by Katie Navarra
Oenophiles recognize their favorite wines by geographic region. Whether it’s New York’s Finger Lakes, California’s Napa Valley or North Carolina’s Appalachian High Country, wine aficionados rely on regional designations to know more about the product they are consuming.
There is growing evidence that consumers trust and value the designation among wine-growing regions across the United States known as AVAs, said Bradley J. Rickard. Rickard is an expert on economic and policy issues in food and beverage markets and an associate professor in Cornell University’s Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management.
“There is much evidence in agricultural and food markets that generic advertising provides a positive return on its investment,” he said.
Vintners aren’t the only ones who recognize the power of regional collaboration. In 2015, a small group of craft distillers in New York began discussions about an alliance to brand a new style of whiskey. The result, Empire Rye, is a designation that defines a product that is as distinctive, precisely crafted and held to as high a standard as any of the illustrious whiskey styles in the world.
Christopher Williams of Coppersea Distilling in New Paltz is credited with creating the spark that brought the idea to life. At the 2015 American Craft Spirits Conference in Denver, CO, Williams and five other head distillers struck up an after-hours conversation over a round of spirits. All six had won national awards and Williams posed the idea of establishing a mark of authenticity for New York spirits that consumers could easily recognize in bars and liquor stores.
“This is an opportunity for distillers to come together and showcase our different takes on rye whiskey,” said Jason Barrett founder and head distiller of Black Button Distilling in Rochester, NY. “Other producers — wine and craft beers — have been doing this for a long time. Now spirits producers can get into it too.”
The intimate group included Tom Potter, a founder of New York Distilling Company in Brooklyn, Nicole Austin, then a distiller at Kings County Distillery in Brooklyn, and Brian McKenzie, an owner of Finger Lakes Distilling in Burdett, NY. For two years, the group debated the requirements that would establish a level of high-quality while still allowing distillers a wide latitude to create distinct products.
In fall 2017, the group launched Empire Rye Whiskey, to help them stand out in a crowded craft spirits market.
The Empire Rye designation is more than a sophisticated branding effort. It’s a multi-part promise to consumers. The distillers who sign-on to join must:
- Conform with the New York Farm Distiller (Class D) requirement. For Empire Rye distillers, that means that 75 percent of the ingredients must be New York State-grown rye grain, which may be raw, malted or a combination. The remaining 25 percent of the mash bill may be composed of any raw or malted grain, New York-grown or otherwise, or any combination thereof.
- Be distilled to no more than 160 proof.
- Be aged for a minimum of two years in charred, new oak barrels at not more than 115 proof at time of entry.
- Be mashed, fermented, distilled, barreled and aged at a single New York State distillery in a single distilling season. The period from Jan. 1 through June 30 is the spring season and the period from July 1 through Dec. 31 is the fall season.
A blended whiskey containing no less than 100 percent qualifying Empire Rye whiskey from multiple distilleries may be called Blended Empire Rye.
“This allows consumers to zone in on what they like and what they don’t like,” Barrett explained.
Rickard added, “we have seen an explosion of wineries, craft breweries and craft distilleries. To me this seems to be a good way for smaller groups to differentiate themselves.”
With consumers showing an increased interest in knowing the source of products they consume and a desire to support local businesses, regional collaboration is key.
“For us, using local partnerships is a no brainer,” said Keith Redhead, owner and brewer at Woodland Farm Brewery in Utica, NY. “From an economic perspective, it only makes sense that supporting other local and New York State businesses will help the area and state to grow. From a brewing perspective, it’s what can set New York State beer apart from the 6,000 plus other breweries across the country.”
By using New York State grown grain and hops, Redhead can brew distinct beer with New York terroir. And as a New York State farm brewery, Redhead is able to carry other products such as wine and spirits. They offer Heron Hill, Villa Verona and Thousand Islands wineries products as well as spirits from Black Button Distilling.
There is strength in numbers. By partnering and working with other farmers, wineries and distilleries, Redhead is gaining notoriety for his Woodland brand as a New York State brewery while simultaneously supporting other New York State products.
“My advice is to seek out other like-minded businesses and people,” Redhead said. “Partnerships should be a two-way street. While I never truly expect anything in return, it is rewarding to work with people who are of a similar mindset. Partnerships should elevate one another.”
An increased interest in regionalization and partnerships means the opportunities are limitless. Empire Rye may be the first craft distillery designation of its type, but won’t likely be the last. “There have been murmurs of a New England style rum and a New York City style gin,” Barret said. “That’s something I’d be interested in discussing.”