Who knew you had to go to Upstate New York to find some heat?
Ballston Spa, NY is a tiny, though apparently up-and-coming, town that has a strange association for me. I visited here unwittingly about sixteen years ago, when my car broke down on the Thruway. I was on a road trip from DC to Montreal, in a time before cell phones. After standing on the side of the highway for a couple minutes, the steam still rising from the car's radiator, a state trooper pulled over and radioed us a tow. The closest town happened to be Ballston Spa. It was also the Friday of Easter Weekend. The tow truck dropped me, my friend and my car in front of an autobody shop that wouldn't open for another fort- four hours. We got to know the not-ironically retro motel and Chinese take-out place very well that weekend.
I'm happy to report that my visit to Ballston Spa this time around is of my own choosing and much more eventful. I visit Jake Hewson at High Rock Distillery. He and his business partner, Peter, opened the distillery in 2014. They are fittingly, though not intentionally, following a tradition of farmers-turned-distillers. I learn it's usually a transition made out of necessity. Some states, like New York, punish small farmers with a succession of independent taxes -property, equipment, materials, etc.- to say nothing of sales and income tax. It adds up quickly. Farmers that own their property are left with few recourses. Often, it's a choice of sell or change business model.
Jake and Peter have also worked extensively in construction. Entering the distillery, I notice a drywall project and unfinished side room still waiting completion. I guess it's simply a matter of Peter or Jake finding a spare moment. The tasting room still manages to be cozy: barrel tables and lots of barn-style wood beams. And although it's April, there are Christmas lights and pine leaf garland adorning the windows. It's a log cabin vibe that works in a woodsy setting like Ballston Spa.
For a distillery their size, High Rock is putting out a lot of different spirits. I'll start with the one that intrigues me the most and inspired the title of this post. For their Pepper Shine, Jake starts with High Rock's Saratoga Shine, which is fermented from an all-corn mash, and infuses it with the juice of six different hot peppers. He has to enlist the help of his distiller, Thomas, to list them all when I ask. They are chipotle, poblano, serrano, habanero, hot cherry and lady finger. To help drinkers deal with the heat, he has mercifully brought the proof down to 80, from the regular moonshine's 100.
As is the fashion, I smell a sample before tasting it. In the case of Pepper Shine, it is more of a defensive reflex. This stuff has a deep, complex nose: chipotle and cigarettes. Sounds like the next Wilco album.
The palate is much more satisfying. Once I get past the immediate burning sensation at the back of the throat, the dueling flavors of plant and smoke come through. I don't think there are many people who could or would drink this spirit on its own. The heat/pepper flavor is so prevalent, most mixers would get lost. Your cocktail choices with this spirit are going to be a bloody mary or.... a really fucking spicy bloody mary. Which is music to my ears, since I can rarely find a bloody spicy enough. But that's my own issue.
I'm going backwards in the order of what I tasted, just because the spice would have dominated anything I drank after. I tried a strawberry-flavored moonshine -chopped strawberries infused for a week, and proofed to 40- that had the sweetness of cotton candy, but was very smooth. The nose was only subtly of strawberry.
The unflavored moonshine smells of sweet corn and a hint of alcohol. The palate contains a lot of bright citrus, which I find surprising. I mention this to Jake. He responds that it may have to do with the white wine yeast they use for fermenting.
Yeast, as I'm learning, is a whole 'nother area in which to get lost, or get a PhD. Jake got his education in yeast-ology (or zymology, as you're supposed to call it) secondhand. He tells me the story of an internship he paid for, while he was still figuring out his game plan. He was supposed to work alongside a distiller who is fairly well-known, at least within the whiskey-producing world. Jake gets there and, after showing him around, this distiller tells Jake he's taking off for a couple days. Jake was understandably taken aback. "I pay you five thousand dollars and you take off?" was the gist of his reaction.
As stunned as he may have been, my couple of minutes spent with Jake so far tell me he's the kind of guy that can handle life's punches. In the case of his internship gone awry, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. There was another intern there, earning her degree in zymology. Jake tells me he learned more from her, most crucially about fermentation, than he could have from the distiller he had paid. Life, much like distilling, is a series of these happy accidents.
High Rock's spirits rely on an all-corn mash for their moonshine, vodka and corn whiskey. The only outliers are a brandy, distilled from a Merlot Melba wine, and a 100% rye whiskey.
The vodka has a nose of stale grain and palate of sour grain, finishing on a grapey fruit. The brandy is 80 proof and is aged in used single malt barrels for fourteen months. Its nose is deep wine and plum, with an oaky and grainy palate. The rye, at 100 proof, ages one year in new oak. Its nose hints at lemon and pepper. The palate is light and peppery, with a sour finish. The corn whiskey is 90 proof and aged in a mix of new oak and reused barrels (from previous batches). Its nose is of a delightful smoky wood and the palate is bright corn, with a caramel finish and a medium burn.
I really enjoy my time with Jake, not just because his spirits are inventive and delicious. He's relaxed, relishing the steps from one piece of machinery to the next. He walks me through each stage and explains how he personally modified much of the equipment. I don't know what he was like as a farmer or contractor, but the inventive side to distilling seems to suit Jake well. It probably helps that he has a team to pitch in: a full-time distiller, a business partner, and a bartender, Christina, who attends to the drinkers and tasters.
When I'm backing out of the driveway, I look over to see Jake dangling, holding onto the prongs of a raised forklift. Thomas is at the controls. Apparently, it had gotten stuck in the raised position, but they've decided it's nothing Jake's body weight can't take care of. I feel a Tosh.O-worthy accident is moments away and I'm tempted to break out my phone. But if it works out, it's a fitting lesson. Whether you studied your ass off for a PhD or earned plain old common sense through years of hard work, the result is often the same: a flavorful whiskey and a functional forklift.