Prohibition is over at last, thanks to Empire Rye
Written by Kathleen Willcox, photos by Chelsea Fausel
Whiskey-loving locavores have a new reason to celebrate. Since 2015, the Empire Rye Movement has been producing the first grain-to-glass whiskey in New York since Prohibition, thanks to an innovative partnership between distillers and farmers.
The idea for Empire Rye was conceived at a Denver craft spirits conference by six New York distillers over glasses of tawny. Brian McKenzie, president of Finger Lakes Distilling and one of the O.G. Empire Rye team, explains.
“We wanted to put New York back on the map and differentiate it from other American regions. Prior to Prohibition, there was an amazing whiskey culture here, with distillers making intense, spicy whiskeys from homegrown rye.”
The six originals agreed to use primarily NY–grown rye in their whiskey.
“We knew that uniting together and creating a real movement was more powerful than …doing it individually,” Brian explains.
To merit an Empire Rye designation, at least 75% of the grain must be NY–grown rye, distilled to 160 proof maximum, put in barrel at 115 proof maximum; aged for at least two years in charred, new oak barrels.
Finger Lakes Distilling has been making NY–produced rye whiskey since 2008, and it’s now their top seller.
“As one of the first producers to make NY–grown rye, it was next to impossible to find farmers growing it,” McKenzie says. “For our first few batches, we were sourcing it from vineyards who used rye as a cover crop.”
Since discovering that distillers wanted the real deal, farmers have worked to find rye that best expresses NY terroir.
At Rick Pedersen’s 1,500-acre farm in Seneca Castle about 10% of the acreage is devoted to rye. In Pedersen’s fields, when the sun is out and the sky is blue, the rye looks ethereal: emerald purses holding golden coins. But rye is no weakling, it’s a hardy crop that grows in cold, wet climates and can thrive in soils that would never support wheat.
“Tom Potter, founder of the New York Distilling Company, came to me in 2009 because I am an organic grower with a reputation for trying new things,” Pedersen recalls. “He … wanted to make … whiskey that hadn’t been produced here since Prohibition.”
He sourced seeds from the University of Idaho’s Foundation Seed Program, using two strains indigenous to Eastern Europe. It was too late in the year to plant them so he enlisted Cornell University’s Agritech to grow the first generation in their greenhouse.
After these initial experiments, in 2014, Pedersen presented a fully mature crop for distilling to Potter.
Cocktail hour is always fun, but it’s downright delightful when it includes a spicy amber draught of 18th-century heirloom seeds, grown, distilled and bottled by neighbors.
The Founders of Empire Rye
Black Button Distilling, 85 Railroad St., Rochester
Coppersea Distilling, 239 Springtown Rd., New Paltz
Finger Lakes Distilling, 4676 NYS Route 414, Burdett
Kings County Distilling, 299 Sands St., Building 121, Brooklyn
New York Distilling, 79 Richardson St., Brooklyn.
Tuthilltown Distilling, 14 Grist Mill Ln., Gardiner
Kathleen Willcox writes about drinks, eats and sustainability for Edible Communities publications, SevenFifty Daily and Civil Eats, among others. She travels, eats and drinks widely; sip and snack along on Instagram, @kathleenwillcox.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2019 edition of the magazine.