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The Great American Booze Tour, Pt. 1: Finger Lakes Distilling

by Jacob Brower, Wine & Spirits Professional


Let's begin with a hot take: Finger Lakes Distilling, located in bucolic Burdett, New York, is one of America’s finest craft distilleries—and has been for a long time. Sure, I’m biased by my nostalgia for the Finger Lakes, where I went to college, and for the distillery, which made one of the first bottles of gin I ever legally purchased, but even so their spirits speak for themselves. In fact, their McKenzie Wheated Bourbon—named for company founder and president Brian McKenzie—is by far our best-selling and staff favorite whiskey this year, by a long margin. It’s that good.


And yet somehow I’ve never visited before. In fact, before I pulled up in the driveway on Monday morning, I hadn’t been back to the Finger Lakes for over six years. Way too long. Finger Lakes Distilling is located on scenic highway 414, nestled between vineyards, cideries, and farm stands offering a variety of fresh produce—each with a more beautiful view of Seneca Lake than the last. The main building, which houses the distillery itself, along with a tasting room and outdoor bar, is relatively unassuming. Boxy and white, it’s crowned with a Scottish-style pagoda denoting its use as a whiskey distillery, along with a tall window that offers a view of the copper pot still as you walk in from the gravel parking lot.

Along with the gin I bought in college, I worked with FLD’s whiskies and brandies in Manhattan, but their wheated bourbon was released in late 2018, it had been awhile since I’d revisited any of their spirits. Even before tasting the whiskey, I was excited for it—wheated bourbons are still less common on the market than high-rye expressions, but some of the most sought-after and collectible commercial brands, such as Pappy Van Winkle and W.L. Weller (both distilled by Buffalo Trace) are wheated. For years, people have clamored over these obscenely marked-up bottles because they imagine them to be distinct or unique in style, but the whiskey itself tastes great for three main reasons: a high percentage of wheat in the mash bill, extended aging in large oak barrels, and bottling at a high proof to retain texture and complexity. Why couldn’t a craft distillery make something similar, or potentially even better?  


Some readers may be new to bourbon, so let’s start with the basics: a bourbon is a whiskey made in the United States from at least 51% corn and aged in new charred American oak barrels. It does not have to be made in Kentucky, despite the intentional misinformation spread by the big corporate distilleries in that state. Regardless of where a bourbon is produced, the high percentage of corn often results in sweet flavors, so many distillers rely on other grains—rye, barley, wheat, spelt, oat—to achieve a desired style or balance of flavors. Wheat, in particular, tends to add soft, rich notes of honey, nuts, and fresh-baked bread, while rye contributes assertive hints of baking spice and barley often adds flavors of cereal grain.


A second component is aging, but many misconceptions exist here too. Bourbon and rye are inherently different from most Scotch, which tends to be aged in used barrels rather than new oak. New, charred barrels that impart color and flavor much more rapidly, which can actually overpower a whiskey if left in barrel too long. Most bourbons and ryes that pass the fifteen-year mark become over-oaked and taste like little more than sawdust; however, misleading marketing means that consumers still clamor over these bottles and spend many hundreds of dollars on them, despite frequently negative reviews and middling opinions within the industry. For me, the sweet spot in a bourbon aged in traditional large barrels between four and ten years—with a few notable exceptions. Finger Lakes Distilling’s first release of wheated bourbon bears the ‘bottled-in-bond’ designation, meaning it was made by a single distillery in a single season under government supervision, and aged at least four years before bottling at 100 proof. If you’ve tasted it, you know it’s right in the sweet spot: an incredibly mature, complex, unbelievably smooth sipping whiskey offered at a reasonable price, without the 1000% markups you see on some of the over-hyped Buffalo Trace bottles. This, of course, is indicative of Finger Lakes Distilling’s whole approach—not just this one product.


Founded in 2008 and opened to the public in 2009, Finger Lakes Distilling is a New York State Farm Distillery, a government-regulated designation that means 100% of their agricultural products—both for use in distillation and also in service, even at their cocktail bar—must come from New York State farmers. It’s hard to imagine anywhere better than the Finger Lakes for a farm distillery, with grain farms dotting the same highway alongside orchards and vineyards. Brian begins my tour outside, where they receive shipments of grain and other produce before preparing it for mashing, cooking, and fermentation. The lion’s share of the grain they use comes from a farmer only two miles down the road, Brian told me, while the fruit for their pear brandy, grappa, and Cognac-style aged brandy also comes from local orchards and vineyards. This, if anything, might explain why New York boasts so many of America’s greatest craft distilleries—the access to high-quality produce is second to none. If you tour the bourbon trail in Kentucky, you’ll hear commercial producers like Heaven Hill—responsible for Henry McKenna, Elijah Craig, Rittenhouse, Evan Williams, and many other brands—brag about using grain from within 300 miles of the distillery. Finger Lakes Distilling, on the other hand, purchases local produce from within walking distance—and it makes a difference.


After the raw material is prepared—milling, mashing, etc.—it is brought inside to be cooked, and then moved to large stainless steel fermentation containers. “We work on one product at a time,” Brian told me, and it’s easy to see why: the distillery floor is about twenty steps long from one side to the other, and the limited space means production must be carefully planned out based on availability of raw materials and demand for particular products. Right now they are on “wheated bourbon kick,” working hard to produce more of what has been a surprisingly popular spirit. Brian warned me there will be a shortage coming up, with demand for the wheated bourbon far exceeding the quantities that were distilled and barreled four years ago. As if to emphasize this point, the wheated bourbon is not currently available for purchase at the distillery or even for tasting at the tasting bar—there simply isn’t enough left that’s ready to be bottled.


