Before visiting Prohibition Distillery in Roscoe, NY, for myself, I had no idea how deep my experience would be. I mean, I knew I would get the opportunity to sample what they make -- and I was excited about that -- but the rest surprised me a little. Let me be completely honest. I confess to knowing fairly little about spirits and was ready to get my Liquor 101, which I did. But more than that, I became immersed in and inspired by the heart and soul of Prohibition Distillery that permeates its tasting room, the conversations about the company and the Catskills, the friendly staff and the products themselves.
First off, the tasting. The tasting room is lined with sparkling bottles of vodka, gin and bourbon, as well as some interesting memorabilia, artisanal cocktail mixers and well-designed swag. A wooden bar introduces you to your subjects of study -- one vodka, two gins and two bourbons. Our professor -- a well-versed bartender who also confessed to knowing too little about what she has served in bars for years before becoming part of PD's family -- invited us to trust her as we embarked on our journey through their spirits and the unique processes and ingredients used in making them. Owner Brian Facquet popped in and out between the tasting room and the distillery -- still busy working -- even on a Sunday night.
We started with the vodka. Apparently, that's where you start. But foundations are important and it's here that you can really learn a lot. Vodka can be made with pretty much any grain. Bootlegger 21 New York Vodka is made with 100% New York state farmed corn. It is certified gluten free. (Did you know that true celiacs will have a reaction to spirits made with wheat?) But what's really special about Bootlegger Vodka is what it's not. This vodka is harvested from the heart of the distilling run, a process that also has a head and a tail. The head and tail have strong tastes and aromas (including one of wet cardboard, meh) that are not ideal for a perfect product (but are common in many). The heart of the run makes the smoothest spirits. That smoothness is also achieved by filtering the distillation of nearly a ton of New York corn through 800 pounds of fine charcoal. Whoa! The vodka, distilled six times in small batches, is 80 proof when finished. European vodkas, trying to appeal to a US market, add glycerol to enhance the sweetness and also to mask the poor results from including heads and tails. I have a very strong reaction to Ketel One vodka that turns my face red (ugh, lovely...) which may be due to such additives. The Bootlegger 21 NY Vodka was very smooth to taste indeed and virtually odorless.
Next, we moved on to the gin. I must have been living under a rock for all these years, but I had no idea that gin was made from vodka. Prohibition starts with the best vodka around (theirs) and steeps it overnight with a balance of herbs and botanicals -- some for a long time and others for just a few minutes -- that include juniper berries, orris (or iris root), lemon verbena, bitter orange peel and coriander. On one of Brian's fly-bys, he chirped that the NYS juniper berries did not give him the taste he was going for and so he defected to find the perfect berry from a secret source that he would not divulge. It was evident -- from this brief interaction and from the attention to detail in the tasting room and in the finished products -- that Brian's work is never done and that nothing is ever good enough, unless it's perfect.
The macerated botanicals are infused into the distilled corn and leave a trace of color that Prohibition removes slowly at a low heat to achieve a perfect juniper-forward, 94 proof, white botanical gin. Boy, it is good. And with this product, Prohibition also makes a Barrel Reserve version -- ever so slightly colored -- by aging it in bourbon barrels for 9 to 11 months. Also mmm. Good things are worth waiting for.
Finally, we tried the bourbon. You might be thinking us a wee bit tipsy at this point, but they are careful to serve you only a mouse-sized thimble full of each -- just enough to taste and not enough to blur lines. And it really does the trick. Our bartender -- still encouraging us to trust her -- started us with each bourbon straight. A gentle warm glowing hum, with a smooth and rich finish. Then she added just a drop of crystal clear Catskills water. "Trust me," she repeated. She was right. It pushed the alcohol back just a hair so you could savor the complex and comforting flavors. We went home with a bottle of the 108 proof bourbon and the white gin. And a hat. Of course.
Tours and tastings at Prohibition are free, but you are encouraged to make a donation. And as we were there on Veterans Day weekend, making a donation to support veterans made sense. Except that every donation made at Prohibition Distillery supports our veterans and their families every day of the year. The donations are not a tip jar -- 100% of the donations actually go to selected charities that support veterans and their families. Brian studied at the Naval Academy for a few years out of high school and has lost friends in service of our country. He also has a history degree that reminds him to remember how our country began and that he owes his thanks not only to our veterans personally, but to all the freedoms they have selflessly afforded him and us. This is not lost on veterans, either. Some stop by and give PD memorabilia to display, like one fighter pilot helmet on the shelf behind the bar.
The homage to veterans and men and women of service goes so much deeper than donations; it is at the very core of Prohibition's existence. The distillery is housed in the 1929 Roscoe Firehouse and former VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) Hall. The name of the company, Prohibition Distillery, and of its products, Bootlegger 21, evokes the history of a time when, for 13 years, spirits were illegal and produced underground until the 21st amendment repealed the Prohibition Act in 1933. Furthermore, the symbols integrated into Prohibition's logo include the poppy, a symbol of remembrance, and the Florian cross, the symbol for the patron saint of firefighters. Again, Brian and his team are in for a penny and a pound -- a practice that is evident in the quality of the spirits, the tone of the tasting room and their very authentic story.
Prohibition Distillery and other distilleries and breweries in NY state also owe their existence to some very favorable government incentive programs. Such businesses employ a lot of locals -- especially a place like PD where all the distilling, bottling and labeling are done by hand in Roscoe -- and drive local economies. Other businesses crop up where breweries and distilleries are as well. This makes NY state and even the Feds pretty happy. We have come a long way since prohibition went live nationwide on January 17, 1920. Prohibition Distillery reminds us of this history.
We could have stayed at Prohibition all day, but it was time for all of us to head home. In a side conversation before we left, our bartender shared with me her personal recipe for a hot toddy and I pass it on to you. I have a feeling you are going to find a use for it this season ...
Step 1: Steep black tea in 8 oz of hot water until it's good and dark (you can skip the tea if you want to avoid the caffeine)
Step 2: Add fresh lemon and a teaspoon of honey, as well as a dash of cayenne (an excellent option if you are feeling a little something coming on ... this, by the way, is a good reason/excuse for making a HT in the first place!)
Step 3: At the very minute before you want to drink it, add one to two ounces of Prohibition's Barrel Aged Bourbon, depending on how you like it or how you're feeling.
Step 4: Sit back and relax by the fire after a long day working on the farm ... I know I will!
That's the spirit, xoxo Farm Girl
Read more about Prohibition Distillery in Farm Girl's Guide.