Cooperstown Distillery makes a few great bourbons, a rye whiskey, and an award-winning 100% local wheat vodka called Glimmerglass produced from a vertical refractor still. "If you don't feel like finishing it, just toss it on the floor," he says, demonstrating, but none of us have the heart to waste the samples in our glasses. The real standout for me, however, is the aromatic Fenimore Gin, created with a basket of 14 botanicals in just the right spot in the small-batch still. It is, by far, the best gin I've ever tasted, smooth enough to drink straight but hitting all the taste buds and making them sing with the complex botanicals. I pick up a bottle for a friend I'll be staying with soon after, hoping we have a chance to crack it open together.
Marra explains that the "farm to glass" path we keep experiencing is by design, and even more formalized for distilleries than other alcoholic beverages. "The various governors of New York have been very smart in how they have set up the laws here," he says. "They have made it much easier than in many other states to set up a craft distillery—we even have a satellite store here that serves cocktails—but you must use 75% agricultural products from New York. So most of what you're drinking at this distillery is from nearby except for the rum. We make that in Florida, where the sugar cane is."
Since drinking cider, liquor, and beer in one afternoon seems like a fine idea to our group of lushes, we head to Ommegang Brewery, a popular Belgian-owned beer producer in the countryside just outside of Cooperstown. This is a large-scale craft beer producer, its brand selling in 46 states and Canada. Touring the area where the magic happens turns out to involve some odd factory restrictions. They've told us ahead of time not to wear anything with bare shoulders, that we won't be admitted in anything except closed-toed shoes, and our guide hands us safety goggles to don before entering. Who knew beer could be so hazardous before you even drink it! Between us we calculate we've been to at least 50 breweries between us and have never donned goggles, but the guide insists, "It's an OSHA requirement."
We laugh it off while snaking through the tanks of the deserted brewery after all the workers have gone home and emerge to a glorious sunset over the grounds. We have a tasting in the golden hour, which includes the Hop State IPA made from 100% New York Hops. We go through a Rare Vos Belgian amber ale, a Saison Rose aged in wine barrels with hibiscus, and a Goat Milk Stout before losing track of what's being poured. As we survey the grounds, where well-known rock bands play in the summer, we see hop vines climbing poles within site of the outdoor taps on the patio.
The next day we head to Utica, where the best-known local brewery, Saranac, has been going strong since 1985. We have lunch and a flight at a much smaller operation though, Woodland Brewery. The three partners started it in 2015, serving their first beer—Firehouse Pilsner—in January of 2016. They are up to 300 gallons of beer a week now, mostly drunk at their own tap room and in regional taverns. "We started out with three beers," says partner Jeff DiCaprio, "but now we have 14 on tap at all times. At this level we're still able to mostly use New York State grains and hops. We trying to support state farmers and also give people a great place to gather and talk. You'll notice there are no TVs here," he says, with a sweep of his hand around the room. The beers here are flavorful and interesting, the highlights of my flight being an Oak Dysfunk farmhouse ale aged in barrels and a German-style dark beer, Dusseldorfer.
We get in a bit of culture at the Munson Williams Proctor Art Institute in Utica, which turns out to be an impressive museum, then have dinner at the Turning Stone Resort Casino. We lose a bit of money while we're there and then call it a night. We've got a date with another brewery in the morning...
We decide it's okay to start drinking before noon if you're doing it for the sake of research, so Empire head brewer Matthew Ducey opens the doors for us at 11:00 and motions us to the farm-fresh goodies laid out that represent what they serve each day.
