Love is in the air at Yankee Distillers
I only learn later on why Matt Jager, distiller and co-owner of Yankee Distillers in Clifton Park, NY, seems so ridiculously happy. Getting to work on, and continuously sample, such a wide variety of excellent spirits would be reason enough. On top of that, Matt is joined on the job by the love of his life, Brianna, who oversees the tasting room. On top of all that, Brianna and Matt are engaged. I'm sure the wedding and its guests will suffer no shortage of booze.
Before even learning the news, it is exciting to enter Matt's world. Literally. He leads me from the tasting room, back past a couple giant hybrid stills and fermenters, and into a storage/barrel warehouse. There’s a makeshift wood bar in the corner next to an equally makeshift office. This is undisputably Matt’s domain. Even the dog and cat enter sheepishly. It feels as intimate as visiting someone in their house. Matt takes up position on the opposite side of the bar, a shelf of bottles within reach, and launches into a backstory carefully devoid of detail.
Matt studied physics in college. An interest in brewing led him to eventually start a different distillery, in Albany, that is still in operation. There was obviously a falling out. Whenever someone makes a point of saying he has nothing bad to say about former partners, you best believe there is drama better left uncovered. That distillery is locally successful and earned Matt the attention of two new partners looking to open another distillery in the area. They approached Matt, he said yes, and here we stand two years later.
Matt's most notable characteristic, after his charming, happy-go-lucky air, is humility. When I ask how many distillers make up Yankee Distillers, I get a non-answer that doesn't come off as showy as you'd assume. "We are all distillers here," Matt intones. Okay Kimosabe.... moving right along.
Matt doesn't hide his bias in favor of whiskey, even when it comes to making vodka. He calls theirs a "whiskey distiller’s vodka." That’s not really what it’s called. The actual name is Eleven Lakes. The point is, it’s distilled five times through a pot still. Most vodkas get run through a column still once, purposely, to strip out flavor. Pot stills are usually reserved for dark spirits, whose resulting oils can stand up to the aging effects from wood in a barrel.
The vodka is made entirely from wheat: 85% malted and 15% unmalted. Matt describes it as "white winter wheat," grown in the Finger Lakes area of New York (hence the vodka's name). The nose is similar to fresh potted soil and chocolate, like someone's been gardening in a candy shop. The palate is creamy with a vanilla sweetness, and absolutely no bite. This is the type of vodka I like - not afraid of bold flavors.
Yankee Distillers has a very interesting rye. It’s finished for ten weeks in a used rum barrel, after spending around one year in new oak. It’s 92 proof and the mash bill is 75% rye, 12.5% malted wheat and 12.5% unmalted wheat. It smells and tastes like you would expect, a mix-and-match of spice, wood, cinnamon and pepper. There’s a bit too much of a dissonance in the flavors for my preference. But if you are, or happen to know, a rye fan that’s had everything, this would be a pleasant surprise for him or her.
Yankee Distillers’ bourbon goes through an even more sidetracked aging process. After spending one year in new oak barrels, it gets put into barrels that held a local brewery’s porter. However, those barrels originally started as Yankee Distiller’s bourbon barrels and went out on loan to the brewery. Still following? Essentially, it’s a roundabout homecoming for these casks finishing the bourbon. They may get loaned out again after that, but I don’t ask cos I don’t want my head to explode.
The bourbon is 92 proof, from a mash bill of 60% corn, 25% rye and 15% barley. That amount of barley must go a long way, because in the nose I get plenty of chocolate, coffee and spice. The palate is quite different: mineral up front and a cherry and corn finish.
Matt lets me try a product that he has not bottled yet. It’s the rye, but it was finished in those porter barrels, for three and a half months. I try it straight from the final barrel, at about 124 proof. The nose retains the vanilla from the first round of oak barrels, but there’s a strange scent I can only describe as cardboard on the backend. The palate starts off as cardamom and spice, and fades into deep meaty bbq (Memphis for the sweetness, if I have to choose a region).
Lastly, I get to sample a spirit that Matt doesn’t typically serve at tastings. It’s Yankee Distillers’ rum. Matt explains that its ingredient don’t originate from New York State. The molasses in the mash bill is made from Louisiana sugarcane, so the law forbids serving or selling it on site. He’s allowed to sell it to wholesalers only.
The rum is 80 proof. It has a nose of butterscotch and toffee and tastes of deep sweet plum. Matt gives me a sample of the same rum, aged ten months in a mix of used bourbon and rye barrels. That rum has a nose of spicy vanilla, kind of like gingersnap cookies. The palate has a woody dryness and is surprisingly not sweet, given the bakery fumes coming off it.
I don’t realize how much I’m dripping in the production facility until we return to the air conditioning of the tasting room. Some bourbon on the rocks helps me further cool down. Before long, Barley the pug is by my side, snorting at my leg. This is where I hear the big news, delivered in an absurdly casual way when I ask how long Brianna’s been working here. Officially, it’s been six months, but in actuality she got roped into helping one way or another since day one.
I congratulate both of them. Watching the couple cuddle up behind the bar for a photo –Matt looks like he should be selling Brianna magic beans- I see they are a great match. And since distilling, to say nothing of owning a distillery, is a round-the-clock job, it’s clear that Matt enjoys having Brianna at arm’s reach, here in his/their second home. (I asked the stupid question of whether the couple will be having the wedding here in the distillery. They replied instantly and in unison, “no way.”)