David Bannon is Father Turned Farmer Turned Distiller at Springbrook Hollow Farm
What is a man to do when his kids are grown and it's time to retire? Most think that is the part of life where it's time to slow down and enjoy the remaining years of good health. Not for David Bannon of Springbrook Hollow Farm Distillery in Queensbury, NY.
First, the man buys a 200-acre farm. It is used mostly for cattle, but soon David runs into a dilemma. Even though he is farming mostly as a hobby, and not for a living, New York State doesn't make that distinction. It taxes David on his land, materials, equipment, etc. as if his cows were birthing golden calves. David didn't want to give up his hobby, as expensive as it was proving to be. Luckily, this was right around the time New York State passed legislation to allow farm distilleries, in 2013. David looked around, saw other farms starting small and turning their resources into alcohol (and later on, money), so decided to follow suit.
Springbrook Hollow Farm isn't the easiest place to find, even for the remote rolling hills of this part of the Adirondacks. (And you can forget about any helpful directional signs up here.) I finally find the right driveway. At its crest is a set of wooden barns. I get out of my car, look down into the valley and take in the serenity. A light mist, low clouds hugging the mountain tops and roosters crowing. This part of the world can be called "New York" only by custom. Even the modifier "Upstate" doesn't do justice to its sheer contrast with the city of the same name.
I don't think I'm standing here long before David emerges from... I'm not sure where. He simply materializes, talking with someone on his flip phone. He waves for me to follow him inside the main barn/tasting room without breaking his conversation. He even starts setting out tiny tasting cups without the phone leaving his ear.
I'm distracted by a very friendly -or curious?- terrier, Whiskey. Then I wander around looking at the bottle displays. Is there a good way to pretend not to eavesdrop?
David slaps the phone shut, with a show of exasperation as a modicum of courtesy. "Some lady trying to track down a case," he explains. A good problem to have, especially when a distillery is small enough to have the customer service line go straight to the owner's cell.
Springbrook Hollow isn't much different from the other "farm distilleries" I visit, in that the majority of ingredients are not grown there. And like other farm distilleries in New York, they have to, by law, procure at least 75% of their raw materials from within the state. It becomes apparent that David pushes that threshold as close to 100% as possible.
Springbrook Hollow makes a high rye bourbon, the rye portion coming in at a whopping 32% of the mash. The rest is 56% corn and 12% malted barley. It's 86 proof and aged for a minimum of two years -though David's not calling it "straight" just yet- in a combination of fifteen and thirty gallon barrels of #3 char. So where does so much rye get us? Surprisingly, I get a melange of fruit in the nose; mainly watermelon and cherry. The palate has a fairly light spice, considering the amount of rye. It opens up nicely to barrel notes -vanilla, toffee, sweet wood- before finishing on some clove.
David puts out a version of this whiskey at 100 proof and unaged that he calls moonshine (or cleverly, Howl at the Moonshine). I try two flavored versions of it: Apple and Maple. Each is 60 proof.
David is a bit cagey about how each moonshine gets flavored. Extracts are most likely involved. (The New York State origin requirement is measured by the volume of each ingredient in the finished product.) For the apple moonshine, that means a mostly cinnamon note, not too sweet, with a bit of a Christmas spice finish. The maple makes me think of a wood-flavored simple syrup. It's hard to detect the maple in there.
Springbrook Hollow's vodka is called Two Sisters, though I don't see any women around on the day I visit. The vodka comes to the distillery as a neutral grain spirit, made elsewhere from wheat. David tells me they run it five times through their column still and filter extensively through charcoal, both before proofing and once again prior to bottling. It has a nose that only hints at the alcohol within. The palate is smooth with no burn and only the vaguest sweetness.
For most distilleries with their own vodka, the temptation is simply too great not to make a gin as well. Springbrook Hollow takes the bait, with their 90 proof Sly Fox gin. What's so sly about it? Maybe they think the tamer juniper notes on this New World style gin will win over those like me, who simply can't understand why someone would want to drink a liquified Christmas wreath. True to the New World style, there's a strong chorus of citrus and spices, like anise and coriander, in this gin. But like a clock, here comes the juniper right on time. It's almost a shame -to me, at least- that one of the only requirements for gin is that it contain a noticeable amount of juniper. Otherwise, I might be able to get on board.
Springbrook Hollow also makes two sweet, fruit-forward-like-a-punch-in-the-mouth liqueurs: limoncello and orangecello. Although their production is also a closely guarded secret, I gather that it is the neutral grain spirit infused with zest and a lot of sugar. Each is 60 proof.
The nose on the limoncello is clean and crisp, like on some higher end soaps.The palate is very bright with lemon, to the extent that my mouth actually feels cleaner from the tiny taste.
The orangecello has a slightly bitter edge to it, which makes me think grapefruit may be added. Of course, David won't let on, so I will have to be content with guessing.
Whiskey (the dog) is starting to jump on me again. Is this a sign? Did he/she sense I was asking too many sensitive questions? I'm told dogs have great intuition, and this one has shown me nothing but love -albeit of a vigorous variety- so far. David the farmer, on the other hand, is proving a little harder to read. I'm going to leave him to his hilltop farm, shrouded in mystery and clouds, to mix up his concoctions however he sees fit.