The will to distill has been strong among humans for thousands of years. The Chinese were distilling a form of rice beer around 800 BC, while in the Asian subcontinent there is evidence of sugarcane and rice distillation. Distillation of wine began in the Arabian peninsula soon after. Around 100 AD, distilling arrived in Europe; when Arab techniques traveled there around the 8th century, distilling got even more creative and entrenched.
Distilling traveled to North America when in 1621 the Dutch West India Company brought settlers to occupy the islands that became New Amsterdam. The settlers brought their European tastes with them. Being industrious—and thirsty—it didn’t take long for booze to become business; the first commercial distillery in North America opened on Staten Island in 1640, reportedly making genever, a Dutch version of gin or applejack, American apple brandy.
The distilling industry has had its ups and downs in what is now New York, thanks to taxes, war and legislation. The British took over the colony and rum—a fermented and distilled by-product of the sugar industry—became popular, with about 19 distilleries in New York. Then, as now, no one liked taxes, and molasses and sugar taxes nurtured rebellion. After the American Revolution, wheat ushered in a Golden Age of spirits with whiskey as king, but the Civil War made for bumpy distilling times and later Prohibition (1920-1933) disrupted commercial production altogether.
Fast forward to the 2000s when New York State legislation loosened the costs of starting distilleries that focus on local ingredients and production. The craft beer industry was already going great guns, so makers were ready to explore these new possibilities.
Enter a new Golden Age of New York distilling, one rooted in the traditions of New York’s farm distillery past, but not afraid to push the envelope, experimenting with mashes, botanicals and barreling. On Long Island’s East End especially, the farm part is as important as the distilling part; innovators are bottling not just liquor, but the essence of the sun and the soil.
Fall and winter are Golden Ages of their own for spirits. As the weather turns cold, our thoughts turn to elixirs that warm the soul and make festive the holidays. And on the East End, three distinct distillers—each with a different spirit of adventure—are offering unique local tipples for sipping and mixing that distill not just local produce, but the spirits of holidays past, present and future, all at once.
The spirit is light-hearted at Montauk Distilling Company; mermaids, swashbucklers and dragons sweep across the walls and the big garage doors let in plenty of light at their tasting room at the Old Riverhead Fire House on East 2nd Street. A large glass window allows visitors to see the distillery where the magic is made.
“Everything gets made in house,” says general manager Danielle Danowski. “Everything is as local as possible. For the vodka we use locally sourced corn from Rutkoski Farm in Mattituck; the award-winning gin—which has 71 botanicals—uses locally sourced lavender and other botanicals.”
There is a family and friend atmosphere here; tables accommodate groups, while the bar encourages mingling and mixology. Danowski met her husband here, while tasting room manager and now bestie Melanie Austin was a customer before she joined the team. There is food and the crispest, sweetest local apple cider for little ones or nondrinkers.
That apple cider, from heritage growers 1760 Homestead Farm in Riverhead, exemplifies Montauk Distilling Company’s commitment to incorporating and showcasing as much local produce as possible. Fruit from 1760 is in the Boozy Apple Cider cocktail, the Boozy Ice Cream studded with chunks of apple pie and the Tunney Apple Redcap Bourbon, which spikes them with a kick. It is also key to the Apple Tunney Smash, a modern classic holiday cocktail with cider, ginger ale and fresh lemon.
The drive to small craft production is something founder Leucio Iacobelli inherited from his own family. “My dad and my uncle Dominic came from Campagna, outside of Naples,” he says. “When they came, they made their own wine. It was more economical to make a barrel than to buy wine.”
Fascinated by the evolution of wine from grape to glass, he wanted to try it himself. “The thing was, making wine is seasonal; it depends on the grapes,” he says. “But if I made rum, I could get sugar any time. That’s what prompted me to try distilling.” He works in financial services, but founded the distilling company in 2013 and brought on fellow financial services colleague and now partner, Thomas Joyce, in 2017. They opened the tasting room in August of 2020, and in addition to on-site sales, their rums, gins, and bourbon are sold in Rhode Island, Connecticut, Florida and New Jersey.
Iacobelli is not quitting his day job yet—but, he says, “At the end of the day, it’s fun. It’s really fun.”
Way out on the North Fork, the look in the Matchbook Distilling Company tasting room may be a clean, black and white nod to the modern farmhouse, but look closer at the bottles that stand sentinel across the shelves and find whispers of ancient alchemy, of dabbling with growing things, of softly bubbling reactions, of concoctions that glow with a light from within. You get why it is called the MDC Apothecary.
Matchbook Distilling Company, tucked on a side road in the residential blocks of Greenport, obeys the laws of physics, but defies convention or easy definition.
Calling itself “an R+D facility dedicated to bespoke production of spirits that champion agriculture, anthropology, tradition and science,” Matchbook is where science and imagination collide and wondrous elixirs spill out.
At the helm is co-founder and head distiller Leslie Merinoff-Kwasnieski. A descendant of Hiram Walker, whose eponymous liquor company dates back to the 1800s, she has whiskey in her veins. Add to that, her parents own a biodynamic farm in Vermont and have an artsy vibe.
“It’s an amalgam. Growing up in a creative home, I couldn’t have imagined what this would become, but in hindsight, it seems almost inevitable,” she says. “I started my first experiments pretty young with a mint champagne I fermented from grapes.”
