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SAVOR THE SEASON: Whiskey, rye whiskey

Wilmington/Jay supplied rye whiskey to War of 1812 soldiers in Plattsburgh

June 22, 2018
By ANDY FLYNN - Editor ( , Lake Placid News

WILMINGTON - During the first Wilmington Whiteface Heritage Celebration on Saturday, June 16, the Wilmington Historical Society was successfully able to connect the dots between Essex County's whiskey roots in the early 1800s to its whiskey comeback 200 years later.

Between a Whiskey Run 10k in the morning and a Speakeasy Soiree in the evening, the afternoon celebration highlighted the town's connection to whiskey during the War of 1812. It also hosted a handful of regional distillers, one of which was Gristmill Distillers from Keene.

When Reuben Sanford moved to this part of Essex County in 1803, it was still part of the town of Jay. In 1821, the town of Dansville was broken off from the town of Jay, and a year later it was renamed Wilmington.

Article Photos

Gristmill Distillers of Keene was selling whiskey and giving out samples during the Wilmington Whiteface Heritage Festival Saturday, June 16.
(News photo — Andy Flynn)

By 1810, most of the tillage in the Wilmington portion of Jay was devoted to the production of rye for the local whiskey distilleries, according to the Essex County Historical Society. Sanford operated two of the three distilleries here at that time.

When the War of 1812 came to the region, Sanford volunteered and became a major, leading soldiers from this part of Essex County during the Battle of Plattsburgh in September 1814.

"In its early days, the part of the town of Jay that is now Wilmington had the reputation of providing good rye whiskey to the American troops as part of their daily rations," said Wilmington Historical Society President Karen Peters, adding that the ration was 2 ounces per day.

Rye is defined as "a wheat-like cereal plant that tolerates poor soils and low temperatures." That's a perfect crop for much of the Adirondack Mountains, where poor soils and low temperatures are in abundance.

When Sanford shipped his rye whiskey to Plattsburgh in watertight barrels, it most likely resembled moonshine, a clear distilled product, not a brown whiskey that has been aged in charred oak barrels like most whiskey is today. Although nobody knows exactly when distillers began aging whiskey in charred barrels, it is commonly believed that it did not happen in the early 1800s about the time Wilmington was producing rye whiskey for American troops at the Battle of Plattsburgh.

"We started aging whiskey because we would take a barrel and we would ship pickles or fish in a barrel," said Gristmill Distillers owner Keith Van Sise. "Then they would burn the inside of the barrel to get rid of the pickle or the fish, and then they would put their whiskey in it and send their whiskey to wherever they were going. Then they would say, 'Hey this stuff is brown, and it tastes kind of good.' And that's where our aging came from."

Pennsylvania and Maryland were well known for their rye whiskey production in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was a popular form of whiskey in the U.S. until Prohibition began in 1920, but after Prohibition was repealed in 1933, Americans had lost their taste for rye whiskey, opting instead for whiskey made from corn or malted barley. In the past 10 years, however, rye whiskey began making a comeback in the U.S.


Gristmill Distillers

Gristmill Distillers, which was founded in 2014, makes a variety of spirits. Their signature product is Rusty Piton, a clear 100 percent corn whiskey made with spring water from Keene. The name is a nod to the town's rock climbers and mountaineers.

"Rusty Piton was our first product because, obviously, it's the fastest product to get on the shelf," Van Sise said. "It comes off the still, you add some water, you get it to a proof that you like, you throw it in a bottle, and you sell it. Whereas the bourbon, it could be years before you get to taste it. Most people don't realize the stuff that they're drinking that has a brown color, we're in 2018 now, we probably made it in 2016."

His Black Fly Bourbon is also 100 percent corn whiskey, aged in charred new American oak barrels crafted at US Barrel in Wilmington. Most of the bourbon he sells was aged between 16 months and two years.

"By 2019, all our bourbon should be aged at least two years, and then we'll continue pushing that number up," Van Sise said.

By law, any "straight" bourbon must be produced in the United States and aged in new, charred white oak barrels for a minimum of two years, bottled at no less than 80 proof. It also has to be made of a grain mix of at least 51 percent corn and be free of any additives, except water to reduce proof for aging and bottling. By comparison, Jim Beam original (white label) is aged four years, and the Jim Beam Signature Craft bourbon whiskey is aged for 12 years.

Gristmill also makes Black Fly Maple, a 100 percent corn whiskey. To make Black Fly Maple, Gristmill takes the barrels used to age bourbon and hands them off to Black Rooster Maple in Keene, where they fill the barrels with maple syrup and age it for a few months. Black Rooster then sells its whiskey-flavored maple syrup, and Gristmill fills the maple-aged barrels with corn whiskey and a jug of Black Rooster syrup to age before it's bottled as Black Fly Maple whiskey.

Gristmill's Black Fly Rye Whiskey is made from 70 percent rye and 30 percent corn.

"There are plenty of people making 100 percent ryes, 95 percent ryes," Van Sise said. "We just settled on 70-30. ... The rye will give it a little spice, whereas we added the corn and it kind of mellows it out a little bit and gives us a little sweetness on the back end."

Gristmill buys corn and rye from Adirondack Organic Grains in Essex, and its apples for the 1892 Apple Brandy come from Rulf's Orchard in Peru.

Like Reuben Sanford before him, Van Sise and his crew at Gristmill Distillers are making spirits with 100 percent local products. First rye, then corn and apples. It's a tradition here in the Adirondacks, one that was resurrected after 200 years and one that has a future on the agricultural landscape of Essex County.



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