Sunday, December 21, 2008

Still Installation

It's been a pretty incredible week. Last weekend we started uncrating the still which was a major undertaking in and of itself. The actual installation started Tuesday morning under the guidance of our sales person from Bavarian Holstein. Andrea insisted that it wasn't going to be too bad, but I was not looking forward to taking heavy (200+ lb) pieces of copper up 20 ft in the air.

The whole process was exhausting, but proved to be a lot of fun, as well. Everything turned out fine and we tested the still for leaks before the end of the week. Ed and Cindy Atwill at Seneca Springs Resort provided just the hospitality we needed after long days at the distillery.

The equipment really is a piece of art and it looks fantastic in our gable window overlooking Seneca Lake. Take a look at the slide show below to see how it all went together.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Still arrives

Yesterday was a BIG day. In addition to getting septic approval, our propane tank installed, and water line bored under SR 414, we received a 4,000+ lb shipment. The centerpiece of our operation, our pot still and rectification column, arrived after a long trek from the Holstein factory in Markdorf, Germany.

It was a nerve-wracking day, as we had to pull 2 enormous crates off of a tractor trailer. Our excavation crew from KRP helped us get the largest (8x10x16') crate off. It took almost 6 hours to move the crates from the truck to our building.

We cracked open one of the crates and saw the copper column gleaming. Our next adventure will be erecting the still - hopefully sometime next week. More pics to follow.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Equipment move

We spent the weekend moving tanks and kettles over to the building in anticipation of setting things up over the next week or so. Big day tomorrow, as the still is set to arrive.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Getting the word out

I had an opportunity to speak to the Watkins-Montour Rotary Club yesterday about our distillery. Met some great folks, several that were very excited about our opening. We got some nice coverage in the Odessa File -

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Thomas Earl's Distilling 101 - Part 2

Last time we discussed the process of making our grape-based vodka. We also plan on making whiskey in a variety of styles. Where the vodka is distilled from grape wine, whiskey is distilled from a grain mash, at a much lower proof, so as to maintain the flavors of the grain.

The spirits category of “Whiskey” encompasses several different products, including:

Bourbon – Bourbon must be made from a mash of at least 51% corn, the remainder split between either wheat or rye, and barley malt. It also must be aged in a new charred oak barrel.

Corn whiskey – Corn whiskey must be made of at least 80 percent corn and can be sold without any barrel aging.

Rye whiskey – this is probably the oldest type of whiskey produced. Rye fell out of favor with the American public, but has seen a resurgence in popularity over the last few years. Rye must be made from a mash of at least 51 % rye grain, the remainder being corn and barley malt.

Canadian, Irish or Scotch Whiskey – These Whiskies are distinct to their countries of origin and subject to their respective laws regarding the methods for manufacturing them.

What is Malt?
Malt is grain (most often referring to barley, but can be other grains) that has been soaked to make it germinate. Then it is dried and ground. Malt contains enzymes that when added to cooked corn, rye, or wheat in a mash, converts the starch into sugar. The yeast then turns this sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide.

Our process…
We will bring in the raw whole grains from local farms. Some will be malted and dried or smoked in our malt kiln. We will then mill them into a fine meal. After milling, we will cook the grain in our mash cooker using water from the spring on our property. We will cook the grains to produce a thick starchy mash. As the temperature falls in the mash, we will add barley malt, to turn the starch into sugar. After the mash has cooled, we will put it into our fermentation tanks, and add our jug yeast, that has been previously prepared. After about 3 days of fermentation we will pump it into our pot still, where it is distilled and condensed making unaged whiskey or “white dog” as they say in Kentucky. We then cut it with spring water and age it in charred white oak barrels.

What sets our whiskey apart from other microdistilled whiskies?
There are a lot of whiskies being produced by microdistilleries today. We believe ours will be distinctive for several reasons. We intend to control most of the process ourselves by taking it from raw grain to finished whiskey, all onsite. We will avoid using commercial enzymes. We have also designed our still so that we can distill our whiskey in small batches using a true old fashioned pot still. Our methods will be more time consuming , but we will adhere to traditional methods and be doing true craft distillation.

Whiskey Fest

Earlier this week we attended Whiskey Fest in NYC. It was a great opportunity to taste some new product offerings and mingle with some of the legends of whiskey making like Parker Beam (Heaven Hill) and Jimmy Russell (Wild Turkey). We also attended a seminar on the art of Japanese whiskey held by Suntory. It was an incredible event and something we hope to be a part of in the future. Pictured below (l to r) are my dad, Bill, Thomas, and my Uncle Mike.

