When you stop to think about it, the growth in craft distilleries over the past decade is truly amazing. In 2011, just seven years ago, there were fewer than 300 craft spirits producers in the United States. Today, there are more than 2,300 licensed distilled spirits producers, with nearly 1,600 active craft distillers and more in the planning stages. With those figures, “revolution” doesn’t sound like much of an exaggeration after all.
You can find a distillery in each of the 50 states, but some states have a lot more than others. New York is one of the leaders, with 123 active craft distillers as of August of 2017. But before all those distilleries opened, before the new Empire Rye category, before New York even passed its Farm Distillery law, there was Warwick Valley Winery and Distillery, the precursor to today’s Black Dirt Distilling.
The business started out as just Warwick Valley Winery, and it was a little different than those fancy joints in Napa you’re probably imagining. The seeds were planted in 1989 when co-founder and co-owner Jason Grizzanti’s dad bought an orchard in Warwick, New York, as a place to live. As a hobby, he replanted a small commercial orchard with several varieties of apples. It quickly morphed into much more than a hobby, growing to 30 acres of trees, and becoming a pick-your-own destination for tourists from around the Northeast.
“After that came the cider,” says Jeremy Kidde, Jason’s business partner and the other co-founder and co-owner of Black Dirt Distilling. Jason’s dad and a friend, both doctors, started making hard cider, eventually creating a brand (“Doc’s Draft Ciders,” naturally) and moving into distribution. Jeremy and Jason took over in 2002, investing in equipment like a bottling line and stainless steel tanks to ramp up cider production and improve quality.
“Back then, it was tough to get anyone in New York to try a New York product,” says Jeremy. “It was almost a negative. They’d say, ‘You make it in New York? Well I don’t want to try it. New York wines are terrible, so I have to imagine New York ciders are terrible too.’”
But fortunately for all of us, Jeremy and Jason persevered, and it turned out New York ciders were far from terrible. During their first year in business, they sold about 500 cases of Doc’s Hard Cider. Today, the brand sells 75,000 cases, and Manhattan represents the largest market.
But Jeremy and Jason had an inkling there was more to the property’s potential than wine and hard cider. As part of their New York winery license, they had the ability to distill fruit to make brandy and eau de vie, so they began experimenting with a small still they bought. In 2002, they began selling pear brandy, apple brandy, and some fruit eau de vie, making them the very first craft distillery in the state of New York.
Then, in 2007, New York State’s famous Farm Distiller license became available, which allowed them to use ingredients other than fruit for distilling. For the first time, whiskey was a possibility. “That license had a huge impact on the state and made a huge difference for us, because fruit brandies are pretty niche products,” explains Jeremy.
Right away, Warwick Valley Winery and Distillery applied for the license, which requires recipients to source at least 70% of its ingredients from New York farmers. Fortunately for Jason and Jeremy, their distillery is located in the heart of the Black Dirt Region, a zone known for its immensely thick and rich topsoil able to grow virtually anything. Finding locally grown grain was a cinch, and the quality was top-notch.
The farm distillery license set off a flood of new entrants to the market, many of which were strapped for cash. That meant they started selling lightly aged whiskey right away, sometimes as young as just a few months. Jason and Jeremy knew that wasn’t the path for them. “We really wanted to sell a properly aged bourbon,” says Jeremy. “We started making bourbon in 2008 when we first got the license, and we didn’t sell a drop of it until about 2012.”
Once they finally released it, Jason and Jeremy were astounded at the response. “Demand was beyond our initial expectations,” says Jeremy. “As soon as we released the first batch of bourbon and saw that demand, we went full steam ahead with the idea to start another company designed for whiskey and applejack.”
They officially founded Black Dirt Distilling in 2012, and today, it’s producing between 50 and 60 barrels of spirit a week, making it one of the largest distilleries in New York. Black Dirt uses a 60-foot, 18-inch diameter Vendome column still, the same brand used to produce most of your favorite Kentucky bourbons, albeit on a slightly smaller scale.
Even more significant, they’ve been able to up their local sourcing to 100%. All of the grain in every bottle of Black Dirt Bourbon is grown in the Black Dirt region of New York, even the malted barley. By partnering with their grower, Black Dirt helped built a maltery to make local malted barley, most of which goes to their distillery, with the remainder being sold to local breweries and other distilleries.
This year, we’re so excited to partner with Black Dirt Distillery to release a Taster’s Club exclusive single barrel bourbon made with Bloody Butcher corn, an heirloom variety associated with the Appalachians that’s gained a new fan base in the whiskey world. Its name comes from the bright red color of its kernels, and it gives the whiskey for a rich, earthy flavor. It’s also known for being challenging to grow and poor yielding, a fact that Black Dirt’s farmers lamented, at least at first. “They weren’t big fans of the process,” laughs Jeremy. “But they’re happy with the final result now that it’s aged.”
Considering the deep agricultural roots of Black Dirt Distilling, it’s pretty amazing to realize New York City is just an hour away. Jeremy says he loves hosting visitors from the city, and hopes to see Taster’s Club members come visit next time they get the chance. “We’re just a short ride from Manhattan,” says Jeremy. “And we always encourage people to come up and see us, take a tour, do a tasting. You can’t get the same experience without going to Kentucky or Tennessee.”