A ‘Sommelier of Spirits’ and New York State’s Craft-distilling Scene

This article was published in the August 2015 issue of the Irish American News under the “Guilty Pleasures” column.

It’s time for a summer road trip to New York State, where we’re going to explore their booming craft spirits scene. Expert and author Heather Dolland is in her element talking about spirits, the “farm to glass” movement and the successes and triumphs of using locally grown products.

According to Dolland, Washington State leads the craft spirits movement—which primarily includes whiskey, bourbon, gin and vodka—but New York State isn’t far behind. “I believe that much of why New York State is becoming prominent in the craft spirits arena is as a result of changing laws and legislation. New laws have made it easier to sell local spirits and build a sustainable business. Laws allow distillers to sell at their facility as well as conduct tastings of each products and create cocktails,” she said.

Dolland’s love for eating and drinking local comes from a deep tradition of growing up with her grandmother cooking fresh bread and Caribbean-influenced food. “Saturday evening, everybody showed up at Grandma’s house. It was a whole community of food,” she said. Later, Dolland spent more than eight years as a brand ambassador for a number of premium wine and spirit companies before embarking on her tour of New York State’s distilleries.

In order for a spirit, like gin, to be considered locally crafted in New York State, “more than 75 percent of the raw ingredients need to be sourced from local farmers,” said Dolland. Some farmers simply sell their raw materials to distillers; others are farmer distillers thanks to The Farm Distillery Act that was passed in 2007 that allows famers to create their own liquors.

Although the distilling laws are important, food, community and family remain central to Dolland’s reason for sharing the stories of the distillers. Hudson Valley Distillers, one of the 30 that Dolland visited, opened last March on a small farm and apple orchard in Clermont, New York. The owners, Thomas Yozzo and Chris Moyer, are life-long friends and make an effort to source their raw materials, like corn, within a five-mile radius of the distillery. They even make use of their orchard, using cider in their Sprits Grove Vodka.

“What stands out to me is their commitment to sourcing their natural ingredients locally. They are also taking the opportunity to make their distillery a destination where you can come to enjoy the beauty of your surroundings while supporting a local business and this budding industry,” said Dolland.

Hudson Valley Distillery

Owners, Thomas Yozzo and Chris Moyer, who are life-long friends, make an effort to source their raw materials from within a five-mile radius of their Hudson Valley distillery (Photo credit: Dave Ashby)

Over the course of touring the distilleries, she developed an acute knowledge of the differences between the flavors and the influences of the raw ingredients on the finished product. “I can differentiate between a New York rye whiskey versus a Tennessee whiskey,” Dolland said.

Many years after those days in her grandmother’s kitchen (where most often during the Christmas season adults sipped Sorrel, a white rum drink from the Caribbean islands), Dolland’s love for the spirits movement continues to grow, but she never imagined she’d write a book about it. “I tasted my way through writing this book,” said Dolland.

She certainly didn’t expect to become a ‘spirits sommelier’ either. Much like a wine sommelier would get certified, Dolland is studying to be a Certified Specialist of Spirits. She pays close attention to subtle flavors, knowing that everyone has particular likes and dislikes when it comes to spirits.

Asking for a drink recommendation to pair with a dish comes down to what you like, she advised. “For me, marrying whiskey with anything that is smoked or barbequed is a homerun, because you have the smokiness and spiciness of the whiskey married with the same elements in meats. The meat can hold up to the complexity of the whiskey. To me, that’s a dream.”

For her guilty pleasure, Dolland goes back to her roots: Roti. “To get a visual, think of a burrito. It’s typically made with a curried meat, chickpeas, potatoes and many spices. It is a carb-loaded meal. I don’t eat it often given that I love to eat and drink as much as I do, but whenever I go to neighborhoods that have large Caribbean populations, I always try to find my way to a roti shop.”

To learn more about Dolland’s journey through New York, pick up a copy of her book “Discovering the New York Craft Spirits Boom,” which chronicles the lives of 30 craft distillers from Brooklyn to the Finger Lakes.

Basilberry Buzz cocktail by Hudson Valley Distillers.

Basilberry Buzz cocktail by Hudson Valley Distillers.

Basilberry Buzz 

By Hudson Valley Distillers
1 1/2 ounces Spirits Grove Vodka
1-2 large fresh basil sprigs
1/4 cup strawberries
splash of simple syrup
1 ounce lemon juice
3-4 ounces chilled soda water

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