Should you ever find yourself in Lake George, NY....

There are worse ways to spend a chunk of an afternoon than chatting with John and Tom of Lake George Distilling Company in upstate New York, and sipping on some of their great whiskies. It helps that the afternoon I show up, the Adirondacks are getting pelted with rain and fog. Most of the tourist traps -er, attractions- are closed or empty. Even if the weather had been pleasant, April is the off-season for this most seasonal of regions.

Lake George Distilling has two locations - the actual distillery and a shop in downtown Lake George.  To give you a sense of how I roll, I drive right past their store on main street without seeing it, and out into the countryside, to the distillery another fifteen miles away. 

This turns out to be a fortunate mistake. It's here that I meet distiller, Tom, followed by his father, John.  I estimate Tom to be in his mid-20s. John started Lake George Distilling in 2013, after twenty-three years in telecommunications. He has about three years left before he can retire from his day job, collect a pension, and then focus on the distillery full-time. Tom and John learned distilling together, from a lot of trial and error. It looks like they now have it down to a science, four years after opening the distillery.

Tom and John walk me through their spirits.  There's a bourbon, 100 proof, that has a lot of corn -70%- balanced out by 17% rye and 13% malted barley. It's aged a little under a year in #3 char barrels. It has the expectedly sweet nose that reminds me of apples hanging on the branch in perfect sunlight. The palate has the same sweetness, but with the added complexity of wildflower and bread. There's the slightest burn on the finish, but otherwise it's fairly easy to drink.

On their website, Lake George Distilling says they named their rye Red Rock because that is a spot on the lake where they like to anchor in the summer. The rye's warm finish reminds them of the sun in July. Smelling the rye, which is made from a 90% rye, 10% barley mash and is 100 proof, I get grassy fields instead (granted, they could be baking on a summer's day). The palate is more of that toasted grain and a slight spice finish. The rye is aged fifteen to twenty months in a variety of barrels sizes, all with #3 char. 

Lake George Distilling is one of the distilleries I visit that has decided to play, what I call, "the Fireball game." That means attempting to capitalize on Fireball's explosion by coming out with their own cinnamon-flavored whiskey, in the hopes some Fireball fans may latch on. I owe it to Phil McDaniel, owner of St. Augustine Distillery, for pointing out to me how broad the requirements are for calling a spirit a "flavored whiskey." (He actually busted out the COLA table as I sat at a table in his office.) So the method for making a cinnamon-flavored spirit can be pretty wide open. Because of the expense of natural cinnamon, anyone making a flavored spirit on a large scale, even if it's a fraction of Fireball's, will probably use an extract.

John tells me their version of Fireball -sorry, Adirondack Wildfire Whiskey- starts as a whiskey distilled from 90% corn, 10% malted barley mash. It is not aged. Instead, Lake George Distilling mixes in a "natural additive" derived from cinnamon. I take this to mean a cinnamon extract.  John says there's no sugar added, which would be a big departure from the Fireball recipe. Compare its 70 proof to Fireball's 66.

The nose has the distinctive scent of a Red Hot candy - so it's definitely within Fireball territory there. Yet when I taste it, the whiskey lacks both the overpowering cinnamoniness -that "fire" you get in Fireball"- or the sweetness typically used to balance that heat. Instead, what I get is a much more mellow cinnamon note, followed by a musky wood, earth or plant, I can't quite tell. Suddenly, my visions of barely legal kids knocking back shots they can't stand, til they literally can't stand, are replaced by that of a more mature drinker, maybe a middle aged mother who hardly drinks. On the occasions she does, she'll go for a flavored vodka or one of those sickly sweet "martinis" which would better be considered "dessert." For her, Adirondack Wildfire, is a good compromise. It has an appealing flavor that hides what some may consider harsh or too oaky in most aged whiskeys, yet doesn't remind you of liquified candy. 

Lake George Distilling takes advantage of the many apple orchards in the region, with its Apple Pie Moonshine. The designation "moonshine" is even less regulated than "flavored whiskey." I don't even think it has to have alcohol, although that would be a pretty disappointing moonshine. Regardless, Lake George Distilling's moonshine starts life as the same distillate that goes on to make the Wildfire. Instead of cinnamon extract, it gets infused with apple juice, sugar and other baking spices. The proof is lower too, at 50. The nose is a bit sour, reminiscent of a young wine.  On the palate, I get some of the spices, including cinnamon (maybe a holdout from the Wildfire) and aged wood. Like the Wildfire, it is surprisingly not too sweet and very drinkable.

I try the moonshine unflavored, just for comparison's sake. This one is 90 proof. The nose is similarly sour, but drifting more towards grain and grass, with a bit of dark fruit thrown in. The palate is of a smooth toasted cereal, with a sweet finish. 

Last is my favorite, at least among their moonshines. I'm a sucker for anything smoky or charred. This one is called Indian Kettle Smoked Corn Whiskey, though it has the same mash as the moonshine and is also 90 proof. The difference is Lake George Distilling smokes the grains before mashing, with hickory wood. The wood smoke definitely comes through in the nose, along with a dried meaty essence, like freshly opening a pack of beef jerky and taking a whiff. The whiskey drinks like a meal: smoked meat and a nice long wood finish, just in case you forgot how to make a campfire. John explains that the name comes from the recesses in boulders found around the lakeshore. They were carved out by glaciers. The natives of the region would use them as natural hearths for cooking, hence the name "indian kettle." Whether true or not, it has a much better ring than "Glacier-carved Divot used for Cooking Whiskey."

Back to the burning question from earlier: will Adirondack Wildfire overtake Fireball on the shelves any time soon? I would bet on "no." That's not to take away from the merits of that spirit or Lake George Distilling in general. It's just a different market. I think John and company will be well served to keep focusing on selling to tourists to the area, as I'm sure he will. Next time you're up here and out at one of the bars, for whenever is considered "late," you may see the kids banging back shots of Wildfire. Ok, maybe more like grandma having it on the rocks as a nightcap, comfy in an Adirondack chair on the patio, sipping to the soundtrack of waves lapping at Lake George's shore. Either is a niche audience deservedly won.


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