Upstate Distilling Company keeps it local
For such a seemingly low key guy, Ryen VanHall of Upstate Distilling Company in Saratoga Springs, NY, can get worked up on a couple topics. We manage to hit on both within a matter of minutes: the integrity necessary to use only organic ingredients in making his spirits, and the desire to use only local resources - not just of what goes into the bottle, but the bottle and label itself.
A number of distillers have explained to me (or given their best attempt), the Federal guidelines for labeling and bottling spirits, known as COLA. In each spirits category, specific requirements in production, barreling and/or aging must be met in order to make certain claims on that spirit's packaging.
Ryen has chosen "organic"to be his great white whale. I learn from a nifty FAQ website that he has several options, in order to claim the organic title. There is "100% organic," for which Ryen would have to prove to the Feds that all ingredients have been certified organic by their own producers, and no sulfites are added. For the label reading simply "Organic" -and remember this next time you're in Whole Foods- 95% of the ingredients must be certified organic, and again, no sulfites. The wording and requirements can get more watered down from there: "Made with Organic Ingredients," "Containing Some Organic Ingredients," and "Sprinkled With Organic Fairy Dust." Can you tell which one I made up?
Ryen is an ambitious guy, so he is going for the "100% organic" label. This puts him in a double bind, since he also wants all of his ingredients to come from upstate New York. Ryen, why not have me tie your hands behind your back while you distill?
Fortunately, there is plenty of rye and wheat to be had from New York (the "Upstate" designation is disputed anyway, depending on where in the state you are. A good gauge is whether you see "beef on weck" on the menu). Both rye and wheat go into Upstate Distilling's vodka, which they call Blinders - as in the headgear racehorses wear, not because Ryen forgot to make a heads cut.
The nose is plenty sweet. I get the best of wood and grass. The palate is deep and complex, like earth and wood, ending on a sweet bit of candy. There is a slight burn to the finish.
I think Ryen's parents spelled his name that way because they wanted him to become a rye drinker. Or, they had the foresight to realize that if he ever decided to open up a distillery, he could use a cool play on his name. Either way, it works.
This rye is 90 proof, aged seven to nine months in new oak, ten-gallon barrels, with a mix of #3 and #4 char. The nose is no nonsense sweet and sour, and the palate has that spicy cereal bite, common to ryes, with a touch of sweet. It's very easy to drink and I look forward to someday enjoying a full pour on the rocks.
Ryen has a bourbon aging in 53 gallon barrels. He's aiming to go for two years. I try his Saratoga Springs whiskey, which is the same mash bill as the bourbon -60% corn, 30% rye and 10% wheat- but is aging in used Artisanal Brew Works barrels. The choice of brewery is no mere coincidence. It shares the building with Upstate.
The rye is 86 proof. The sample I taste has been aged about a year. It has a smooth caramel nose. The palate has strong fruit and melon notes, with dark candy and baked goods on the backend.
I mentioned earlier that Ryen's "keep it local" ethos extends to the materials used for packaging. The bottles are from one of the only small-scale glass manufacturers in the state. I'm sure Ryen never tires of people pointing out the Ball Corp. factory next door. I unhesitatingly join that group of smart asses. Ryen replies, probably by rote at this point, that his neighbor produces ball bearings at this location, not glass. Even if they did, he probably wouldn't be a large enough account for them to consider a direct sale.
In speaking for just a short time with Ryen, I realize he has friends just about everywhere. I guess that happens to such a gregarious guy in a small town like Saratoga Springs (and happens to make delicious booze). This far-reaching network is the first place Ryen will turn to for any project. He tells me how he tried to make his own barrel (this conversation starts when I ask about the wood staves piled in a corner). Where did he get the wood? From an oak chopped down on his buddy's golf course - no biggie!
The same concept is the case for Upstate Distilling's labels. Ryen knows someone who prints old-timey looking graphics, using original, scavenged machinery. This is the source of his labels. Ryen has one of the antique presses on display in his barrel room, as seen in the picture.
The building housing the brewery and distillery sits on a couple of acres. From the wraparound porch you can see the original farmhouse, occupied now by an unoriginal owner. I'm sitting on one of the adirondack chairs when a family hops out of an SUV, parked in the gravel lot. The couple is young and attractive, like they've stepped out of a stock photo that comes with the picture frame. They have one of those curly-haired blond toddlers in tow - so cute, you're not sure whether it's a boy or a girl. Ryen greets them like they are old friends or regulars. Maybe they're either, or both. The point is, there's a strong sense of community running through Upstate Distilling. Not just in the consumption of its spirits, but the production as well. Those Ball folks can save their jars. The good people of Saratoga Springs are here for Ryen and whatever ambitions he dreams up.