By ML Ball
Photo: Courtesy of Tuthilltown Spirits
If you want something built, just tell Ralph Erenzo and Brian Lee it can’t be done.
Cofounders of Tuthilltown Spirits, New York’s first distillery since Prohibition, Ralph and Brian have created the largest and most successful craft distillery in the United States right here in the Hudson Valley, without knowing the first thing about making spirits when they started. And it all began with an obstructionist neighbor.
In 2001, Ralph bought riverfront acreage near Gardiner in Ulster County, intending to open a climbers’ ranch. For 20 years prior in Manhattan, he had specialized in producing high-elevation events and building climbing gyms. Eventually abandoning his plans because of the aforementioned neighbor, Ralph invited the local zoning officer to walk his property and suggest alternative businesses to pursue.
“He pointed out that I was in a farm district,” Ralph explained on a recent rainy morning, “and in New York State, if you’re in an agricultural district, you have a constitutional right to farm. He pointed out that a winery is farm use in New York, so I started looking into wineries. During my research, I learned that before Prohibition there were more than 1,000 farm distilleries in New York but at the present time there were none, due to a $65,000 fee for the distillery permit.” In a stroke of good timing, the fee was lowered to $1,500 the year before, setting Tuthilltown Spirits into motion.
Ralph spent the winter fermenting apple cider and distilling it on a kitchen stove–type still that he’d built himself. By the spring, he felt confident that with a little more education and better equipment, he could make this “distilling alcohol thing” work. “We have a lot of tourists coming through the area, so I figured I could make a living,” he said. “A half million people come down our road every year. Another quarter million come to climb. Plus, we have SUNY New Paltz, Minnewaska State Park, Mohonk Preserve and skydiving, all near us.”
In 2003, Brian Lee, an electrical engineer and Ralph’s future business partner, entered the picture. He offered to buy the 225-year-old grist mill (still operating) that sits on the property and produce artisan flour. Ralph mentioned his idea about creating a distillery, and a partnership was born.
“We were mail-order brides,” Ralph recalled. “Neither of us knew a thing about each other or about the business we were about to get into. We just decided we could do it. We did all of the work ourselves—the plumbing, the electrical, everything. We converted the mill and two granaries into the distillery buildings. Everyone told us, ‘You’re getting into one of the most highly regulated, highly taxed and competitive industries in the world.’ We said, ‘Yeah, we know,’ and just kept going.”
After three years of construction and re-fitting, Tuthilltown’s first distilled spirits hit the market: vodka made from local apples and corn whiskey made from locally sourced corn. Today, Tuthilltown’s multiple-award-winning roster includes six whiskeys, one gin, two vodkas, two liqueurs and a bitters.
“When we started, we were the only distillery in New York,” Ralph explained. “Now there are 125, largely due to the passage of the Farm Distillery Act in 2007, which permits New York farms to establish distilleries and sell their agricultural spirits on site.”
Lest you think Tuthilltown Spirits is only about alcohol, it also boasts a farm-to-table restaurant, picnic area, visitor center, company store, guided tours and 3,000 feet of beautiful river- front. According to Ralph, “We are very busy on weekends. It’s a constant flow of traffic through here.”
Ostensibly, Tuthilltown Spirits could have been established anywhere, so why the Hudson Valley? Ralph’s answer is defini- tive. “When we started, one of our considerations, apart from making a living, was a concern that all of the apple orchards around here were getting bought up and turned into housing, and we were losing open space. The apple business was getting pummeled by China, Peru, Washington State and others, that were selling cheap apples. The farmers didn’t want state support—what they wanted was for people to buy their goods. We wanted a way to make the apples worth more so we turned them into spirit, increasing their value almost eightfold. We’re surrounded by apples, so we figured we could make brandies and vodka. New York is also a big corn state, so we started producing whiskey.”
Intentionally designed by Ralph and Brian so that farmers are an integral part of what the state recognizes as a farm operation, Tuthilltown leases land from local farmers, buys the seed and pays them to grow it, guaranteeing them income from their crop.
Yet sustaining local farmers is not the only impact Tuthilltown Spirits has had on the area’s economy. Last year alone, the distillery brought approximately 35,000 people to Gardiner. “We’ve put Gardiner on the map,” stated Ralph. “Not only that, but there’s a multiplier effect of about seven dollars. Any dollar coming into town that’s spent in town usually will get spent again seven more times before it leaves the area. Somebody coming up from New York with a family for the day who spends $200 here at the distillery, that $200, in local impact, actually turns into $1,400.”
Understandably, being able to demonstrate the distillery’s positive economic effect has earned the respect of local towns- people. “They’ve come to admire our tenacity and unwillingness to give up,” Ralph said. “And the fact that we taught ourselves, researched it ourselves and built it with our own hands from scratch.”
As Ralph states in a video on Tuthilltown’s website, “Sometimes life brings you to a fork in the road. Sometimes that fork can seem like a dead end, and that’s when things can get really interesting.”
Things don’t get much more interesting than turning a wacky idea into an internationally recognized craft distillery. Ralph summed it up: “As much as I hated abandoning my original idea, this one is much more fun.”
For more information about Tuthilltown Spirits, their restaurant hours and special-events hosting, call 845.255.1527 or visit their website at www.tuthilltown.com. █