Tom Yozzo of Hudson Valley Distillers has cracked the code on the perfect tasting: just add ice

I'm impressed with most of the spirits I try at Hudson Valley Distillers in Germantown, NY. But then, I'm impressed with the distillery itself, opened by Tom Yozzo and a business partner about six years ago.  First, they had to gut the barn we now stand in and reclaim the 14-acre farm from nature's whims. The property had been abandoned for five years when they found it.

Anyone who visits Tom in his environment will see he is a natural entertainer. The bar/restaurant area is fairly lively at about 7pm. This is Friday night in an area where New York's suburbs start to give way to farmland. So a couple of appletinis and the occasional musical act count for well-deserved entertainment. And then there is the man himself.

I first introduce myself to the bartender and tell her of my mission.  She goes to fetch Tom from somewhere in the back.  Soon, this very energetic man with a buzzcut marches over with purpose and an outstretched hand. This is Tom and for the next hour I will struggle to keep up with his pace. For example, he has barely started to tell me about the spirits he makes when, with a quick apology, he darts off to a couple of tables, checking on food and friends. Tom is not just a distiller, but he is the chef here as well. Most important to Tom's vision of himself, he is an ambassador. That is why he must occasionally check in with his patrons the same way he occasionally dips into the kitchen to check on the pizza: with lightning fast, but very sincere, concern. His is clearly a labor of love.

Tom returns to lead me around a corner and up some steps to a separate tasting bar.  In the five years he's owned this place, Tom has tacked on numerous rooms and alcoves, making the distillery a true focal point for community gathering. The latest addition: a private room solely for the use of the twenty or so locals who have invested in the business.

As rushed as he may seem, Tom is still meticulous in pouring me a fresh mini snifter with each taste. (Of course, he is halfway back to the dining room as he finishes a description of a particular spirit). The kicker: he adds an ice cube to the glass each time. Whiskey enthusiasts, especially, have strong opinions about adding water or ice. (Strange how some people can't recognize preference for exactly what it is - subjective). I won't go into them here, though it will become clear which side I'm on.

Appropriate for this part of the world, Tom makes their Spirits Grove vodka from apple juice, which arrives pressed from local orchards. There can be as many as fifteen different types of apples in any one pressing. The mix changes depending upon what's available throughout the year. Also impressive: the juice takes almost a month to ferment.  That is because after Tom adds yeast, an initial fermentation will take about a week. He then moves that beer to a separate container, where it will undergo what's called "secondary fermentation" for another three weeks. It then gets distilled through a 16-plate column still and charcoal filtered before bottling. 

I have to say, I love cold or even chilled vodka. It's amazing most distilleries pour at room temperature. Sniffing a bit of the Spirits Grove on ice is like opening one those frozen Tropicana cans of juice: distinctive fruity sweetness hiding in a winter storm. This vodka is smooth and dry, with a slight finish of white grape and grass.

Hudson Valley Distillers makes two types of applejack: aged and unaged. These spirits start off just like the vodka, all apple juice. Whereas vodka, by definition, must come off the still at 190 proof, applejack must distill at 160 proof. It also goes through a pot configuration of the still, which means the heated vapors do not go through the purifying stages within column, as with vodka, but directly to the condenser where ethanol is collected. It's not required, but Hudson Valley Distillers proof their applejack down to 80.

The unaged applejack has a very slight nose, pretty undistinguishable from vodka. The palate also contains a lot of those flavors I got with the vodka -grapefruit, white grape, a smidge of apple- but much more prevalent this time.

The aged applejack spends about one year in new oak barrels of #4 char. The nose is wood and smoke masking, though not completely, the fruit scents of the unaged applejack. The palate is very bourbony. I get toasted cereal and melon rind, finished off by spice and a bit of clove.

My favorite of all the Hudson Valley Distiller's spirits I try is their Imperial Single Malt Whiskey. It contains two chocolate malts in its mash bill: crystal and pale. The whiskey derives its name from Chatham Brewery's Imperial Porter, from which it is distilled. It is then aged for around a year in ten-gallon new oak barrels.

The nose is just like a chocolate bar fresh out of the fridge and wrapper. I can only describe the palate as a smores ice cream cone, meaning tons of caramel, vanilla, chocolate, cinnamon, a hint of ginger and the perfect amount of sweetness. I joke with Tom that he must be putting flavorings in here, to get it so rich and creamy.  He swears it's all the work of malt, wood and time. This is a real special drink - and it better be, at $40 for a 375 ml bottle. 

I end up buying a bottle of the Imperial. Even though my preferred flavor profile edges towards the harsh -peat, smoke, wood, etc.- I know I'm going to want to experience that ice cream cone in a bottle again, and Hudson Valley Distillers is not sold in California just yet. For now, it's accompanying me on my travels across the country, tucked away in my car's trunk. As soon as I'm back in Los Angeles, you can be certain I will enjoy a tall celebratory glass of the stuff, with plenty of ice.


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