Local Flavor 2023: Whiskey tasting club blossoms into full-fledged distiller at Murray’s Fools Distilling Company in Glenville

Man and woman smiling in business
Sarah and Randall Beach, co-founders of Murray’s Fools Distilling Company
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GLENVILLE — What began as a casual whiskey-tasting club in their Schenectady neighborhood has blossomed into a full-fledged passion and now business enterprise for Schenectady couple Randall and Sarah Beach.

“We were interested in different whiskey and thought it would be a good way to get to know our neighbors,” Randall Beach said.

As tastings continued, their interest spread to other spirits and the distilling process itself, eventually leading to the decision to start their own distillery.

In 2014, the Beaches spent a week at the Spirits Institute Puget Sound to learn about the distilling business. The following year, after obtaining a farm distillery license from New York state, they opened Murray’s Fools Distilling Company in Altona, a small hamlet northwest of Plattsburgh. They spent the first few years developing the new business and experimenting with creating different spirits in the small Adirondack community.

In January, they fulfilled their goal of opening a second location in the Hoffman’s Ferry Complex on Route 5 in Glenville.

Murray’s Fools occupies a building that was the former home of Riverside Maple, a property Randall learned about through his work as a commercial real estate attorney for Whiteman Osterman & Hanna in Albany.

“The opportunity came with this property in Glenville and it looked like a great fit for us, so we decided to take the plunge and expand,” Sarah said. “It was time to grow. That’s basically the bottom line.”

Now they have a chance to become acquainted with a larger circle of Capital Region neighbors as the community discovers the experience of what this small-batch craft distillery has to offer.

The couple worked with the property’s owner to convert the former maple syrup facility into a space for distillery production as well as a two-story tasting room.

From the moment customers walk in, the couple’s dog, Macallan (yes, named after the whiskey), invites them to make themselves at home as he lies comfortably on a large dog bed next to a vintage seating area that beckons visitors to settle in and stay a while.

In the bar area, Sarah crafts unique, homemade cocktails from Murray’s Fools spirits, as well as mocktails that in looks are indistinguishable from their alcoholic counterparts. These options are part of what draws Regina Culbert of West Charlton to the establishment.

“I like it because it’s not the generic kind of drinks,” Culbert said. “Sarah takes the time to actually craft the cocktails. They don’t have to crank out quantity; it’s more like quality. It’s the kind of drink that you’d take a while to sip and savor, and not just down it.”

Upstairs is the place for sipping and savoring while enjoying the company of friends and family or fellow customers. A variety of seating areas exist for up to 100 people with couches and chairs, small high-top tables and regular tables where Sarah offers occasional cocktail classes. A space in the corner provides a place for live music, something the Beaches hope to incorporate in the coming months.

“Since the distillery opened I have noticed a range of people there — young, old, couples, families,” said Danielle Durivage of Schenectady, who has been visiting since the opening.

It’s evident the couple has taken their time with the details to create a true Adirondack-style décor. While they themselves don’t hunt, there are a few quintessential mounted hunting trophies they’ve collected for hanging on the walls. Randall turned an antique toboggan into a coffee table in one seating area, and other pieces of antique Adirondack décor are scattered throughout the tasting room, including old snowshoes.

“It’s a piece of the Adirondacks,” Durivage said. Just as city dwellers in the 1800s fled to the Adirondacks to escape the busy city life, Durivage finds the tasting room a homey and comfortable place to wind down. “It’s big enough that you have privacy, but small enough that you can’t help but have a conversation with someone you don’t know there,” Durivage said. “It’s a cozy escape from the occasional craziness of small-city living.”

It pays to ask questions about taproom surroundings. The Beaches can tell some great backstories about various items as well as the spirits themselves. For example, Sarah has a heartwarming anecdote about the green canoe that hangs upside down over the bar.

The canoe belonged to her grandparents, who dubbed it their “beautiful pea-green boat,” a reference from Edward Lear’s poem “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat.” They paddled the canoe on Lake Champlain in the 1950s. Now, thanks to Randall’s ingenuity and the addition of some pendant lights, the canoe serves as a unique lighting fixture. In honor of her grandparents, on Valentine’s Day Sarah created special cocktails with Murray’s Fools’ spirits. She made “The Owl” with WolfJaw Whiskey, honey and sage, and “The Pussy-Cat” with vodka, blueberry and lavender.

Large windows offer customers a view into the production area, where there are more examples of Randall’s resourcefulness and the couple’s personal history. They distill twice weekly in a system made up of two kettles that Randall reconfigured so they can operate separately or together. They named the stills after their mothers, Barbara Anne and Lois Ann, who have wholeheartedly supported their children’s distilling venture.

During tours customers can see an antique 10-gallon still the couple used to develop their spirits recipes, which, as a farm distillery, they craft using largely New York state ingredients.

“The stills are where all the good magic happens,” Randall said.

Sarah developed the recipe for Murray’s Fools’ “Osprey Aquavit,” a Scandinavian spirit with a neutral base that she infuses with botanicals and caraway.

“It has become quite popular,” Randall said. The couple’s vacation to Norway, Denmark and Sweden seven years ago inspired Sarah to create their own aquavit. “Sarah fell in love with aquavit,” Randall said. He took the lead on developing the “Guideboat Gin,” a nod to the Adirondacks’ primary mode of transportation in the latter part of the 19th century.

