Distilling freedom: Eight Buffalo Spirits eager to set trend - INTERVIEW
blog by Ben Tsujimoto • March 04, 2013 @ 12:14pm
Craft distilleries nearly met an unceremonious death in New York State throughout the final years of the 20th century, as local liquor-producing entrepreneurs couldn’t afford the $50,000 licensing fee that confronted any aspiring distiller—giant national corporation or tiny craft start-up alike.
Major brands like Absolut, Smirnoff, Jack Daniels and Jameson weren’t deterred by the licensing fee, however, and ruled liquor shelves throughout New York State and much of the country.
In fact, a legal distillery has not existed in Buffalo since Prohibition. Let that sink in.
While the rationale for blocking local attempts was due to regional political differences—distilleries boomed in southern states like Kentucky for decades and returned to the progressive West Coast long before the east—progressive laws over the past decade have paved the road for local distilling in New York State.
For a frame of reference, New York Distilling Co.‘s Tom Potter, a key figure in the 1980s craft-beer movement and founder of New York City’s Brooklyn Brewery, compared the current status of distilling in Western New York with the micro-brewing surge of the late 20th century (via DailyFinance.com). Here’s a quick excerpt:
Some analysts have argued that small-batch distilling in America is roughly where microbreweries were in 1985, but Potter disagrees. ‘Actually, it’s more like 1988,’ he laughs. ‘In 1986, I attended a craft brewer’s convention in Portland. At the time, there were 25 small brewers from all around the country. They represented all the breweries out there.’
By comparison, he sees today’s microdistilling industry as much more robust: ‘Every major metropolitan area has a distillery up and running, and many cities have more than one.’
A new tier of New York State law was passed in 2002, lowering the blanket fee of $50,000 to a more reasonable $1,450 for start-up distilleries. Then, spurred by the relentless appeals of Hudson Valley distillers like Tuthilltown Spirits, former governor Eliot Spitzer signed the Farm Distillery Law in Aug. 2007, broadening the scope of distilling freedom.
NY ABC Law 61 not only strengthened the bond between local farmers and distilleries—both parties benefited mutually by sharing products, while the state collected more tax money—but it also broke down the law into “Class A” through “Class D” licenses with specifications for each.
Capitalizing on the relaxed laws and acknowledging that Buffalo needed to join the trend that’s already reached Rochester and Elmira, long-time Buffalonians Niko Georgiadis (pictured left in header) and Chad Vosseller (pictured right at top), combined with the efforts of Jon Mirro and Thomas Jablonski, embarked on a quest to bring distilleries back to Buffalo in the form of Eight Buffalo Spirits, 255 Great Arrow Dr., Buffalo.
The process of manufacturing alcohol was introduced to Georgiadis at a young age—he watched his father experiment with making wine—while East Aurora-born Vosseller developed a fascination with whiskey and darker spirits, luring him into the methodology and science behind liquor’s creation. Without the financial means to pursue his shared hobby, however, Georgiadis worked in several Western New York restaurants, while Vosseller was (and continues to be) a full-time partner with ACE Flag.
Niko began executing the idea in Dec. 2011, researching the state permit process and, when he realized that a physical location was required to apply for the permit, signed a lease in the Pierce Arrow Commerce Park in April 2012.
Complying with federal and state regulations included a number of individual fees, background checks and even fingerprints (roughly $600 altogether), but the tedious process was preferable to the previous $50,000 license fee.
“It’s not like we’re opening a lemonade stand,” Georgiadis said with a smile, referring to the hoops that Eight Buffalo Spirits had to jump through to make their dream a reality.
Since entering the business is cheaper for “Class D” distillers, certain restrictions exist—many of which actually benefit Buffalo. Eight Buffalo Spirits must purchase its grains from Western New York farms, a prime example of the local sourcing that’s been raging across the country for the last few years.
In addition to cooperating with local farms, Georgiadis, Vosseller, Mirro and Jablonski will invite consumers to tour their third-floor office in the cavernous and historic Great Arrow Building (see the cool picture of Buffalo mounted on the brick wall, below), where interested groups can watch the art of distilling before purchasing a bottle and a quick recipe guide on the way out.
While working with a local distributor is not out of the question, a lot of Eight Buffalo Spirits’ early sales will be to local bars, liquor stores, on-site consumers and—thanks to New York State governor Andrew Cuomo—at farmers’ markets and fairs. Vosseller is committed to featuring organic grains, too, which should even further bolster the advantages of locally-grown products.
“We want to instill a sense of local pride,” Georgiadis stated. “We think every bar and liquor store owner will want to have this [in stock].”
As a whole, though, the draw for both partners into the distilling business is its blank canvas for experimentation and imagination.
“There are a lot of black magic things,” Georgiadis explained, “lots of variables to manipulate even though you’re starting from the same simple ingredients.”
Don’t let the term “black magic” sway you; distilling is a science that demands investment, high-quality equipment, a detailed plan and plenty of patience.
Vosseller mentioned in our meeting that he falls asleep each night reading intently about the distilling process and various liquors that local distillers have produced—through books, online articles and forums—but he refused to share the literature he’d absorbed. Perhaps it’s a little “black magic” when the trade is top-secret.
The spirit-creating process of “mash, ferment, distill” sounds simple until you see the equipment (pictured throughout this post) and grapple with the chemical processes that transform natural ingredients like corn, water and yeast into the harsh bite of whiskey or the smoothness of rum.
There’s heating and cooling, vapors and liquids—concepts that bored you in grade school but fascinate now as you sip a whiskey on the rocks and wonder, “How the hell did this happen?”
Georgiadis and Vosseller explained the Cliffnotes version of distilling to me, and my head spun as I tried to remember the difference between a “Mash Tun” and a reflux still, as well as why yeast consumes sugar and alcohol before killing itself off. Apparently it’s not quite as morbid as it sounds.
Your best bet to learn the process? Visit Eight Buffalo Spirits shortly after its tentatively-set May opening. The local business anticipates that money will be hemorrhaged in the first year—at the minimum—due to the quality and price of their starting equipment. At least there’s an office dartboard to release some of the expected frustration.
For now, it’s just Georgiadis and Vosseller handling the operations, with Mirro handling marketing duties and Jablonski keeping business affairs in line. While staff expansion is an eventual goal, the partners will control the business—with an intern hired in the coming weeks.
By visiting this summer, you’ll learn facts like how rye, a grain used often in gin or whiskey, flourishes as a “cover crop” in cool seasons—Buffalo has three of those—or how a great scotch may take 12 or more years to cultivate. Vosseller dreams that Eight Buffalo Spirits will advance to the stage where they can create a gin or single-malt whiskey, and perhaps those days aren’t that far into the future.
Until then, the three partners will continue to refine their distilling techniques and determine what should be created first—Vosseller hinted that an all-grain vodka would be the first produced, with a barrel-aged whiskey in the works as well—even though that may take more patience.
“It’s incredible what the barrel does,” Vosseller said while staring at the oak cylinder sitting in front of him. “It gives so much more complexity in flavor—vanillas and oaks—and the oxidation process mellows [the whiskey].”
The two partners noted that they’ve been in discussion with Vera Pizzeria cocktail masters Cameron Rector and Jon Karel, and Eight Buffalo Spirits has gleaned a fair amount of advice from the Lexington liquor wizards.
“[Vera] started a trend in Buffalo, and they [and others following suit] represent the final [part] of what we’re doing,” Vosseller said, pointing to the logical connection of a local cocktail bar vending locally-produced liquor.
“These are things that people said wouldn’t work in Buffalo, and they’re starting to happen.”