The Great American Booze Tour, Pt. 2: Myer Farm Distillers
by Jacob Brower, Wine & Spirits Professional
An industry friend told me last week that Myer Farm Distillers doesn’t really accept visitors. If that’s true, it’s not because they’re unfriendly, but rather because Joe Myer is a busy guy. In many ways, this is a one-man operation. From milling to mashing to scooping to fermentation to distillation and aging and bottling, he does everything himself, often doing without time-saving equipment because he prefers to work by hand. “It’s gotten easier since we stopped self-distributing,” he mentions. “I still work seven days a week, but now I try to take four hours off every Monday.”
I stopped by last week while Joe was making whiskey. A painter, writer, musician, and dairy herdsman originally, his family has deep roots in the town of Ovid, on Cayuga Lake’s western shore. The family’s ancestors were the first to formally settle here, way back in 1789, and are credited as the first to plow land in all of Seneca County. Their current farm has been in the family since 1868. Joe’s brother, John—the namesake of their range of whiskies—attended Cornell and has nurtured and managed Myer Farm using organic practices for over thirty-five years. He tends to hundreds of acres of corn, soybeans, winter and spring wheat, triticale, spelt, barley, rye, oats, clover, alfalfa, and small amounts of non-grain produce. For distillation, Joe uses about 10% of the family’s grain, while the rest are sold to local distillers, brewers, bakers, restaurants, and other businesses.
Despite farming this land for generations, the family distillery was founded recently, in 2012. When I asked why he decided to try his hand at making spirits, Joe smiled and said, “I wanted to take on a big project.” In his small space—a little under 5,000 square feet—production can be a challenge. Some work with the grain can happen outside, but the bulk of the process happens in one large, over-stuffed room—when it comes time to bottle, Joe has to rearrange everything just to make enough space! Currently he produces a range of whiskies—bourbon, rye, wheat, four-grain, and single barrel offerings of each, along with some flavored whiskey products, liqueurs, gin (unaged and barrel-aged), vodka, and flavored vodka. The raw material for each product comes from the family farm, and anything they don’t grow themselves is sourced from neighboring farmers.
Fermentation takes place in large plastic containers, and usually takes seven days—although the fermentation is not temperature controlled, the building keeps the process consistent. Unlike Finger Lakes Distilling, Joe uses one still to create all of his distillates, though it can be applied in various ways to make different types of products. His barrels come from Minnesota and are stored on racks in the same room where fermentation, distillation, and bottling all take place. Since the beginning, Joe has used 30 gallon barrels—larger than the 5-gallon mini barrels many craft distilleries use to blast young whiskies with color and flavor as quickly as possible, but smaller than the 55-gallon barrels that are considered industry standard.
“I thought about trying larger barrels once we’d been around long enough,” Joe said, “but I didn’t feel that the whiskies I was making were over-oaked, so it didn’t make sense to change.”
In many ways, this is a perfect snapshot of the Myer Farm Distillers ethos: Joe makes what he likes, what tastes good, rather than worrying too much about what the market demands or what consumers might be most familiar with. At one point during our conversation, he asks me if I’m familiar with ‘Empire Rye,’ a recent New York state consortium of craft producers crafting rye according to strict standards, not only in the sense that the grain must come from New York, but also in what percentage of the mash must be rye (the legal requirement for rye whiskey is only 51%, whereas Empire Rye is much higher), as well as distillation and proofing requirements concerning alcohol by volume. While many consumers see the term ‘Empire Rye’ as an indication of quality (and small-production), Joe finds it limiting by its very nature.
“I don’t like marketing,” Joe says. “And even though a lot of the producers making ‘Empire Rye’ make good whiskey, those words being on the bottle don’t necessarily mean it’s going to be a good product. Or that it tastes the same as another ‘Empire Rye.’”
Joe’s rye whiskey doesn’t qualify for the ‘Empire Rye’ designation, simply because the 71% rye in his mash-bill isn’t a high enough percentage for the newly created rules. And yet, Myer Farm’s rye comes from organically-farmed grain grown entirely by Joe’s brother in Ovid, a Finger Lakes town their family helped found. What is that if not an authentic New York rye?
Similarly, we discuss the recent trend toward bonded bourbon. The ‘bottled-in-bond’ label has come to represent a level of quality to some consumers, when actually it just means the product was distilled in a single season by one distillery and aged at least four years before being bottled at 100 proof. As an end product available to consumers, the variation quality among ‘bonded’ bourbons and ryes is enormous. And just because Jim Beam or Heaven Hill produces a bottled-in-bond product, that doesn’t suddenly make it a craft whiskey—it’s still mass-produced in great quantities by the same distillery that makes all their other products. It could be good, or it could be terrible.
Later, I ask Joe if there are any of his distillates that he loves but don’t sell particularly well. He mentions his 100% wheat whiskey and his four grain American whiskey, products that don’t neatly fit into a familiar category such as “bourbon,” “rye,” or “single malt.” Both are delicious, both are distilled from family-farmed grain, but because the labels don’t offer familiar terms, the average consumer might not pick up a bottle.
“People don’t always understand what ‘wheat whiskey’ even means,” Joe mentions. I nod—in my experience, many people don’t even realize that bourbon, rye, and Scotch are all types of whiskey. I’ve been asked for “American scotch,” and I’ve also been told that someone enjoys bourbon but "doesn’t like whiskey." (Don’t even get me started on the “Doesn’t bourbon have to be made in Kentucky?” question.) Thanks largely to the smoke and mirrors of the larger commercial brands, public knowledge about the differences between these categories is limited. As a result, the familiar categories are popular because people feel that they know what they’re buying.
But then again, a bourbon could be made from 51% corn and 49% wheat, or 51% corn and 49% rye. Or it could be a complicated mash-up of corn, barley (malted or unmalted), rye, oats, spelt, wheat, you name it. Plus you can use different varieties of any of those grains for different flavor profiles, just like wine. At the end of the day, the familiar categories are so broad that they’re hardly meaningful. Bourbon doesn’t taste one way. Rye doesn’t have either. And whiskies distilled from other grains, or unusual blends of grains, deserve just as much of your attention as the more well-known categories. All that should matter is quality. If the 4-year-old single barrel four-grain whiskey I brought home with me from the distillery (or the empty bottle of single barrel bourbon on my counter at home) is any indication, then Joe's doing something right!
Whether it’s single barrel bourbon, botanical gin, or any of the other products available from Myer Farm Distillers—some are only available at the distillery!—these are truly hand-crafted, small-batch spirits that tell the story of a family that’s been part of the Finger Lakes for well-over 200 years. You could spend your hard-earned money on commercial, mass-produced products like Blanton’s, Angel's Envy, Woodford Reserve, or Basil Hayden’s—the list goes on and on—or you could support the work of a talented, incredibly focused brother and brother farmer-distiller team making what I firmly believe to be a superior product. We've hit a point where the average person cares about where his or her food comes from and how it's produced, so why not the grain in the whiskey you plan to sip?
You can find Myer Farms Distillers ‘John Myer Single Barrel Bourbon’ and Myer Farms Distillers Gin at our locations in Montclair and Morristown, or online using the item links below. Other Myer Farms Distillers products are also available for special order. If you’re in the Finger Lakes, please take some time to visit the lovely tasting room and take a peak at Joe hard at work in the distillery. You won’t regret it!