The creative side of distilling is one of Sarah’s favorite parts of owning a distillery.

“It gives Randall and I the opportunity to be creative and work together, and create these wonderful spirits that people can enjoy, and then to watch people enjoy it and come back for more,” Sarah said, noting that she also loves meeting the many different people who come to the distillery.

In other behind-the-scenes spaces, Randall bottles spirits using a maple syrup bottling machine that was left behind. He retooled it for distillery use.

Customers can also see the barrels from Adirondack Barrel Cooperage, where the Beaches age their spirits. Currently under construction is a new building directly behind the distillery that the cooperage will occupy. Eventually, people will be able to tour the distillery and the cooperage to see how the barrels are made.

“The combined tour will be great,” Randall said, noting that those on the tour will learn about “The Dragon,” the tool the cooperage uses to fire-char its whiskey barrels.

While the Glenville location is in its infancy, the Beaches are working hard to make the establishment a fun place to gather with family and friends.

Every other Sunday they host music bingo with different themes such as the ‘90s, country or movie soundtracks. Sarah also teaches cocktail classes, and the couple is looking to host other events such as a fly-fishing workshop, a special Mother’s Day tasting event and a “Uke ’n’ Sip,” where people can bring their ukeleles and learn from a musician from the Plattsburgh area.

While the establishment does not have its own kitchen, it does have a charcuterie corner from which customers can pick locally made gourmet meats, cheeses, spreads and crackers. The distillery provides plates, napkins and cutlery for what they call “a build-your-own food adventure.” They are also coordinating different food trucks to come in on the weekends. When food trucks are not there, customers are welcome to bring their own food.

In the summer customers will be able to enjoy their cocktails and music on picnic tables and around a fire pit. The distillery is also a “Harvest Host” with four parking spots for recreational vehicles to spend the night.

“Our plan going into summer is to do more small events to bring people here,” said Bryan Lockman, project manager for Halfmoon-based Spa City Management, which owns the property where the distillery, a brewery and a rickhouse for contract brewing are located. Later this year the cooperage will join the Hoffman’s Ferry campus.

The distillery is also helping to augment Schenectady County’s craft beverage trail.

“The Route 5 corridor is quickly becoming a destination unto itself, with River Stone Manor, Wolf Hollowing Brewing, Schenectady Distilling Co./36 Locks Tasting Room, Murray’s Fools Distilling Company and, coming later this year, Adirondack Barrel Cooperage,” said Todd Garofano, executive director of Discover Schenectady.

The Beaches hope to collaborate on events with Wolf Hollow, which is located just three-quarters of a mile away, linked by a trail through the woods that people can hike or snowshoe. The Chamber of Schenectady County recognized Murray’s Fools’ efforts with a 2023 Good News Award at a luncheon earlier this month.

While they grow their new Schenectady location, the couple is still working at their full-time jobs, Randall as an attorney and Sarah in the community relations department at Union College. They work in the evenings and weekends as well as some early mornings at Murray’s Fools. They hope to hire additional staff in the near future.

While the taproom’s interior design plants customers firmly in an Adirondacks setting with various elements that allude to the history of the region, during tastings patrons take a deep dive into the park’s rich history, one that is personal to Randall Beach.

The couple displays their love of nature and the rich history of the Adirondack region throughout the distillery and its products. At the small tasting bar in the corner of the first level, Randall pours samples of the distillery’s four craft spirits as well as a dose of Adirondack history and his family’s connection to it.

The name “Murray’s Fools” comes from Randall’s great-great-grandfather, William Henry Harrison Murray, a Connecticut-born preacher and businessman who was heavily into hunting, fishing and camping in the Adirondack wilderness.

In April 1869, Murray published his book “Adventures in the Wilderness,” a how-to guide promoting the physical and spiritual benefits of being in nature interspersed with Murray’s fictional stories. The book was so popular it went through 10 printings and caused a seven-year rush of city dwellers to the Adirondacks. Unfortunately, many of them were ill-suited to navigating wilderness adventures and did not make it farther than Whitehall, leaving the upstate region without ever having seen the Adirondack mountains. They called Murray a liar, and “Harper’s Bazaar” magazine dubbed them “Murray’s fools.” A copy of Murray’s famed book hangs on the wall by the tasting bar.

Randall is the great-grandson of Ethel, the youngest of Murray’s four daughters who was a dancer in the Passing Show of 1917, a production of Broadway revues designed to compete with the famed Ziegfeld Follies. Randall, a writer himself, authored a biography of his great-great-grandfather titled “A Passionate Life: W.H.H. Murray, from Preacher to Progressive” (SUNY Press, 2022).

As he uncorks each bottle, Randall recounts a bit more family and Adirondack history, explaining the backstory behind the distillery’s name as well as the names of each spirit. For example, the Snowshoe Vodka derives its name from the Snow Shoe Café, an oyster bar and café in Montreal that Murray operated for a period of years. La Pomme du Lac is a distilled apple brandy made in the Adirondack-Lake Champlain region from upstate New York apples. The name references another of Murray’s 14 books, “Lake Champlain and Its Shores.”

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Categories: Food, Life and Arts, Life and Arts, Local Flavor 2023, Scotia Glenville

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