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Local apple spirits business takes root

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GHENT–Bottles of Core Vodka, apple and pear brandies and applejack are flying off the shelves at Harvest Spirits, as people line up each weekend to sample and purchase the farm’s distilled spirits to give as holiday gifts. The main worry of Derek Grout, founder of the two-year-old business is whether he’ll have enough of his products to last through the holiday season.

“Sales are so brisk that I’m looking forward to a break,” Mr. Grout said last week. And this week when a New York Times article about the company’s products runs, they’ll may have exactly the sort of problem a two-year-old business dreams about.

It all happened because Mr. Grout, who grew up playing and later working on his family’s orchard, the 200-acre Golden Harvest Farms on Route 9 in Valatie, was looking for a way to use all the apples that went to waste each fall. He took a course in distilling, met folks already in business interested in distilling from apples; then he had an epiphany, figuring he could do it too, and do it better.

“The distillery is all about trying to keep the family farm there and make it prosperous,” said Mr. Grout. “The motivation is really here because the farm exists, because my dad is an anachronism, stubbornly growing apples. That demands a certain acknowledgement to see the value in it.”

There are advantages to starting up a distillery right where the main ingredients – apples — are produced. Harvest Spirits leases space and buys apples from Golden Harvest Farms. The apples are in the form of cider pressed in the farm’s antique rack-and-cloth cider press. The distillery inoculates the cider with Champaign yeast and ferments it in large vats before distilling it in a $100,000, custom-made still imported from Germany.

Mr. Grout, who has experimented with other apple varieties, says he prefers the McIntosh for its juiciness and aroma. He pays raw materials transportation costs, but when there’s a freeze, as there was last spring, his costs rise.

“We like hail” he said. Hail storms are a serious threat to fruit growers. But Mr. Gout  said for his business, that type of bad weather is a boon: “It lowers the quality of apples and is good for making vodka.”

Mr. Grout uses a triple distillation process to “strip out” the drinkable from the non-drinkable alcohols created by the fermentation process. The more copper, the smoother the distillate, he explained. His still has a chimney that extends at least 20 feet and produces a smooth product.

Harvest Spirit’s Core Vodka has a subtle, smooth flavor, velvety texture and a fragrant apple aroma that have won it a lot of fans, including judges at the Chicago International Review of Spirits, who gave it their Gold Medal, and the New York Spirit Awards, where it was named the product “Best in class.” His Harvest’s Pear Brandy won a gold medal in Chicago and a silver in San Francisco. Mr. Grout attributes his early success to the good taste of apples, but it’s obvious that he has developed his skills in creating his products.

Shelves full of jars in the distillery represent the research and development part of the operation. Infusions of vodka with different foods like black raspberries have led to new products that will be available for purchase in the coming year.

Mr. Grout has tried adding basil, cilantro, parsley, even mangos to vodka. The process has yielded several discoveries, including Mangojack, a rich, fruity, whisky-like concoction. Another, a pale rose colored liquid was made by infusing several bushels of the farm’s blackberries in apple vodka and cider before redistilling it. The result is Hambeer Geist, a delicate berry-flavored brandy available soon.

Customers may have to wait a bit longer for vodka flavored with sauerkraut, garlic, fennel, basil or cilantro, but apple and pear brandies are available now.

Grappa, another product in development, is distilled from a neighboring Hudson Chatham winery’s Seyval Blanc grape skins, a byproduct of the wine making process. A taste reveals an aromatic elixir with an aftertaste of Thompson raisins much like any Italian grappa.

Applejack aged in oak barrels is already on offer, with each bottle the distillate of 60 pounds of apples. Mr. Grout plans to make another applejack the old fashioned way, just as our country’s early settlers did, by freezing fermented cider in barrels outdoors. The reason apples were so popular during the colonial period was that apple cider, which was stored outside in barrels, would ferment in the heat of fall and in winter, when it froze, the applejack, pure alcohol, would remain liquid and could be tapped out.

Harvest Spirits products are already sold in 150 of the state’s 5,000 liquor stores, including 10 in Columbia County and 30 liquor and wine stores in New York City. Many local restaurants offer Harvest products, including Mexican Radio, The Red Dot, and PM Wine Bar in Hudson, and the Blue Plate in Chatham. No one sells more bottles than Hannaford Liquors, the closest vendor to the distillery. Sales, 95% of which are wholesale, add up to between $250,000 and $500,000 yearly. Bottles retail at from $25 to $40.

The whole enterprise would not have been possible had New York not changed antiquated laws covering distillation that have been around since just after Prohibition. A micro distilleries bill sponsored by state Senator Steve Saland (R-41st) was vetoed by Governor Pataki but signed into law by Governor Elliott Spitzer in January of 2008. A Class D Farm Distillery license allows Harvest Spirits to sell up to 35,000 gallons per year within the state of New York as long as it uses ingredients produced in the state. The business benefitted from a start-up loan of $50,000 from the Columbia Economic Development Corp.’s equipment loan fund. Harvest Spirits was the first Class D distillery in the state.

“The opportunity is huge. We don’t need to go out of state,” said Mr. Grout. “For just being a small farm distillery with four simple products, we’re really doing well. Customers who buy our product are enthusiastic because it represents our area.

One fan of the distillery is Mr. Grout’s father, who, although he doesn’t drink, gives the spirits to his friends.

“He’s been a great supporter and a mentor, pushing me in certain ways, encouraging me, lending me his truck,” said his son. “Without the good grace of my father, I could never have done this. I owe him a lot.”

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