What does a small batch distillery look like? This is most of it. The room used to be a cold storage chamber for the farm's produce, but Derek convinced his father to turn it into a distillery, and raised the capital to purchase all the equipment. Harvest Spirits sold its first product, Core apple vodka, in 2008.
The apple vodka and applejack are made with a rotating blend of apples grown by the farm. When selecting apples to distill, Derek looks to balance sweet and tart flavors, which make for a smoother, more rounded drink.
Bad weather has led to a shortage of apples all around upstate New York, which cideries and distilleries like Harvest Spirits have felt acutely. But farmers and communities have pulled together, sharing stocks to keep production going. So even if the apples going into current batches of Harvest Spirits apple products aren't made with apples from their farm, they aren't coming from too far away either.
The farm doesn't grow the pears for its brandy and eau de vie (same for the grapes for their grappa), but they purchase from nearby farms. It's a win-win, as distilling is a great way to use up less-than-pretty fruit that might otherwise go to waste. The distillery makes two pear brandies: an aged version and a clear eau de vie. Unlike the apple spirits, the pear spirits are made with puréed pears instead of a more refined cider.
Here's the tank where cider is fermented into the hard stuff. Harvest Spirits uses a Champagne yeast to kick off the fermentation and lets the cider ferment for a week before distilling.
The hard cider (or in the case of our visit, hard pear mush) then runs through the still—twice for the brandies and applejack, and three times for the vodka.
A batch of fermented pear mush on its way to becoming brandy. Using puréed pears instead of pear cider is "a huge mess to clean out," says assistant distiller Peter Upstill, but they think the results are well worth it. Skins and pulp add extra flavor to the final product.
Each distillation is run at a specific temperature. The pear brandy cooks at 103°C.
The applejack is proofed to 60% alcohol, then aged in used bourbon barrels for two years, which gives the spirit a distinct bourbon flavor. Harvest Spirits procures almost all of its charred oak barrels from Woodford Reserve. The pear brandy, though, is aged in brand new barrels, an uncommon practice that Peter thinks adds distinctiveness to the product.
The four-nozzle bottler for the operation. Did I say small-batch already? Yeah, that.
Yup, that's his real name. The assistant distiller works with Derek on the ins and outs of the operation, and is also a collaborator on some of the infusion projects you'll see hanging out near the aging barrels.
Such as the raspberry, black currant, Christmas tree...
...and pig ear infusions.
Most of these probably won't make it to market. But keep your eyes peeled for a raspberry and fresh thyme liqueur, which they're currently tinkering with.
Faced with some mealy but tasty peaches, the team soaked them in some aged applejack, then aged the result for another year before bottling. The Peach Jack has a lower proof (30% alcohol instead of the applejack's 40%) and a higher sugar content, since the peaches add water and sugar to the spirit. It's a remarkably aromatic brew, and not too sweet.
Things get a little cramped when your bottling, fermenting, distilling, and aging all happen in one big room, but it's not long before these guys will be out the door on their way to a grateful New York State.