Sunday, January 11, 2015

Finger Lakes Distilling: Great Promise Fullfilled

This isn't the first time I've written about Finger Lakes Distilling. By now you likely already know their story. Brian McKenzie, a former Vice President of an upstate New York bank, and Thomas Earl McKenzie, a winemaker, brewer and distiller from Monroeville, Alabama, met at that conference in 2007. They aren’t related, but the two shared the passion for craft spirits that led them to build a distillery in the heart of Finger Lakes wine country, on the shores of Seneca Lake.
I first visited them not long after they opened. It seemed to me that they had created some nice products and held for the promise of great things to come. I wrote about them from time to time because I see them everywhere, and have been able to sample this and that from time to time. But this last summer I went back there for the first time in a while, to see what they were up o and get a better idea of where they were at in terms of their offerings. And wow, was I in for a surprise.
Firstly, you have to know that the building is incredibly handsome and the views from their distillery are spectacular! On a hot summer day you can seemingly see forever.

Certainly the outside of the building, the landscaping, and laying out of the surrounding area had improved greatly, and was impeccably maintained.
Then it was time for tasting. A very nice, smart young lady, well versed in the products, was ready to walk us through the forest of products
McKenzie Wheat Whiskey  is made from 60% wheat, 20% corn and 20% malted barley. The whiskey is aged for about 2 years in our used bourbon and rye barrels. This was the lightest of the brown spirits I tried. Light, elegant, with hint of toffee and vanilla, and a hint of fruit and spice. Very nice!

First I had the McKenzie Rye Whiskey. McKenzie is their high end brand for their traditional distilled spirits. This rye was very nice. Lean, elegant, with notes of cereal. A lovely, smooth rye. One of the best offered in the northeast!

McKenzie Bourbon Whiskey was not the revelation I was looking for in my visit. That's because I had already tasted it with Clay Risen when he was working on his book American Whiskey, Bourbon, and Rye. And I had tasted it before that. And I already knew I loved it! This is a lovely bourbon, full of burnt caramel, some dark fruit, cereal, yet with a touch of something floral. A lovely spiciness. A great, smooth finish. Fantastic!

For me, the McKenzie Gin was an eye opener. Finger Lakes Distilling had already produced Seneca Drums and I had already written about it. It was a solid gin, that I have used for Gin and Tonics, and other mixed gin drinks. But McKenzie was a whole new experience. This is the kind of gin that belongs on a shelf with other high-end gins like Hendricks, Ransom, and Berkshire Distilling. This is an ethereal kind of gin, with a lovely nose. This is the kind of gin A.J. Liebling or Bernard DeVoto would have dreamed about. This is the ultimate martini gin. Light. Elegant. With enough juniper to unmistakably be a gin but not too many other over powering spices to make it too exotic. It is smooth, smooth, smooth. Cold, with the lightest waving of vermouth over it, waved in the direction of France, this gin, skaen or stirred, with chipped ice, is the ultimate offering to the gods!



New York Honey is their rye infused with late-summer honey produced in the Northwest Catskill Mountains. Says Master Distiller Thomas Earl: “We took some of our very best rye, combined it with lovely, flowery honey to produce a slightly sweet, spicy drink. Good for what ails you. This stuff is the bees knees. That is if bees drank rye.” This is an entry into the slightly sweetened whiskey market, usually aimed at younger or entry level whiskey drinkers. This is a very successful entry too! A lovely base spirit with just a hint, a slight hint of sweetness. Almost imperceptible. But it also takes away some of the whiskey burn some beginners find objectionable. A very nice product!

My traveling companion Rich Srsich tried the Maplejack Liquer. It's apple brandy flavored with a small amount of local maple syrup. I had a taste. Very nice!!! Mellow with a hint of after taste. Very good!
And of course I ended with the grappa. This was a lovely grappa. Some of them can and ought to be used to peel paint.Not this stuff. This is the good stuff. Put hair on your chest? Oh, yeah! But the burn wasn;t what you'd expect for such high alcohol. Very, very lovely! Smooth and easy to put down. A perfect after dinner companion. Impressive!

It was very clear that Finger Lakes Distilling has fulfilled the promise it showed several years ago. From beginner efforts that were very commercially positioned, to high-end products, Finger Lakes Distilling has proved that it offers a wide range of products made in the hand of a master and packaged like a big time firm. The current line up is absolutely astounding and impressive! A great job by the McKenzies!!! Congrats to the whole team!