Building Update

It's been a busy couple of weeks - I apologize for not keeping up with the blog. Let's start with some of the latest construction photos. As you can see they are making a lot of progress with siding and sheetrock.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Edible Finger Lakes Magazine

On Friday, Thomas and I attended the launch party for an exciting new publication: Edible Finger Lakes. The quarterly magazine will feature stories about the local food scene in Central NY. It was great getting to know some of the folks involved in this movement and everyone seemed pretty excited about the distillery opening up.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Pagoda roof added

The builders recently added our cupola with pagoda top making our building even a little taller...

Sunday, October 12, 2008

More spirits from the Finger Lakes

Montezuma Winery (on the Cayuga Wine Trail) just opened their distillery - Hidden Marsh Distillery this past weekend. We wish Bill Martin and his family well in this new venture and look forward to collaborating with them to offer great distilled spirits from the region.

The Rochester Democrat & Chronicle ran a story on the grand opening and included a mention about Finger Lakes Distilling (and photo of our family).

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Thomas Earl's Distilling 101

Educating people about distillation - the process, science and tradition of distilling - is a big part of our game plan at Finger Lakes Distilling. This is the first in a series of blog posts where we'll try to enlighten our readers (and hopefully future customers) about the products we are going to be crafting. These informative posts will be provided by our Master Distiller, Thomas. So whenever you see his smiling face (below), class is in session...

We have had a lot of people say, "wow, we're excited about the new distillery. When will we be able to taste some of the wine you will be making?" We have to explain the difference between a winery and a distillery. A winery crushes and presses grapes and ferments them into a wine. We too will make a wine in the case of our vodkas and brandies. However, we will take it a step further.

The definition of distillation- to take a liquid and heat it to the point of evaporation and condense the vapor back into a liquid. Here at Finger Lakes Distilling we will make a wine from locally grown grapes, then put it into our column still. By heating the wine with a steam jacket surrounding the pot, it will begin to vaporize. Because alcohol has a lower boiling point (172 degrees) than water (212 degrees) the vapors at the beginning of the run will have a higher concentration of alcohol. That is how we can take a liquid like wine with around 12% alcohol up to spirit strength.

We'll implement a similar process with other fruit mashes and in the case of whiskey, with grain-based mashes. But we'll save that for next time.

Latest construction photos

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

1st Annual Great Grape Pick-a-rama

Our first harvest was held this past weekend. Who needs a grape harvester when you've got 35-40 friends and family members that are looking to enjoy a beautiful day overlooking Seneca Lake (free beer and food helps too)? Thanks to all of you that participated.

My cousin, Sarah, and Uncle Mike having a good time in the vineyard.

My mom, Carol, put in a good 5 or 6 hours of steady pickin'.

Thomas instructs the guys from NYC in proper grape pickin' technique.

Lisa Navone (far right) hanging out w/ the a group of McKenzies. From left: Erin, Aja, Jenny, Colin, and Lucie.

Brian, Bill, Thomas, and Pierce McKenzie (L to R) loading up the fruits of our labor.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Still is ready to ship

The folks at Bavarian Holstein have completed the fabrication of our custom still design and it will be shipping in the next week or so. We anticipate arrival of the still during the week of October 20.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Aspiring vineyard manager

My little girl, Lucie (left), and my wife, Jenny (right), stopped by to check out this year's crop. Lucie was happy with the Brix reading, as you can see.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Still in production

We received the first photos of our still yesterday. Everything is right on schedule to ship later this month. Below, you'll see pictures of the helmet, pot still, and sections of the rectification column. The still is being manufactured by Arnold Holstein GmbH in Markdorf, Germany. We'll post more photos as they become available.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Building taking shape

Lots of visible progress at the site this week, as our exterior walls are going up. We now have a sense for how the building will look on the property and the bottom picture gives you an idea of the great views we'll have from the tasting room floor upstairs. We'll post more next week.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Second string construction crew

A second construction crew has been working hard at the future site of the distillery - but don't worry, they won't be involved w/ the building of the facility. Under the tutelage of my uncle, Mike Matera, Thomas and I have been working on few side projects.

We began with the construction of a lean-to off of our shed. It will offer some shelter for our tractor and some day, our Highland cattle. Pictured below, our tractor in its new spot and distillery dog, Sadie, getting a little shade.

We started a more ambitious undertaking last week - the construction of our malt kiln. We plan to malt our own grains and have been discussing an outbuilding for drying and smoking our malt for some time now. As far as we know, we will be only the second micro-distillery in the U.S. to be malting their own grains.

