Craft work: A profile of Ralph Erenzo

Rock climber-turned distiller Ralph Erenzo talks to Hamish Smith about Sonic Maturation and selling Hudson bourbon to the big boys

IF IT EVER CATCHES ON, let it be said that Sonic Maturation was the invention of the man to your right, a craft distiller named Ralph. It probably won’t – playing base-booming hip-hop to bourbon barrels isn’t exactly textbook maturation management. But it is textbook Ralph Erenzo. This is a man who personifies America’s craft movement: a man not tied down by a distilling heritage, only by the limits of his own imagination; a man for whom barriers exist to be overcome. 

But that’s probably a pretty normal outlook for a man who spent 25 years as a professional rock climber. Indeed, not so long ago, distilling was the last thing on Erenzo’s mind. In 2001 the plan was to build a rock climbers’ ranch on a piece of farmland in a quaint-sounding place called Gardiner in the Hudson Valley, New York State. 

His home in the Big Apple had come to feel small – there’s only so much a rock climber can do without rocks, and he’d already set up the city’s first public climbing gyms and run rigs for urban building climbs. Besides, Erenzo knew upstate New York like the back of his hand – he had climbed over much of it with the front of his hands. Settling close to his beloved Gunks mountains was always the dream.

But then, dreams do get a little weird sometimes. As it turns out, so did Erenzo’s. It started with the neighbours, who weren’t all that neighbourly, and it ended with the courts, which weren’t that understanding. Evidently, Erenzo’s climbers were not the type of people wanted around Gardiner. With every last cent spent, Erenzo was out of money but not ideas. Left without any legal use for the property that wasn’t farming, that’s exactly what Erenzo and his business partner Brian Lee did. At least, ‘farming’ by its legal definition. 

“I live in an agricultural district so had a Right to Farm in New York,” explains Erenzo. “The world is awash with wine so I didn’t want to jump into that pool – I chose distilling because it had not been done in New York since Prohibition. Distilling was not at that time considered a farm use unless it was an accessory use to a winery, so I applied for a farm winery permit then a distillery permit, protecting the use as farming. We then lobbied the State to pass the Farm Distillery Act which made distilling a farm use all on its own.”

One can only imagine how pleased Erenzo’s neighbours were about that – not only a distillery but a distillery run by a couple of novices. “We had no experience. We knew how to open a bottle and that was it.” No mater, a 100-gallon, German-made pot still was soon whistling away and, by 2005, Tuthilltown Spirits produced its first batches of vodka from scraps collected at a local apple slicing plant. Not one for the press release, but charming nonetheless.