today, it’s firmly mainstream; so, too, is distilling in New York State. At last count, there were more than 120 distilleries currently operating in New York, with more opening every month, and at many, rye runs the show.
There’s More to Rye than Whiskey
Whiskey isn’t the only thing that can be made from rye. At Honeyoye Falls, Frozen Falls Vodka is also made from a mash of 100% New York grown rye, distilled on a continuous column still to produce a silky, gently spicy vodka with a soft mouth feel. While uncommon, rye is actually a traditional choice for vodka production in Russia and other parts of Eastern Europe, so excited to be sharing this special vodka with some of our club members this month.
We’re also shipping a bottle of Honeyoye Falls Distillery’s Old Devil’s Bathtub Barrel Rested Gin to our gin club members. This distinctive gin gets a different dose of rye character by resting in a used Honeyoye Falls Distillery rye whiskey cask. This brief stint in oak gives the gin a beautiful amber color and imparts subtle flavors of vanilla and caramel over botanicals like brisk juniper and warming spices.
Moving forward, Honeyoye Falls Distillery is excited to continue exploring the many dimensions of New York rye. Just a few weeks ago, they released their very first contribution to the fledgling Empire Rye category, a newly defined style of whiskey that must be distilled in New York from at least 75% New York-grown grain and aged at least two years in charred oak casks. It’s called Grist and Saw Empire Rye, and John says it’s been getting rave reviews from the first batch of tasters.
“Our whiskey is more than two years old now, and it’s starting to blow people away,” says John, with satisfaction. “You just can’t beat that.”