I, Distiller

bottleonlabeler.jpgEarly Monday evening the 23rd of April the wood-paneled lobby bar of the Four Seasons on East 52nd and Park was humming, the spicy, sweet scent of bourbon born aloft. The proprietors of the Hudson Valley’s Tuthilltown Spirits, which fired up a German still in a refurbished eighteenth century granary a few years ago—were on hand, armed with plenty.The occasion—alcohol for alcohol’s sake—nevertheless called for some decorum: ‘The most perfect Manhattan….JACKETS REQUIRED FOR GENTLEMEN’, the invitation read. Still, at least one schlub showed up wearing a dingy grey T-shirt. Tuthilltown, a tiny concern, had thrown the party to mark the release of the first—or first legal, at least—rye whiskey made in New York State since Prohibition. Crisply dressed bartenders mixed it from stubby, apothecary-like bottles into Perfect Manhattans—2 ounces Rye, one half ounce dry vermouth, half ounce sweet vermouth, two to three dashes orange or Angostura bitters, and lemon twist, over ice, garnished with maraschino cherries—and passed them out as the partygoers snacked on sushi and warm cheese puffs. Hey, sushi and bourbon, why not?Entering the maw around 8:30 was the writer Anna Jane Grossman (formerly of the New York Observer), whose businessman stepfather, Ralph Erenzo, co-founded the company. (Her biological father, Robert Grossman, is the well-known painter whose portraits often appear in the Observer and Rolling Stone). Erenzo’s still is located in Gardiner, along the Shawangunk Kill, and everything that goes in it is grown locally. He is in the midst of lobbying the state for the right to sell his products on-site, in the way that beer is sold in microbreweries. A lawyer asked Ms. Grossman, “What exactly is the difference is between bourbon and rye?” She wasn’t sure. “I think it has to do with the alcohol content,” he tried. “I should know, but I don’t!” she said, and went looking for her stepdad, adding, “he’s here somewhere. He doesn’t drink.”What was that? “No, Ralph doesn’t drink, except to taste, and, you know, evaluate here and there,” said Anna Jane’s mother, Vicki, huddled in the corner with a striking woman that said she had been a singer in the traveling cast of ‘Thoroughly Modern Millie’. By now, the bar line stood about three deep. A 30-something couple dressed like extras from the film version of ‘The Great Gatsby’ began strolling through the room self-consciously. He wore white trousers, a powder blue shirt, white bowtie, and a mope of calculated boredom; she, a dead ringer for the actress Keira Knightley, sported a flapper’s maroon dress and purple fedora with yellow feather pinned aloft. “I don’t have any idea who they are,” shrugged Mrs. Erenzo, asked if the pair were hired props. “He was all squishy,” she said of his handshake, wrinkling her nose. “He said he was a media-somethingorother. I told him to go talk to Ralph!” The flapper (who later pouted, lower lip extended, that her companion was ‘her brother’) skulked back and forth, but didn’t seem to talk to anyone else. A pianist, unaccompanied, tinkled out a polite version of “Let the Good Times Roll.”Mrs. Erenzo began recounting how their old barn in Gardiner had become a distillery. “We wanted to build a climbing wall,” she said. “And a bed and breakfast. But our neighbors were impossible, and wouldn’t allow it…I mean, it was…” she trailed off at the memory of frustration. Better a whiskey still than a bunch of climbers, right? “We’re a farm, and we’re zoned for agriculture, and whiskey is an agricultural product, so now they can’t say anything!” she said, pleased.The singer nodded in solidarity. No one in the Erenzo family has any connection to distilling? “Oh no! Not at all! I came home one day, and there in the kitchen was Ralph, and his partner Bill (Lee). Ralph wanted to think about starting up the granary again, but Bill was into distilling, and soon they had bottles and things all over the place…” The singer jumped in. “Oh, I know! I know! I once came home one day and found my husband making—what was it? Blueberry wine—it was everywhere!”A moment later, Erenzo, a compact man with small round glasses, closely cropped grey hair, and a wide, winning grin, appeared sitting on the balcony, overlooking the scene, alone. He wore a conservative black suit, but, for a moment, resembled a boy looking across the top of a gigantic wooden desk. A photographer from The New York Times began taking his picture from the floor below as he stared, sphynx-like, into the middle distance. When she finished, he held his eyes shut for several seconds, as though in meditation. (An avid climber and the owner of ExtraVertical, a climbing gym in Manhattan, perhaps he was thinking of scaling walls.) Suddenly he was no longer visible, and Mrs. Erenzo scurried up the steps to look for him. But by then he had rounded the other side and circled back to the floor, clutching a glass of water. Was she happy about the smell of the distillery in the barn? A beat—“I am happy if the distillery is making money!” she replied, jumping back in line. “I’m going for another taste!”By ten the crowd had thinned considerably. Surprising, one observed, given that the rye (which smelled of freshly-cut grass in a summertime yard) was flowing completely gratis. “If this were happening anywhere in England,” said Dan Levenson, a painter and performance artist friend of Anna Jane’s, “People would be out in the streets by now, like, fighting at the door.”Suddenly the cocktail hour seemed to have run its course, and the room was down to a dozen or so imbibers. But Erenzo was still bristling with energy. “I’m not sure what I will do, after this,” said Ralph as a family friend congratulated him again. “Maybe I’ll go back to school,” he said. “I never finished college. I started up in SUNY, in Saranac, but there was no one paying the bills, putting up the money. What was I going to do? I only got one year in, but I needed to go find work, and I found it. I started out working in TV, doing writing and production and so on.” He said that during that first year, he had studied philosophy. And the philosophy of distilling, a reporter asked? “Make money,” he said without hesitation. “Just sell the most water!” Then he turned and went, water in hand, to sell some more.

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