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.

“We designed the whole concept around the definition of a farm. ‘Craft’ is a focus on the people, not on automation,” says Erenzo. 

Tuthilltown Distillery is where the spirit is produced, it is where the spirits are aged and the nearby orchards and fields are where the apples and grain are grown. Erenzo has a lease on a nearby rye field and bought a 1/3 stake in the once-struggling local cooperage – enabling him to have bespoke barrels made, such as his ‘honeycomb’ charring pattern. 

There’s also the distillery shop, which, of course, Erenzo had to lobby for too. “I say to staff ‘this is a no-hype zone,  just tell people what we are doing – it’s high enough on the cool scale as it is’.” The distillery now also produces rum, eau de vie, brandy, absinthe and infusions, but Erenzo and Lee’s first whiskey came in the form of an unaged corn spirit. Then came the rye.  

“When we started we couldn’t keep up with demand,” says Erenzo. David Wondrich’s New York Times article in 2006 had woken up the world to rye whiskey and exposed how little there was of it about. “Our distillery is surrounded by rye farmers. We buy the seed, lease the land and pay them to grow it. Since 2007, 34 more distillers have emerged in New York – it has substantially changed the farming industry in New York State. There are farmers who are ripping out apples to grow rye.”

Hudson, as it became known, was a whiskey but not a product. Hand-selling was Erenzo’s first approach, arriving at bars along the Hudson Valley with an old-fashioned doctor’s case of his half-sized bottles. The line “I’m not a salesman – I make the whiskey” got Erenzo so far but to really gain acceptance in the bars and restaurants of New York, Erenzo went to France. “Going to Paris in 2007 enabled us to be accepted in New York – just like Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong did.” 

So, by gaining listings in some of Paris’s top destinations, Hudson had kudos and soon found its way on to menus of restaurants and bars in New York. A rock-climber’s approach you might say – there’s more than one way to scale a mountain.

By 2010, Hudson had reached nine EU countries, Australia and every wet US state. Word had also reached Scotland and William Grant & Sons. “They wanted to buy everything but we only sold the Hudson brand,” says Erenzo. “They did their homework on us – but we did more homework on them.” The Glenfiddich and Grant’s owner didn’t have a bourbon at the time – a gap in the portfolio in a period when the bourbon category had pulled itself off the floor and was finally learning to walk. 

Is there a danger that William Grant & Sons will want to expedite growth – perhaps even build a new distillery? “They want to see a path to ownership,” concedes Erenzo. “But fortunately they realise the terroir we have – it is important that we don’t want to become a big company.” But with a whiskey heavyweight in support, business has been stepping up – now the Hudson range includes Baby Bourbon, Four Grain Bourbon, Manhattan Rye, Single Malt, New York Corn Whiskey and soon Maple Cask Rye.

Until, at least, a fire swept through the distillery in September 2012. According to Erenzo 100 newly filled barrels were among the victims, but improbably, the spirit didn’t ignite. “We were filling the barrels at the time and had lots of different types of whiskey but the labels were burned off. I said ‘put them away – we’ll have Double Charred Whiskey in 2014’.”

He laughs but he’s not joking. While Erenzo’s Double Charred Whiskey was busy maturing, the team – headed up by the more technically-aligned Lee – went about restoring the distillery. Within three months it was up and running and probably within a year from now, we can expect to see the Double Charred Whiskey, once it has had a decent bout of Sonic Maturation, naturally. 

According to Erenzo, the term Sonic Maturation was coined by his son and involved Lee hooking up the rickhouse with a series of speakers pointed at the barrels. The base produced a rippling effect on the whiskey, he says, akin to a drop of water on to a liquid surface. 

“It increases the colour and the aroma but it doesn’t affect the vanilla extraction from the wood – you have to go deeper for that,” says Erenzo. Apparently the idea prompted a sound engineer to visit and carry out a study on the effect of sound frequency on whiskey. Tests showed a tonal loop works best, but Erenzo prefers to play his music.