During my visit, there were three stainless steel fermenters full of wheated bourbon mash, each at various points in the fermentation process. Fermentation generally takes three to five days for whiskey, but because the distillery isn’t temperature controlled, changes in weather can shorten or lengthen this process—Brian told me that at least one of the containers would be ready for distillation the next day, while the others were probably another day away. Distillation happens in one of two different stills, depending on the product. When they opened, FLD had only a single copper pot still, which could handle distillation of one fermentation container per day, a fifteen-hour process. Today they also use a continuous column still for their bourbon and rye, which can distill twice the amount per day. (The pot still is used for vodka, gin, and an Irish-style whiskey.)


Next we walk across the lot to the barrel room, where racks of barrels are labeled with the DSP number, barrel number, spirit type, amount in gallons, date of fill, and proof. Brian favors large, 53-gallon barrels instead of the small, time-saving barrels popular among craft distilleries. Early on, they experimented briefly with alternative sizes, but found that the large barrels produced the best-quality spirit, so they’ve stuck with them ever since. The oak used here comes from the Ozarks, and is coopered in either Kentucky or Missouri; used bourbon barrels are put back into rotation to age malt whiskey, brandy, or other experimental distillates. Most barrel-aged spirits at FLD are barreled at 100 proof, which the team at FLD feel produces the best aging environment for the spirit to achieve balanced flavors and texture from exposure to the wood. Some products get proofed down before bottling, while others remain at the higher proof for the sake of texture and complexity, such as the wheated bourbon and all of their limited-release single barrel whiskies.


Among all the interesting spirits aging in the barrel room, two barrels in particular caught my eye: both were ex-bourbon barrels now filled with 31 gallons of single malt. According to Brian, FLD’s upcoming tenth-anniversary party will see the release of a ten-year-old American single malt, distilled shortly after they opened to the public—a remarkable accomplishment for an independent American micro-distillery. (Unfortunately, these will likely be a distillery-only product, so plan a trip upstate if you’d like a bottle!) There were also barrels labeled varietally, representing experiments with different types of corn and wheat, along with a barrel of peated malt whiskey and a barrel-aged apple brandy as of yet to be released, as well as experiments with different varieties of oak itself, rather than the standard American white oak.


We walk back to the main building, discussing some of our favorite craft distilleries along the way—other local standouts like Myer Farm Distillers, for instance, and Port Chester’s small Neversink Spirits—and passing dumped, used barrels which are stacked and ready to be sold to other spirits and beer producers for future re-use. Inside, we stop at the tasting bar, where Brian pours me a variety of their spirits, some available to us in New Jersey, others not. In addition to the wide range of whiskeys—high-rye bourbon, wheated bourbon, rye, and pot still—there are two gins, Riesling grappa, Cognac-style brandy, pear brandy, grape-based vodka, and even some contract projects where FLD produces vermouth and soju for other brands. In the tasting room, there are also limited-release single barrel whiskey offerings available at various points throughout the year; this week, they’re offering a single barrel three-year-old rye whiskey finished in a local doppelbock barrel from Lucky Hare Brewing. In the future some of these older, single barrel offerings should be available to retailers in the New Jersey market—and you can bet I’m after a barrel of wheated bourbon, especially given Brian’s prediction of an upcoming shortage of the standard bottling. 


Earlier in the tour, Brian and I stood watching the still and discussing the state of craft distilling in America—why, I wondered, haven’t craft spirits had the impact that craft beer had a few years back? Why are people still so loyal to the indistinct, industrially-produced, commercial brands, especially when they’re increasingly more expensive, rather than a better value? How many more ways will a new non-distiller brand—Bulleit, Angel’s Envy, Templeton—be able to market and sell yet another identical bottle of factory-distilled MGP bourbon or rye?


“There’s a lot of bullshit in this business,” Brian said. “But you know that.”

He mentioned a very popular East Coast bourbon and rye brand that purchases already-mature whiskey from Indiana before proofing, bottling, and marketing it as a New York product. “They brag about the limestone-rich water they use,” he laughed, “but that would only make a difference during the fermentation and distillation process. You want neutral water for proofing—so their main marketing point is actually a bad thing for making good whiskey!”

And yet it works, I noted. The brand is popular. People ask me for it all the time.  

“You can’t get too worked up about it,” he told me. “People will buy what they want to buy.”

All you can do, I theorized, is introduce people to a better alternative—real spirits, crafted from local produce, made by real people. So it’s a good thing we have Finger Lakes Distilling to enjoy.

Despite the upcoming shortage, we still have Finger Lakes Distilling’s ‘McKenzie Wheated Bourbon, Bottled-in-Bond’ in stock at both stores—check out the linked item below. And most of their other products—including the delicious rye, grappa, and aged grape brandy, are available for special order. Just give us a call!  



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Finger Lakes Distilling - 'McKenzie' Bottled-in-Bond Wheated Bourbon NV (750)
Finger Lakes Distilling - 'McKenzie' Bottled-in-Bond Wheated Bourbon (750ml)

An Amanti Vino staff & customer favorite! Distilled in Burdett, New York from locally grown corn, red winter wheat, and malted barley, FLD’s ‘McKenzie’ Bottled-in-Bond Bourbon is almost certainly the best core-range... Read More

Our price  $59.99
All sizes are 750mL unless otherwise noted.
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