GLENVILLE — The Schenectady Distilling Co. affixed labels to bottles of its own product for the first time Wednesday and will debut the spirits for sale on Friday.
It’s an unintended bit of lucky timing: Friday happens to be 193 years to the day since the opening of the Erie Canal, for which the line of spirits is named — 36 Locks.
It has been a long year for Kenneth Gibbons, a Scotia attorney who began converting the former Rectors Firehouse on Route 5 into a distillery in September 2017 and opened the tasting room there in February. The saloon, which features New York craft beverages exclusively, has been a hit, Gibbons said, even without any in-house brands.
“There’s not many places you can go and taste this many New York state products,” he said. “We offer these by the quarter-shot … you can try them and see if you like them.”
Thirteen months isn’t a long startup period for a distillery, Gibbons said.
“We’re just over a year to get a bottle of whiskey out the door. It’s probably better (production speed) than most.”
He caught some breaks along the way. A startup distiller in Utica became a shut-down distiller and sold its equipment to Gibbons at a heavy discount, after running only three batches through it. And a friend passing through West Virginia with a trailer picked up a pair of 800-gallon fermenting tanks secondhand from a brewery there.
Gibbons also received a lot of help with the physical work of setting up the distillery -- friends and family pitched in -- as he kept his law practice running at full tempo.
Schenectady Distilling Company is a heavily local operation: Its corn, rye and wheat come from farms in Glenville and Canajoharie, its barley from a malt house in Albany.
It’s also nearly a zero-waste operation: When the process is done, the used grains go to a pig farm in Amsterdam. Used barrels have gone to Wolf Hollow Brewing in Glenville for reuse as beer-aging casks and may go to other area brewers for that purpose. More than a thousand gallons of cooling water go down the drain during the distilling process, but that is all clean and needn’t be treated.
The new distiller’s first product is Gateway American Whiskey, which runs $39 for a 750 ml bottle. Gateway has the same ingredients as bourbon, but it was aged in French oak, so it can’t be called “bourbon.” By definition, bourbon must be aged in charred American oak barrels that have never been used for anything else.
Bona fide bourbon is sitting in charred barrels on a shelf beyond the distillery's fermenting tanks and will be ready in early December. It will be named Black Rock, after the westernmost lock on the Erie Canal.
Tow Rope gin is in the works as well, along with a moonshine dubbed Muleshine.
All will be available for sale at the distillery but not elsewhere, at least for now. Gibbons hopes to get the spirits onto area retailers’ shelves gradually.
He’ll find a lot of competition: There were already about 120 distillers in New York state when Schenectady Distilling Co. obtained its license, and more are planned.
Farm distillers are benefiting from the same state policies that help other craft beverage producers, most notably beer brewers, which now number more than 400 statewide.
“I’m sure there is a point where it will be saturated,” Gibbons said of the craft beverage market.
“In the big scheme of things, it’s not really the number of distilleries that’s going to saturate the market; I think it’s the amount they produce.”
Here’s how 1,800 pounds of corn, wheat, rye, and malted barley and 600 gallons of water become several hundred bottles of bourbon in a former firehouse on Route 5 in Glenville:
- Schenectady Distilling Company combines the grain and water in its mash tun (a large tank with a heater) and warms it to as much as 175 degrees to convert starch in the grain to fermentable sugars over the course of eight hours.
- The grain and water, now a thick slurry called mash, is pumped into two 800-gallon fermenters, where yeast is added to turn the sugar into alcohol.
- After a week in the fermenters, the mash is moved to the still and boiled; the resulting vapors are condensed into 80 gallons of 150-proof alcohol.
- This alcohol is diluted with water in a holding tank until it is 116 gallons of 110-proof alcohol, then placed in charred oak barrels.
- Because the barrels hold only 10 gallons, the aging period is shorter — small barrels have proportionally more interior surface area than larger barrels, and so impart their flavor in less time.
- After six months in the barrels, the bourbon will be diluted with additional water to as little as 80 proof. It will then be bottled, corked and labeled. How many bottles won’t be known until then: A small amount of bourbon will evaporate in what’s called the angels’ share.