By Dave Cameron

Finger Lakes Distilling




Distilling Brian McKenzie, left, and Thomas lYcKenzre, nght, Co-founders of Finger Lakes

his past December nvo large wooden crates arrived in Burdett, hauied by a tractor-trailer up a steep slope to
a new barn-like building surrounded by century-old grapevines. Inside the crates wer€ over 4,000 pounds of hammered copper and stainless steel that would become the workhorse of

batch of spirits they make. His intuition for distiliing comes from
experience and good generics'

"The distilling gene in my family skips a generation"'Thomas says' "My daddy didn't do it but his granddaddy did, and his daddy

Brian McKenzie's idea for a true distillery in the Finger Lakes'

didn't do itbrr his granddaddy did." "He The trvo met at a distillers' conference in Louisville, Kentucky' "-We rl'as standing there at a tasting with his overalls on," says Brian'
started talking a little bit and found out we were both McKenzies' \\ e came from very diflerent backgrounds, but got along great.''

Brian, owner and co-founder of Finger Lakes Distilling' is proud to show offthe gleaming 20-foot-tall pot still and its portholed tower that came in those crates' Framed in a corne r by floor-to-ceiling windows on the production floor overlookinq Seneca Lake, his still stands on display for those driving br- on the road below.
Thomas McKenzie (no relation to Brian), the business's craftsman distiller, is from Alabama with a charming Southern drart'Part chef, part engineer, he's in charge ofproduction for ever''


distillery project with the \Tisconsin brewery Thomas ,.,, trrke d lbr fell through, he decided to team up with Brian ::,:;ad. and moved his family to the Finger Lakes "\7e had :..:::l interests, but different skill sets that would work weil



Brian, "so we decided to pursue it "



The first spirit from the still was a batch of Vintner's Vodka, made from wine they produced themselves but their main
focus has been on making whiskeys.

-Vith grains they've malted in a kiln built
next to the distillery, there are batches of
rye whiskey and bourbon aging in barrels

from Kentucky. Down the line Thomas plans to offer a Scotch-style whiskey with a distinctive smoked peat character using pear from a bog near Binghamton. Also on the list of spirits he's producing is one he is especially fond of: corn whiskey. A refined version of the moonshine his Alabama ancesrors once made, it starts by making a soup of ground
grains called the mash bill, typically

mix of corn, rye or wheat, and malted
barley. Though the grain most dominant in the mash varies by product, by law

bourbon must be at leasr 5I perce nt corn. rye whiskey ar least 5l percent rye grain and corn whiskey at least 80
pefcenr corn. Thomas prefers using organic ingredients as much as possible, insisting
makes a better tasting product. "Or-


ganic corn just ferments better," he

though he can't tell exactly why. "I
yeast like

think the

it more."

Yeast is the key to fermentation, feeding

on sugar released in the mash to produce alcohol. The fermented


wine, in the case ofvodka and brandyis pumped into the wide base of the still and heated, releasing its alcohol as vapor. 'Ihe still captures the vapor and

it back into a liquid. Like reducing sauce in a pan, the characteristics ofthe mash ingredients are concentrated

into pure rasre and


"It's simple," Thomas laughs, "but you've got to know how to make the mash, you've got to know how to run this," he gestures to the still, "and it's a lot of


'fj. "-,'



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paving attention." He stands watch over a stream of clear pure corn whiskey pouring out of the still ensuring that only the best portion-the "heart"-is captured. He dips a clean empty quart jar into the stream, swirling the liquid, noting the ciarity, ihe shapes of bubbles, and inhaling the aroma.

fruit." He gestures to the production floor around him where
50-pound sacks, cardboard crates and plastic drums are fiiled with the grains, fruits and wine from local producers. "The only thing we're not going to be able to do is a rum or tequila, although," Brian laughs, "Thomas seems to think he can plant some sugar cane and make it grow around here."
The New York Farm Distillery Act made it legal for them to offer tastings and sales ofproducts on site, and they've built a sampling room and retail space overlooking the lake. Those large crates that carried the still from Germany found a second


never taste it while you're running the still.

It numbs the

down," he explains. "I like to use a fruit jar so you can qer vour nose in there, you know? When you smell it, you can smell the corn, and that's what you're looking for." He passes around a jar of the fresh corn whisky watered down to a sample proofof40 percent alcohol. It has the aroma ofpopcorn and a sip tastes slightly sour but smooth, like fresh griddlecakes. Thomas gives a satisfied nod. "I think that turned out alright."

life in the room; Brian and Thomas used the timber to build
large wooden bar for people to gather and learn about spirits.


In addition to using organic products, Finger Lakes Distilling
also sources most of their ingredients from local growers. Bv

law, a minim:urr, of 75 percent of the ingredients in all their products come from New York State, and that's something

"There are some things we could do that probably make more economic sense but we think in the long term, if we get a reputation for really doing things the right way, it's going to benefit us."
Thomas is a bit more succinct: "I hope they'll like it and buy it."
;',t,',on liues attd writes in Ithaca. He produces a /ata!

Brian embraces.


"\fe've got everything we need for our raw material right within a hundred miies," he says. "Excellent grain, all kinds of

padca:t nt u,wtu.





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