SARATOGA SPRINGS – Since he opened the Cooperstown Distillery in 2013, owner Gene Marra has had his sights set on Saratoga Springs. Last December, right in the middle of a pandemic, Marra realized the goal when he opened the Cooperstown Distillery Beverage Exchange on Broadway in the Spa City.
“We love the demographics of Saratoga, the vibe, the energy,” Marra said. “We think it’s a very vibrant, bustling town with an air of sophistication that many upstate New York cities lack. It’s almost precisely the type of crowd, clientele and customer base that we’re looking for for our store — a perfect match.”
Even before he opened his doors in Saratoga Springs, Marra was able to contribute to the community by donating to the city several hundred bottles of Cooper’s Clean, the hand sanitizer his distillery began manufacturing when the pandemic hit. The city distributed the hand sanitizer to areas of highest need first — first responders, including the fire and police departments, as well as senior living facilities and businesses. The distillery also donated hand sanitizer throughout Otsego County, where the production facility is located. Now that Cooperstown Distillery’s Saratoga outlet is open for business, and many residents have been vaccinated and are starting to venture out again, Marra is providing an inviting space for people to enjoy.
Walking into the Saratoga location is akin to stepping back in time, as the space oozes with retro flair. It houses a bar/lounge/tasting bar/retail store all in one, a unique combination Marra believes will make the place stand out in the city.
More from our Heaping Helpings special section:
The business occupies the storefront that was formerly Bruegger’s Bagels. Marra contracted with Bonacio Construction to transform the space into his vision for the new venture. “Talk about taking the ugly duckling and turning it into the swan,” Marra said. “I think we even beat that.”
“It was a little run-down,” said Amanda Barnes, a project assistant in Bonacio’s remodeling division. The company completely gutted the space. “We took the old bagel oven down, which was amazing. There were bagels underneath it.”
To bring Marra’s vision of a retro, speakeasy-style, Victorian- and French-themed space to life, carpenters in Bonacio’s wood shop built a custom bar with a tobacco-crackle finish and zinc top with copper nails. They also built a custom retail area, where people can shop for spirits as well as barware and bar accessories such as flavored sugar cubes, aromatics, flasks, mixing glasses, shakers and glassware, among a host of other items.
The hybrid model for the outlet also includes a tasting bar where customers can sample for free up to three of Cooperstown Distillery’s spirits, including bourbon, whiskey, vodka, gin and rum, accompanied by a cup of snack mix to comply with COVID-19 regulations. Marra found the tasting bar furniture, with its spiral posts, at Balzer & Tuck Architecture.
“A previous tenant in the space had acquired it from Morocco,” Barnes said. Bonacio’s crew disassembled it, carried it down three flights of stairs, walked it across the street and installed it.
In the back of the space is a lounge complete with fireplace, chairs, couches and a television, where customers can relax with a cocktail made with Cooperstown’s spirits. Bonacio installed applied molding as part of the lounge’s décor. There is also seating at the bar and outdoor seating in front of the shop.
Marra even carried the retro theme into the bathrooms with green and gold Art Deco wallpaper, and black and white penny tiles on the floor.
To round out the design theme, the establishment has custom mahogany doors, crystal chandeliers and copper ceiling tiles.
“The transformation is more than mind-boggling,” Marra said.
The place also goes through its own transformation of sorts every day, from a relaxed retail store with a bar in the day to a hopping cocktail lounge at night. In addition to drinks, customers can order from a limited gastropub menu of offerings made with locally sourced ingredients, or use a QR code to have food delivered from Boca Bistro.
Cooperstown Distillery highlights its connection to baseball not only via the names of its spirits, such as Spitball Whiskey and Beanball Bourbon, but also in some of its packaging. The retail shop offers baseball-shaped decanters, miniature and large, including special ones produced in a partnership with the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. These
“Signature Series” autographed decanters have been made for 17 Hall of Fame players.
“We have serious traction with baseball fans,” Marra said. “We sell thousands of these bottles just to baseball fans.”
Cooperstown Distillery is getting ready to launch football and golf bottles as well. “There’s no one in the entire world that packages spirits like we do.”
He loves NY
Marra said he is proud of his company’s farm distillery license. He likes the symbiotic relationship it affords him with other New York state producers. The six beers on tap, wines and ciders served at the bar are all New York state products. “We’re supporting the other craft producers, which is pretty cool, we think,” he said.
He has been an entrepreneur since he was 23, having been a chef, restaurateur and winemaker before he became a distiller. In 2010, when he wanted to leave the restaurant business, Marra looked at which industries were beginning to take off. The microbrewing market was saturated, but craft distilling was just starting to grow.
“I was smitten with how craft distilling was emerging as a formidable opportunity,” he said. He took distilling classes at Cornell to learn how to do it, and soon founded Cooperstown Distillery. “I was sort of riding the wave that was beginning to crest in 2010 when craft distilling was starting to get a foothold across the United States, and particularly in New York,” Marra said.
His distillery has had great success in its eight years in business. Recently the company tripled the size of its production facility to 7,500 square feet. Once a week, staffers drive spirits up from Cooperstown to the Beverage Exchange in Saratoga.
Marra’s innovation is no small factor in the business’ success. He and his distillers developed proprietary techniques that allow them to age their spirits in less time than the normal three to five years it takes to make a good-tasting whiskey. “The methodologies for how we make our spirits are quite unique and quite different,” he said, characterizing them as “cutting-edge.”
The hybrid model of his Saratoga Springs location allows customers to sample spirits before purchasing. “People that taste our goods for the first time are quite surprised,” Marra said.
Since opening, Cooperstown Distillery’s spirits have been awarded 40 gold medals and been recognized by bourbon bloggers, influencers and clubs, he said.
Last year the company’s wholesale business increased by 50%. The distillery currently distributes its products in 12 states and two countries, and Marra plans to add three or four states to the list in the next six to nine months.
Marra is enjoying the distillery’s entree into Saratoga Springs, which he describes as “Cooperstown on steroids.”
“Thus far it has been everything we thought it would be and then some,” Marra said.
For more information, visit cooperstowndistillery.com.
More from our Heaping Helpings special section: