Almost every guy thinks about it at one time or another, says Matthew Jager. The "manly dream" of owning a bar. And that's how it all started out.
Matthew, who teaches at The College of Saint Rose's business school, and his buddy John Curtin, a leadership trainer and former English teacher, were hanging out at the Albany Pump Station, having a couple of drinks, when one of them said, "Hey, you know what we should do? We should open a bar!" And the other one said, "Yeah!"
Eighteen months and $300,000 later, they do not own a bar.
Instead, they own a distillery -- The Albany Distilling Company -- in a building right next door to the Albany Pump Station. A few months from now they're hoping to put their white whiskey on the shelves of bars and restaurants around the region.
Have they ever made whiskey before? No. But this little hitch doesn't seem to worry them.
"Almost nobody in New York State has made whiskey before," says John Curtin. "If they have, most of them were breaking the law -- or lying about it."
Distilling whiskey in New York was unaffordable for most operations until the signing of the Farm Distillery Law in 2007. "Ten years ago a business like ours couldn't have existed," says Matthew Jager. The [state's] licensing fees would have been more like $50,0000 or some ridiculous amount like that, instead of the $1,500 we're paying for two years."
Since that 2007 law, a handful of small batch distilleries have opened up around NY State, including Harvest Spirits in Columbia County.
Matthew and John's original plan for a bar/restaurant/distillery was scaled back after applications for financing were rejected. "Banks don't want to lend you money to open a bar or restaurant these days, because its a very risky business," says Matthew. "Or, really, a distillery," laughs John.
The stars align
Getting the financing was the first struggle. Then there was the hunt for a location. "There are a lot of restrictions on where you can locate a distillery in New York. And we wanted to be in the city of Albany," says John.
They were lamenting their building search woes at their defacto office, otherwise known as the bar at The Albany Pump Station, when the bartender overheard them. As it happened, Neil Evans, owner of The Pump Station had a 1,500 square foot space adjacent to his bar/restaurant that they could rent.
"Suddenly it felt like the stars were in alignment," says Matthew. "We learned that when they built the parking garage next door to this building, they uncovered Albany's first distillery. It was preserved in the fine Hudson River Valley basin soil. They brought in archeologists and part of it is now in the New York State Museum."
The distillery, dating from the 1750s, made rum. "When we heard that the first distillery in Albany -- that you could throw a rock and hit it from ours -- it was like a rainbow was coming down on our building. A rainbow -- and unicorns," Matt laughs, "We love everything about this place."
Besides an obvious enthusiasm, Matthew and John have what they describe as a DIY spirit and both say they have pretty well trained palates for whiskey. Still, they've invested quite a bit in a product they've never made.
"We figured in for a penny in for a pound," says John. "We could have done it for less," says John, "but we figured if we're going to do it, we might as well do it right."
The small distillery boom
Matthew says small batch distilleries are starting at all different levels. "There's this distillery down in Brooklyn called Kings County and they started with moonshine equipment and they're making a corn whiskey down there in Brooklyn."
"On the other hand," says John, "if you look at the Catskill Distillery and another that will be opening soon in Dutchess County, they started with budgets of several million dollars. They're building their own buildings and two story stills that run around a million dollars a piece and doing sort of an all hands on deck approach and then relying on the marketing end of it to make ends meet. We're prodding things in a small slow progression and then as the marketing and sales part of it comes in that will allow us to expand to this level."
They bought their distilling equipment from Kothe in Germany. "They're well known in Europe but not as much in the United States," says Matt. "It's in their best interest that we produce really good whiskey, so they're working very closely with us," says Matt.
They've also spent the last 18 months imbibing information. "What we lack in experience we're hoping to make up for by front-loading knowledge," says John. Go ahead, ask him a question about whiskey. But make sure you've got some time on your hands. "We've been reading books and visiting distilleries and talking with experts. Not long ago I was in Scotland at a distillery, picking their brains. We've learned a lot."
They're hoping to put all this knowledge to good use in the next couple of weeks. Their equipment arrived from Germany last week and if things go well, they'll be producing a white whiskey by spring.
What is white whiskey? Matt describes it as "an unaged, young product where you can taste the raw elements -- the grains that go into it." They plan to sell half the whiskey they produce and age half. "Eventually," says John, "you'll be able to taste side by side and see how the different oaks and different compounds compare."
Both Matthew and John agree that it's not what people are used to tasting in a whiskey anymore, but they point out that up until about 200 years ago, all whiskey was unaged. "It's not what people expect. But we're capitalizing on the idea that people will want to taste the grains and the ingredients going into them and will appreciate those tastes as opposed to the the barrel tastes. We're hoping they'll enjoy the new age spirit that made whiskey famous for hundreds of years."
Next they plan to work on a rum, in homage to Albany's first distillery. Eventually they'll branch out to vodka and gin -- all of which will be made with local ingredients. The Farm Distillery Law requires that at least half of their ingredients come from New York State suppliers, but Matthew says they want to take it further. "We'd like to source as many of our ingredients as we can locally. We're getting this heirloom variety of open pollinated, organic corn from a distillery out in the Finger Lakes. They're also supplying us with an organic rye. Our malt house is in the Berkshires, but our grains will be from New York State. I've been talking with farmers in the Helderbergs about growing some ingredients for us."
Matthew says their efforts have received quite a bit of support, not only from farmers but from pretty much everyone they've reached out to. "People have just shown up and wanted to be involved. They overhear us talking with Tim at the bar and they say, 'Oh, you're the distillery guys?' and they want to volunteer to do anything. They'll carry bags of grain -- they just want to be involved in local manufacturing."
"We're excited to be part of Albany as it is," he says, "but we're also excited to be part of what Albany might become. And we think based on the reaction people have had to what we're doing that there might be a lot of other people interested in making things in Albany. We're not holding Brooklyn up as a model, but consider what's happening there with craft manufacturing and then think about the people who are interested in craft manufacturing here -- places like All Good Bakers and Cheesecake Machismo and others."
"We love Albany," says John. "I've lived in Ireland and Scotland for a while, but I always want to come back home."
"We didn't name our company the Albany Distilling Company just because we couldn't think of anything better. We really love the city and we wanted to make everything we do about the place that we are."
Albany Distilling Company
78 Montgomery Street (Right next to the Albany Pump Station)
Albany, NY 12207
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