She wanted to pursue civil engineering, but dyslexia got in her way, so she shifted to chemistry. She started working in Brooklyn for another distillery, but always knew that she would have her own operation one day. That day came in 2016 when she acquired the former marine parts warehouse on Corwin Street and began to build out the three existing buildings to be “deliberately inefficient.”
That means that—unlike big operations committed to huge batches of a homogeneous product—Merinoff-Kwasnieski can turn on a dime, or on a harvest, and run small batches of local produce. So if a bunch of local strawberries intended for vermouth runs into regulations that say vermouth can only be produced from wine grapes, the distillery can pivot and voilà! It can become strawberry amaro instead.
The deliberately unexpected is exemplified by the golden Field Trip Squash Amaro and its groovy label. Merinoff-Kwasnieski selected Boston Marrow Squash to work with. “I picked it randomly off Slow Food’s Ark of Taste because I read that it had custard butterscotch caramel flavors,” she explains. “I put in the request at Trieber Farms and they tracked down the seeds. They grew behemoth squash, bright orange, 40 pounds; so big that we had to help with harvest.
“We got them back here and had to figure out how to process them. I sawed them in half, scooped out the seeds and then I added a spice layer: cacao, cinnamon, cardamom, clove. The boiled squash was very vegetal, but I wanted to bring out the confectionary side.” There were more spices and blowtorches to caramelize and fermenting and more spices and barreling; in short, that combination of art and science that makes distilling so interesting and the results complex. The Squash Amaro has a passionfruit undertone and—while you can drink it alone—Merinoff-Kwasnieski suggests mixing it as you would a vermouth.
Each bottle at Matchbook contains a story. And underlying each story is a message. “Champion biodiversity, champion farms; champion the idea of working with your hands to make this,” Merinoff-Kwasnieski says. “It is an extraordinary amount of work, but the reward is capturing this natural world in this moment. So many people are doctoring flavors to mimic the natural world; the exhilarating part is not doctoring, but capturing the natural world in the bottle.”
Matt Beamer had been skiing and brewing beer in Utah for 25 years and joking about one day making potato vodka at Foster Farm in Sagaponack for 20 before the joke actually got real. Today he is the distiller at Sagaponack Farm Distillery at Foster Farm, playing around with whatever the farm grows, coaxing new spirits from surprising places as well as refining traditional spirits into something new and improved.
“My wife, Stephanie Brown Beamer, grew up in East Hampton; her family had settled there like 100 years ago,” Beamer, originally from Michigan, explains. “We met up in Park City, Utah, where I was a ski instructor. Her cousin was Dean Foster, from Foster Farm, so he met me as a home brewer and then I graduated into the profession. I said to him, ‘You’re growing potatoes; why don’t you make vodka?’ It was a running joke for 20 years.’
Then New York State started changing the restrictions, the Fosters wanted to preserve the land for farming and diversify the land use and the Beamers were ready to make the move. Beamer, founder of Park City Brewery and brewer at Wasatch in Salt Lake City, was known for foraging novel ingredients for beer and had already dabbled in distilling with friends; his experience gave him a leg up and he wanted to try something new. While still in Park City, the new colleagues planned the facility for starting up and for growth.
“We [Dean Foster and I] planned everything in the lobby of the Cliff Lodge in Snowbird [Utah],” Beamer recalls. “I had already built a brewery from scratch. So I built it around what I was going to need, but also with a footprint for growth.” Once he arrived in 2013, small scale experimentation started, in anticipation of further favorable New York State legislation that would come in 2015.
To make spirits, you have to have a carbohydrate-rich mash that will allow fermentation to happen. That was Beamer’s first challenge.
“I started mashing potatoes, but I didn’t really know how to break them down,” he says. Then the potatoes had much more flavor than he anticipated, so he played around with getting a more neutral spirit. And once he got the hang of things, more or less, he started to play.
“After a while I’d ask Dean and Marilee, ‘What are you growing? I think I can ferment that,’ so I started doing it with whatever they’ve got,” he says. “It was kind of a Mad Scientist Era while I started understanding the ingredients Dean was growing.”
The key to making his brand of world class spirits, he says, is the freshness. Unlike most any other farm distillery in New York—where 75% of the ingredients must be local—just about all Sagaponack Farm Distillery’s material comes from the farm right outside the door, or as they like to say, “From Seed to Glass, 100% Sagaponack.”
Ten years on from the Mad Scientist Era, Sagaponack Farm Distillery offers a complete line of traditional rye, gin, vodka and bourbon, but the adventurous madness persists. There is the surprise of a Scandinavian-style aquavit, a rhubarb liqueur, and a “Single Spud” line of heirloom potato-based spirits aged in a whiskey style. And then there is what Beamer says may be his favorite spirit ever: The Single Sweet—a sweet potato spirit that is devilish to get ready for the mash. “They are rock hard and when you peel they sometimes have weird shapes,” he says. “The yield is horrific; the first bottling was painfully small. And the next year we didn’t have enough.”
But all that effort to chase the idea is worth it, he says. “The result has an unbelievable richness; it’s this creaminess that envelopes your whole mouth. It’s really interesting stuff and I just want everyone to try it. It’s something special.”
Single Sweet and Sagaponack Farm Distillery itself are loops that tie together past and present: in fact, all three of these distinct makers are distilling history on heritage land, using heirloom crops in novel ways, preserving the past, capturing the present and building for the future.