I've always been a beer and wine guy. My liquor cabinet at home is a bit on the pathetic side. What I'm saying is that if you prefer only mixed drinks, avoid my invitations.
So, when I recently decided to visit the new distillery on Seneca Lake, I knew that I might not be the judge of spirits. But, Finger Lakes Distilling makes appreciation of spirits by the liquor-challenged extremely easy.
The brand-new tasting room is a marvel and one of the nicest spaces I've seen in the Finger Lakes. It features a wide open room with natural lighting, an illuminated, glass-looking boat hanging from the ceiling, and a long tasting counter. Giant windows frame the upper reaches of the recitification tower of the grand copper still that sits below the tasting room, complimented by an expansive view of the hills and lake beyond.
The brainchild of Brian McKenzie (pictured at right), an Elmira native, Finger Lakes Distilling is a craft distillery that churns out only a small fraction of the volume of a more traditional operation. McKenzie feels that small distilleries can focus on creating unique flavors by sourcing specific desired flavor components. In the case of Finger Lakes Distilling, anything that can be acquired locally, whether it be grapes or corn, is harvested from the Finger Lakes region.
And yes, grapes do enter into the equation. Distilling requires the conversion of glucose into alcohol through fermentation, and neutral spirits such as vodka can just as easily be made from grapes as grain or potatoes. In fact, the vodka offered at Finger Lakes Distilling retains some grape flavor which comes across well.
The vodka-based gin is fantastic, with a citrus-like focus that is razor sharp.
There are also a series of flavorful liqueurs for those who like to approach spirits from the sweeter side. My absolute favorite was the Cassis, although the Maplejack, an apple brandy sweetened with local maple syrup, is definitely the most unique and a real triumph of flavors.
The master distiller at Finger Lakes Distilling is Thomas McKenzie, who is of no relation to Brian. Thomas is a native of Alabama and a distiller by family tradition. He is comfortable using all kinds of ingredients in his creations since, in various other positions, he has gained experience as a brewer and winemaker as well. Brian and Thomas met a distiller's conference down South a few years ago and Brian convinced Thomas to take the distilling helm in a region that, so far, has not been on the map for anything but wine.
Like most any distiller, Thomas is most keen on his whiskeys, and hits just-released rye whiskey is very smooth and enjoyable. It has layers of complex flavors, with just a touch of mild spice on a buttery, almost caramel-like taste.
While I cannot claim a deep knowledge of spirits, I found the offerings at Finger Lakes Distilling approachable and very satisfying. I do have a strong familiarity with Finger Lakes operations, however, and I must commend Finger Lakes Distilling for creating a start-up that has such a beautiful facility, tasting room, and branding. I could hardly believe that the operation had been open for less than a year, much less conceived less than three years ago. It's come a long way in a short amount of time.
I will always be a wine guy, but I'm impressed with Finger Lakes Distilling and would recommend it to anyone, whether or not your liquor cabinet is as sparsely stocked as my own.