Empire Brewing Company launched in 1994, starting out in downtown Syracuse, but has now lived up to its name with a 22-acre facility in the countryside that's the largest craft brewing facility on the east coast. The company has stuck to its sustainable roots though, even trademarking the slogans, "Eat where you live" and "We grow beer." They source products from more than 60 New York grain and hop farmers to produce a wide variety of beer, including plenty of experimental batches in the downtown brewpub facility. We try a cloudy wheat Spacewitch out of the tank, a Skinny Atlas Kolsch, an easy-drinking Hop Harvest IPA, a Deep Purple Pilsner that uses local concord grapes, a great Oktoberfest Marzen, and a White Afro wheat beer flavored with ginger and lavender. We finish up with the first Empire beer Ducey tried before coming to work here and still his favorite, a British-style cream ale.
"There are around 50 breweries within a couple hours' drive from here around this region," he explains, "I think more than 500 overall now in New York State. That competition pushes all of us to do good work. Empire is one of the biggest breweries now, but we have to keep being creative to stand out."
We transition to "tree to bottle" beverages at Beak & Skiff Apple Orchards outside of the city. This fifth-generation apple farm is the home of 1911 Established Cider and Spirits. The tasting room here is one of the best deals I've ever seen: $5 for a tasting of five hard ciders or five apple wines, or $8 for a tasting of five hard spirits. I'm completely overwhelmed by the mouth-watering descriptions and have a hard time deciding which boxes to check. My favorites end up being the New York Hopped cider and the Maple Bourbon Barrel Aged Hard Cider, the latter going great with a fresh-baked apple cider doughnut they serve. The spirits are equally inventive, from a triple-distilled vodka made from apples (gluten free!) to an apple brandy aged in bourbon barrels and French Oak wine barrels. We take a ride through the orchards on a tractor to see where it all starts, just a few hundred yards from the cider presses and stills.
We spend our last night in Syracuse in grand style, staying in the painstakingly restored 1924 grand hotel originally known as Hotel Syracuse. It hosted five U.S. presidents, John Lennon on his birthday, Nat King Cole, Elvis, and the Rolling Stones before sitting empty for 12 years.
Since it's now open as a Marriott, I'm not expecting a lot of local touches in the Shaunessy's bar. The corporate titans surprise us though. The first thing I see is a lonely Bud Light tap squeezed between four from local Middle Ages brewery. On the other side of the bar is a row of taps from Saranac, Empire, and one hyper-local special brew Congress, which debuted with this hotel reopening. Congress Beer is made from a pre-prohibition recipe and is named after a brand produced locally until 1962. In an interesting alliance, the Willow Rock Brewing Company of Syracuse brews it in partnership with the Onondaga Historical Association. It is now out in cans, with retro artwork modeled after the cans available up until the brand disappeared half a century ago.
After a walking tour of downtown Syracuse, we head out to dinner for one last farm-to-glass experience, eating food from locally sourced ingredients and trying more local beer at the Hop Spot. Before I got to the Finger Lakes for this drinking odyssey I had figured that by this point the beers, wines, and ciders would start running together and the story line would be getting frayed. From start to finish, however, we've been drinking inventive beverages produced in one of the country's oldest settled regions.
From the farms to the orchards to the taprooms and vineyards, it's clear that New York State has a bright craft beverage future. The Finger Lakes region is collectively making some of the USA's best alcoholic beverages from what comes naturally from the nearby soil. If interstate shipping suddenly stopped after an apocalypse, they'd still keep drinking well in this farm-to-glass region.
IF YOU GO:
Follow the links in the article for individual makers, but to see all the options in the area, check out the Cooperstown Beverage Trail, the Southern Finger Lakes Beverage Trail, Brew Central NY, Finger Lakes Wine Country, Finger Lakes Beer Trail, and the Sip on Syracuse Trail. For memorable lodging options, check out La Tourelle Hotel near Ithaca, Otesaga Resort Hotel in Cooperstown, and Marriott Syracuse Downtown.
Editor Tim Leffel has been writing about the intersection of drinks and travel for more than two decades. He is the author of five travel books, including A Better Life for Half the Price, and Travel Writing 2.0. He has run the Cheapest Destinations Blog since 2003.
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Moonshine Comes Out of the Woods - Vera Marie Badertscher
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