Building a Better Barrel at Olde York Farm Distillery & Cooperage
The DIY ethos is alive and well in craft spirits. Producers around the world are excited to tell consumers how they grind the grain themselves each morning, how they make cuts by smell and taste, and how they lovingly fill and label each bottle by hand. Yet few producers take that philosophy quite as far as New York’s Olde York Farm Distillery and Cooperage.
Located in the fertile agricultural zone of the Hudson Valley, Olde York Farm Distillery and Cooperage not only uses locally grown grain and other produce; it also makes the barrels many of its spirits age in. One part distillery, one part cooperage, and one part farmhouse retreat, this remarkable new distillery is dedicated to reviving Hudson Valley heritage, one handmade barrel at a time.
BUILDING ON HISTORY
In the beginning, the Newsome family simply planned to open a distillery. When they purchased property for the project along the Claverack Creek in the Hudson Valley, they knew it was historically significant. Bisected by the creek, this bucolic land is home to long-cultivated fields, century-old barns, remnants of an old mill wheel, and a historic home with classic New England architecture. “We felt like we were saving a beautiful old structure,” says co-owner Sophie Newsome. “But since then, it has become much more.”
While researching the history of the property, Sophie discovered that its original owner, Jacob Rutsen Van Rensselaer, had also operated a distillery nearby, and that one of his barns across the street had been a cooperage. That sparked an idea in co-owner Stuart Newsome, recently retired from a 40-year career in the construction industry. What if Olde York Farm made the whiskey and the barrels, too?
While the technical demands of making barrels might have scared off a less experienced woodworker, Stuart had the right skills for the job. A world-class carpenter, Stuart had first learned the trade at the tender age of 16 as an apprentice with the National Trust in London focusing on the restoration of historic properties. So, while the Newsomes waited for their distillery permits to come through, Stuart embarked on a side project: teaching himself to make casks.
Coopering, or the process of making barrels, looks simple at first, but Stuart quickly discovered he’d need all his skills—plus some new ones—to pull it off. Barrels are held together by nothing but the metal hoops on their exterior—no glue, no nails, no hinges. That means every piece has to fit together exactly right, or the piece will leak. Add in the subtle three-dimensional curves that make up a cask, and you’ve got a recipe for a carpentry conundrum.
“There were many challenges along the way,” explains Sophie. “For eight months Stuart worked on solving the puzzle of making a wood vessel that would hold liquid with no addition of glue or sealing agents. Many nights at the end of a long workday he would think that he was defeated and he would never figure it out. But by the morning he would have come up with a new idea and would be back in the workshop. Once we even built a tent in the un-heated barn and used electric heaters so he could continue working through the winter.”
The breakthrough came when Stuart traveled back England to visit White Rose Cooperage. There, he met a cooper who just so happened to be from his hometown of Bradford, who helped him figure overcome the last few hurdles. At last, Stuart created a liquid-tight barrel using only hand tools, achieving a months-long dream and opening a door to set Olde York Farm Distiller and Cooperage apart from other producers.
WHISKEY WITH A SENSE OF PLACE
The Hudson Valley is one of the most fertile regions in New England. Warm summers and rich soils make it an ideal place for growing orchard fruits, grains, and vegetables. Cold winters and springs mean it’s also one of the few places in the United States where tree sap syrup can be made, including maple syrup and black walnut syrup.
For Olde York Farm Distillery and Cooperage, regional products are a major inspiration behind the distillery’s bottlings. This month, for instance, we were thrilled to share a Taster’s Club exclusive bottling of Cooper’s Daughter Bourbon with club members. This very special bourbon is aged entirely in new, charred oak casks made by Stuart, and then finished in casks that previously held black walnut syrup—again, of course, made at Olde York Farm Distillery and Cooperage. The result is rich, nutty, and slightly sweet, with heady aromas of caramel, toasted walnuts, and dried cherries.
Old York Farm Distillery and Cooperage’s entire portfolio draws on similar influences. Flavored vodkas and liqueurs showcase local ingredients like lilacs, ramps, fennel, and rhubarb, while fruit makes an appearance in apple brandy and peach-infused whiskey. “We are lucky to have some of the most beautiful produce and grain in the Hudson Valley to work with,” says Sophie. “The better and fresher the ingredients, the more delicious the spirits are. Also, it’s better for the planet and the local economy.”
Located just two and a half hours’ drive from New York City, Olde York Farm Distillery and Cooperage feels a world away, and the thoughtful restoration of the historic buildings gives you the impression of stepping back in time. “Our tasting room is tucked away in an over 200-year-old barn next to the Claverack Creek and a cornfield,” says Sophie. “It truly feels like a speakeasy hidden away.” Artisan cocktails, snacks, occasional food pop-ups, and local beer, wine, and cider are all available on weekends, as well as occasional tours of the distillery and cooperage to marvel at Stuart’s low-tech workshop. For spirits lovers, history buffs, avid gardeners, committed woodworkers, and DIY enthusiasts alike, there’s something for everybody in this industrious corner of the Hudson Valley.
www.oldeyorkfarm.com 284 State Route 23, Hudson, New York. Open Friday 4 p.m. to 9 p.m., Saturday 12 p.m. to 9 p.m., and Sunday 12 p.m. to 7 p.m.