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Behind the Scenes at Harvest Spirits, Home of Cornelius Applejack and Core Vodka
When we talk about uniquely American drinks, bourbon gets most of the love, but if you really want to drink like a pioneer, you should be sipping applejack. This distilled product of hard apple cider may technically be a brandy, but it drinks and mixes like a whiskey, with oaky caramel and vanilla flavors coming through just as strongly as apple. Don't let the fruit base fool you: this stuff is fiesty enough to put hair on your chest.
Located on a small Hudson Valley farm in Valatie, New York, Harvest Spirits makes an especially fine rendition of the stuff, full of bourbon-like flavor but rounded out by the distinctive flavor of apples. They also make exceptionally smooth apple vodka (straight and in multiple flavors), multiple eaux de vie, and a couple other brandies—all with fruit from their family farm and others nearby.
"The fruit we use may not be pretty, but it's still sweet," says Peter Upstill, the assistant distiller at Harvest Spirits. Golden Harvest Farm, the home of the distillery, is primarily an orchard that also sells products like honey, non-alcoholic cider, and baked goods in their farm store. There are plenty of apples and other fruit that aren't pretty enough to sell, but they do make fine booze. "We're able to use products that would otherwise go to waste," Peter continues. "We're like the recyclers of the farm."
Golden Harvest Farm has been owned and operated by the Grout family for over fifty years, but Harvest Spirits is only a recent addition. In 2007, founder Derek Grout convinced his father to turn a cold storage room into a distillery so he could start making apple vodka. After amassing start-up capital for the project and purchasing distillation equipment from Germany, Harvest Spirits started selling their Core apple vodka in 2008, which won a best in class New York Spirits award in 2009.
Pear brandy made with pears from nearby farms followed soon after, after which they released Cornelius Applejack, which ages for two years in retired Kentucky bourbon barrels (almost all from Woodford Reserve) before bottling. Derek sees his line of apple products as something like tequila, calling the apple vodka his "silver" and the applejack his "reposado." He's also at work on a longer-aged applejack, the "anejo" to round out his line of products.
Derek and his tiny team are eager experimenters, infusing their vodka, applejack, and brandies with real fruit like peaches, raspberries, and—in development still—Washington state cherries. These flavors are far cries from most flavored vodkas that flood the market, with delicate layers of fruitiness that complement rather than overwhelm their apple base.
The experimentation doesn't stop there: jars of infusions-in-progress join the oak barrels that line the walls, with everything from cinnamon to black currant to "Christmas tree" to—wait, is that pig's ear? Yup. These aren't projects that'll necessarily make it to market, but they're artifacts of a madcap ambitious spirit that isn't inclined to quit.
Harvest Spirits' commitment to distilling and infusing with genuine fruit flavors comes at a huge labor price: on our visit, the distillery was making a batch of pear brandy, which is distilled from whole pear purée, not a refined cider. "It's a huge mess cleaning the pear gunk out of the still," Peter points out, but they find the end product well worth the extra work. "The best way to get the flavor out of the pear is to ferment it in the presence of the skins and pulp," Derek explains. The resulting mash is half as alcoholic as a more refined pre-distillation pear cider, but considerably more flavorful.
Current law forbids them from selling the apple cider they make on the way to distillation, but that'll change January 1st, and the company plans to sell hard cider from around New York State in their tasting room as they work towards making a brew of their own.
Harvest Spirits products are currently only available in New York State, where they're independently distributed. You can find them in bars and liquor stores along the Hudson Valley, in New York City, Long Island, and beyond. You can also visit their tasting room on the farm, which is open on the weekend from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. Their whole line of products is available right there as well—it's also the bottling center—$35 for a 750 ml bottle of the vodka, $40 for the applejack. Once they're legally able, they hope to also sell other New York spirits, cider, and beer on site as well.