You’re probably already aware of the farm-to-table movement and all of its benefits to small-scale farmers, the environment, local economies and, well, your taste buds. Aside from the idea that fruit that hasn’t travelled 1500 miles might taste better, when you buy your apples from the farmer’s market or have a slice of pie at a restaurant that touts locally grown ingredients, you know your money is going to support a good cause. It’s a nice feeling. But there’s more than one way that you can help support local farmers: Make room on the table for the farm-to-flask movement. Thanks to some trailblazing individuals who fought for changes to Prohibition-era laws that remained on the books, there’s a craft distillery boom providing a new revenue stream for small farmers across the country.
Americans have had a long and complicated relationship with alcoholic beverages. Early settlers viewed alcoholic beverages as a regular staple – in fact, a safer alternative to drinking water at the time. Almost as soon as settlers arrived on the continent, they were planting apple trees, not so much for eating, but for drinking. They also brought with them the English tradition of putting up cider in wooden barrels for winter fermentation. Early on, hard cider became the preferred drink, and by the turn of the eighteenth century New England was producing over 300,000 gallons of cider a year. Then, in the early twentieth century, the temperance movement turned the whole attitude toward alcohol on its head. In 1919, the Volstead Act dealt a blow to distillers, brewers, and spirit-makers of all kinds, banning the sale of all alcoholic beverages.
Among the casualties of the era, orchards growing apples for cider were burned to the ground by prohibitionists. Even those that were spared became useless; farmers had to turn to sweeter “dessert” apples to survive. New York, home to hundreds of distilleries, suddenly had none (or at least not legal ones).
The act was repealed in 1933, of course. Yet until recently, many state laws continued to hamper anyone looking to get into the business (or pick up where they left off) with astronomical license fees, restrictions, and stiff regulations. Recently, with the rebirth of the appreciation of craft in other food businesses like cheese-making, people once again began to dream of distilling small-batch spirits. These dreamers turned themselves into lobbyists and were instrumental in getting laws changed and making them more beneficial not only for themselves, but for growers who wanted to distill their own fruit. Suddenly, artisanal distillers started popping up in states that didn’t have a single one since before the prohibition. According to The Craft Spirits Data Project research initiative, the number of craft distillers went from 21 in 2000, when many of the old laws were still effect, to 1,315 as of last summer. Many of them are in the Hudson Valley and they’re garnering awards for everything from bourbon and gin, to pear brandy and hard cider.
You may ask how exactly does all this make the world a better place? Elizabeth Ryan, a renowned Hudson Valley fruit grower and cider maker, bought her first apple orchard in 1984. Ryan, who sells her apples and makes fresh-pressed cider and hard cider, says distillers offer fruit growers another revenue stream from their product if something should go wrong. “A crop can be lost in minutes due to a hail storm or a freeze,” Elizabeth Ryan, a Hudson Valley fruit grower and cider maker told me. “But those disfigured apples can still be made into cider.”
Orchards and farms in places like New York’s Hudson Valley are under enormous pressure from land developers. Some have been family-owned for generations, but they are sitting on land worth millions of dollars to real estate investors. Due to the vicissitudes of climate, which of course as we know is getting even more erratic, farming is a very difficult affair. Some owners are succumbing to the temptation of selling their land. But losing a three-hundred-year-old orchard to a development is a tragedy many, like Elizabeth Ryan, are working hard to avert. Saving these small farms and orchards is every bit as important as saving wild places. “I’ve been told by my lenders that it’s a bad business decision not to cash out your land for houses,” Ryan told the New York Times in a recent article. “Why do we do this? Because we love it, because we believe in it, because there is a joy and satisfaction in growing healthy food for people. It’s not just the direct nourishment of getting an apple, but the support and other forms of nourishment that come along with community, people getting together, people eating together.”
Relatively recent laws like New York’s Farm Distillery Act of 2007, have made it possible for farms to be become full-on distilleries, and have also encouraged distillers who use local ingredients. This has been key to supporting sustainable practices and agricultural diversity in the region. Farmers are adding more cider-friendly varieties in addition to their dessert apples. The fourth generation owners of Dressel Farms and Kettleborough Cider House in New Paltz are growing nearly two dozen varieties with colorful names like Esopus Spitzenburg and Brown Snout, many of them virtually extinct since the days of Prohibition. When owner Tim Dressel began making hard cider, he wasn’t able to find any of the recommended European varieties at local nurseries. Apples considered good for cider are often too bitter for eating. Dressel finally managed to locate three American Heirloom varieties to add to his orchard. “What makes these apples good for cider,” he says, “is their flavor and slight bitterness.”
As more producers open tasting rooms on their premises, locals and tourists alike are taking tours, sampling cocktails, and falling in love with the bottled essence of the orchard. Restaurants are starting to add beverages to their roster of locally made menu items. And a number of distillers and farmers are even opening their own restaurants. Not too far from Tim Dressel’s cidery is Tuthilltown Spirits, famous for award-winning spirits like Hudson Baby Bourbon, which is getting even more attention now for it’s on-site restaurant, Tuthill House at the Mill. Thanks to individuals with vision who worked to change governmental policy, distilleries are strengthening local economies, and helping growers hold on to their small, family-owned farms. We can all help by seeking out products made from locally sourced, sustainably harvested ingredients.
When New York mixologist Nata Traub won Slow Food’s cocktail competition last fall with her locally sourced drink, Hot Off the Press, she gave a shout out to Hudson Valley. “Rethinking traditional local products for use in cocktails is something our forefathers and mothers could never have imagined,” she says. “Not only does it reinvent the palate but it adds the most important ingredient – support for the community.”
Hot Off the Press Cocktail
1 1/2 ounces of Cornelius Applejack (Harvest Spirits)
1 ounce of Hudson Manhattan Rye (Tuthilltown Spirits)
1/2 ounce of Ginger Syrup*
1/2 ounce of freshly squeezed lime juice – approx. 1/2 of a lime (Reserve the peel for garnish.)
Several dashes of Scrappy’s Cardamom Bitters
Into an old fashioned/low ball glass add the ginger simple syrup, lime juice, and bitters. Fill with ice cubes. Add the Rye and Applejack. Stir with a mixing stick. Garnish with a lime twist coiled around a cinnamon stick.
*To make the ginger syrup:
4 ounces of water
4 ounces of Hummingbird Ranch Raw Clover Honey
1/8 cup of fresh grated gingerroot
Place ingredients into a pot, bring to a boil, stirring occasionally and simmer for approx. 5 minutes. Remove from heat. Let cool and strain. It can be stored in a jar in the refrigerator for about one week. Makes approx. 4 ounces.
Note: A version of this article originally ran as a blog post on the website, StonePierPress.org.