LATHAM — Pear trees grow and vodka flows where a fleet of rental cars once sat.
A group of entrepreneurs recorded a series of firsts this month at Oligan Distilling, their year-old business in a converted Budget rent-a-car office/garage on Albany Shaker Road.
Oligan bottled and served its first gin, held a ceremonial ribbon cutting on its tasting room and planted trees that will bear fruit to flavor future distillations.
Co-owner Sean O’Keeffe, 29, has a background in environmental science and chemistry; he formerly worked in manufacturing at Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, where two co-owners of Oligan still work.
O’Keeffe said he thought the regulatory changes enacted by New York state in recent years would create a new market for craft distilling. But also, he just liked the physical work involved.
“Distilling is more like chemical manufacturing, I would say, than brewing beer,” he said. “Just running the still — it’s really fun.”
The still is a semiautomated continuous-feed model manufactured by Headframe in Butte, Montana. It’s the only one of its kind in New York state, as far as O’Keeffe knows.
Oligan will produce 190-proof alcohol to sell to other distillers. The still has far more capacity that Oligan currenlty needs for its own products; the only limiting factor is the amount of fermented liquid Oligan has.
“Part of our business model is to sell bulk alcohol that’s made in New York state,” he said. “A lot of small distilleries buy alcohol in bulk just because of production limits, and a lot of it’s coming from out of state. So we’re trying to keep it within New York.”
The distillery’s name has obscure roots: a French soccer player’s mispronunciation of “hooligan” in reference to an English soccer fan he assaulted. If you look closely at the little man on the company logo, his tuxedo forms an “H.”
Oligan was up and running in early 2018 and bottled its first vodka in May 2018. It had a soft opening this past February for its tasting room, where Oligan products and other local craft beverages are served. On May 10, it bottled its first gin.
With its blend of botanical ingredients, Oligan gin is readily distinct from other gins, O’Keeffe said. But the vodka is more subtle.
“Hypothetically, it’s all the same — this is how the public perceives [vodka], when in reality there is room for character and flavor,” O’Keeffe said.
Oligan’s vodka starts with corn grown in Schaghticoke, and is one of the few corn-based vodkas on the market.
“Ours is very smooth,” O’Keeffe said. “It has a hint of sweetness from the corn base. It’s just different enough.”
Flavored vodkas and varied gins are planned in the future, but before that, the young distillery will take a bigger jump: a single-malt whiskey.
“Whiskey, I think, is a much more artistic spirit, more of an art than a science,” O’Keeffe said. “Vodka and gin, because they are distilled to such a high degree … that’s just a much more controlled process.”
Oligan’s whiskey will age for at least two years before it is bottled.
“We’re also thinking about making a founders barrel, where we just set it aside for 16 years, maybe even longer,” he added.
Pears from the trees planted this past week will become flavoring ingredients at first. Later on, if the crop yield is heavy enough, they could become a brandy.
O’Keeffe also has plans for the large gravel parking lot where rental cars waited for their next journey: It will be an intensively cultivated garden plot to grow other ingredients.
Co-owners in the venture are Sam Garrison and Mike O’Hara, who work part-time at the distillery and full-time at Regeneron, as well as O’Keeffe’s brother-in-law Kyle Rueckert, a silent partner.
O’Keeffe said he feels that the tasting room has gotten off to a good start in its three months, building to the point that last week was its busiest ever.
“We’ve had, just from the public, it’s been overwhelmingly positive on the vodka,” he said. “The gin, I’m really excited to see what people think.”