As you can see, we are begining to make some progress with the shell of our building. When complete, we hope to be able to dry/smoke several hundred pounds of malt at one time. We'll keep you posted on our progress.

Pictured below are my Uncle Mike and Master Distiller, Thomas, inside the framed malt kiln.

Friday, August 15, 2008


Our grapes have begun the veraison stage - a french term for the onset of ripening, where the grapes begin to change color. The crop is looking good.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

More press

We continue to get interest from our initial press release. So far the following publications have picked it up, with many more looking at future pieces...

Elmira Star Gazette
Corning Leader
Ithaca Journal
Odessa File
Wine & Spirits Daily
American Distiller Newsletter
Foodservice East

and our most recent mention in the Central NY Business Journal - click here

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Equipment Road Trip

We just got back from a pretty exhausting road trip to pick up some production equipment. A week or so ago, Thomas spotted some used mash kettles for sale on the internet. We decided to jump on them and quickly scheduled an impromptu trip out to Indianapolis to pick them up ourselves. We figured we'd only be an hour or two from Louisville and since we'd have a little extra room on the trailer, why not pick up some bourbon barrels?

My good friend, Benny, was home that weekend for the Styx/Boston concert. I asked him to join us for the road trip and without hesitation, he agreed. As it turned out, we really appreciated having an extra rider with us, especially the additional laughs that Ben provided.

The problems started in Cleveland, when we discovered that one of the trailer wheels had come off without us realizing it. All of the studs had sheared. None of us had ever seen anything like it. It was a Sunday, so we spent several hours trying to find a new trailer tire, but most places were closed.

We ended up having to get the tire fixed on Monday, delaying our trip by a day. We picked up the kettles, as well as some other equipment that will come in handy. We shot down to Louisville for our barrels and unfortunately, had to miss a tour of Four Roses bourbon distillery (another stop on the itinerary we had planned).

After averaging about 55 mph through the hills of West Virginia, we returned Tues night. It was a long haul, but we accomplished what we needed to.

Below are pictures from the trip. From left to right, Thomas Earl, me, and Benny. The bottom picture is a shot of our cargo.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Construction update - foundation walls are in

In less than a week, Coots Concrete put up forms for our foundation, poured concrete, and took down the forms. We've also got drains in place for our production room. The builders have all of the wall sections built and ready to be assembled, so we should see the building framed up really soon.

Monday, July 28, 2008

In the news

"Wine Guy" Jeff Richards of the Elmira Star Gazette featured Finger Lakes Distilling in his column this past Saturday.

Read more:

Friday, July 18, 2008

Lucie and her grandpa monitor construction progress

My little girl, Lucie (8 mos old), visited the site with her grandpa Bill today. In the background is the trench dug for the water line.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Banker meets Farmer

In April 2007, while researching this business idea, my dad and I attended a conference held by the American Distilling Association, a trade group representing the growing micro-distilling industry. After arriving in Louisville, KY, we wandered down to the opening night mixer and encountered a number of M(a)cKenzies in attendance. There must be something in the McKenzie bloodline that draws us to the business.

One of the McKenzies was a particular character, Thomas Earl McKenzie, from Monroeville, Alabama. At the time, I could only understand about half of Thomas's comments (I've since started to talk like him). We hit it off immediately and after returning from the conference continued to explore a possible working relationship.

While I have spent most of my working career behind a desk in economics and finance, Thomas has hands on experience in farming and alcohol production, including winemaking, brewing and distilling. It was obvious to both of us that it was a good match. I could focus on the marketing, finance and legal aspects of the business, while Thomas could head up our production efforts. After spending more time with each other, however, we both realized that it wouldn't be so simple - Thomas has the brains and creativity to help with the business aspects and I also hope to help with production.

Thomas and his family (wife, Aja, and two daughters, Pierce and Erin) committed to the endeavor by moving to the area last winter. Since then, they have added a son, Colin, to the crew.

In developing this business, the people we've met with have taken a great deal of interest in the differences between our backgrounds. I guess it makes for an interesting story, but all I know is that we're having a blast getting this off the ground and we are both excited to offer only the best distilled spirits for our customers.

That's me on the left (I really don't like wearing suits anymore). Thomas Earl is on the right.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Temporary Site Launched

We're on the web at It's a temporary site for now. We hope to have more info online later this summer.

Our web development work is being done by Mike Schofield at Schof was one of my best friends growing up and has developed a great portfolio of design work in NYC.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Quick vineyard update

Grapes are in bloom. It's hard to believe with all the cutting back we did this winter, that we could get this kind of growth.