By the time the Christmas chaos has subsided enough for you to read this, you’ll probably be starting to think about how you want to spend the turning of the year. Why not plan a sumptuous brunch for New Year’s morning? That nice bottle of Champagne that you bought won’t go to waste: You can use it to make mimosas – or even classier, a round or two of Kir royal (pronounced, and sometimes spelled, “royale”).
To do that, of course, you need crème de cassis. Unfortunately, most of the cassis on the market these days isn’t fit for much besides mixing with white wine or Champagne, or pouring over vanilla ice cream. Try drinking it straight, as a liqueur, and you may find yourself reminded of cough remedies. It’s often way too sweet, thick and syrupy; so that bottle is likely to sit on your liquor shelf gathering dust until the New Year rolls around again.
Luckily, we locals happen to have a cutting-edge, farm-based microdistillery in our midst – the first one authorized in New York State since Prohibition. And Tuthilltown Spirits in Gardiner comes to the rescue here, unveiling a brand-new artisanal beverage just in time for the holidays: Yes, it’s cassis – not only locally distilled, but also made from locally grown blackcurrants. Tuthilltown bought up much of the crop produced this year by Fishkill Farms, an organic Community-Supported Agriculture outfit in Dutchess County, and turned it into something really special.
For many decades, it was illegal to grow blackcurrants in New York State, because they are susceptible to a fungus that is lethal to pine trees and thus were considered a threat to commercial lumber production. But a horticulturalist living in Staatsburg named Greg Quinn made it his personal mission to have the silly law overturned, and in 2003 he finally succeeded. Since then, fruit-growers in the Hudson Valley have been experimenting with raising blackcurrants and trying to find ways to reestablish markets for what has become an unfamiliar fruit. It’s exactly the sort of challenge that would appeal to the folks at Tuthilltown Spirits, who have fought their own David-versus-Goliath battles to make New York State law friendlier to farm-based distilling operations.
I recently had the privilege of tasting this limited-edition cassis, and it’s not anything like what I’ve tried before. I won’t divulge the secret ingredient (don’t worry, it’s organic and safe); but the liqueur has a bit of a tannic edge, like red wine made with plenty of grape skins. It’s earthy, beautifully balanced, drinkable as is; I promise that you won’t be tempted to save it merely to soothe your next sore throat.
Since only about 500 bottles were produced, to acquire one you’ll have to pay a visit to the tiny Gardiner hamlet of Tuthilltown – the town’s original commercial center, by the old gristmill on the Shawangunkill where it empties into the Wallkill, just south of where Albany Post Road crosses Route 44/55. At $24 a bottle, it’s an excellent gift idea and well worth the journey.
Tuthilltown Spirits’ production manager Joel Elder assures me that, now that he has perfected the recipe, next year he plans to buy up Fishkill Farms’ entire blackcurrant harvest and make lots more cassis. But for the 2011 season, the new product isn’t being made available to liquor stores through the distillery’s usual distributors; it’s not even being touted on the website at www.tuthilltown.com. This is a special treat for those in the know only, who are willing to make a special trip.
While you’re there, you can check out all the other goodies in Tuthilltown Spirits’ ever-expanding rustic gift store. Besides the tee-shirts and hats with handsome graphics, whiskey-nosing glasses and oil lamps made from empty bottles of Hudson Whiskey, you can also find bottles of cheer for your most discerning friends, still filled with such award-winning potions as Hudson Four-Grain and Baby Bourbon, Corn Whiskey, Manhattan Rye and Single Malt, limited-edition Roggen’s Rum and Tuthilltown’s Heart of the Hudson Vodka, distilled from apples grown in local orchards.
When last we checked in with Joel Elder last summer, he was packing for a trip to the region of La Perche (where Percheron horses come from) in Normandy, as part of an international information exchange organized by the sustainable agricultural think tank the Glynwood Institute. La Perche is a hotbed of pomeau production, and one of the few places in the world with the centuries-old knowledge base required to produce true Calvados or apple brandy. Elder’s visit to France was the next step toward achieving Tuthilltown’s long-term mission of turning the Hudson Valley into an internationally recognized terroir for Calvados production.
According to Elder, both the Hudson Valley delegation’s expedition to La Perche and the reciprocal visit of a French team to this region were “phenomenally successful…Everyone in the US delegation learned the special nature of the processes used in France, and working together created a great sense of camaraderie.” In fact, before they left, the American visitors were inducted into La Commanderie Percheronne des Gouste-Cidre, the official fraternity of cider-tasters in La Perche.
Elder is a true believer in what Tuthilltown Spirits is doing, and it’s easy to prod him into telling you way more than you probably ever needed to know about the technicalities of what turns cider into world-class apple brandy. One of the basics is a return to the practice, once common in the Hudson Valley, of “growing fussy antique varieties of apples” that are too astringent for eating out of hand or pressing for sweet cider, but perfect for making beverages meant for grownups. Other trade secrets divulged by the French masters of the craft include slowing down the fermentation process by denaturing the apple pectin, thus removing some of the nutrients on which the yeasts grow. “More generations of yeast mean more varieties are involved, so one isn’t dominant,” Elder explains. “Different yeasts give different flavor notes and aromas.”
Diversification seems to be a key principle here, on many levels: Diverse varieties of yeast yield subtler-tasting fermented apple beverages. Greater genetic biodiversity yields apple varieties that make better hard cider. And diversification of income streams enables more family farms to stay in business through hard times. Sounds like a win/win situation all around.
Stay tuned for new developments from Tuthilltown Spirits, as the international apple brandy project moves ahead and other new products come online. If the 2012 cherry crop is significantly better than that of 2011 – which was mostly lost due to the unrelenting rain – we can expect to find “something like a Kirschwasser” on the shelves in the foreseeable future, says Elder. In the meantime, pick up a bottle of that fabulous new crème de cassis, mix it with a little bubbly and raise your glass to a fruitful New Year.