Chris Williams looks down with a proud smile at the rye grains spread on the floor in a rough rectangle. The pile of seeds displays telltale furrows from careful raking. His boss Angus MacDonald reaches down to examine them, noting tiny sprouts protruding from each grain.
“I think we’re currently one of a dozen distilleries in the world that ‘floor malts’ in house,” Williams explains.
Big malt houses use a similar process — wetting the grain, allowing it to germinate and free up the enzymes that convert starch to sugar — but they do it in larger quantities than does West Park-based Coppersea Distilling.
For the artisanal spirits maker, having control over grain and how it is malted is important.
“That means we are at liberty to use any grain that we can get, and we use exclusively New York State grain,” Williams says.
Upstairs at Coppersea Distilling is a room filled with aging barrels of whiskey and bags of grains. Angus MacDonald knows the story of each New York farm that these grain comes from — a few have gone under, he adds.
That obsession with good local grain, the perfectionism in wanting to make spirits the old-fashioned way has led Coppersea to purchase a 70-acre farm on Springtown Road in New Paltz.
“The plan for the short-term is we’re going to grow grain there and run it as a farm,” MacDonald explains.
Typically, the Heritage-Methods distillery sells its spent mash — the watery grains left over from whiskey making — to pig farmers. Swine love the slop, and feeding it to an animal is a sustainable way to clean up distilling waste.
Eventually, they plan to raise pigs out on Springtown and feed their own herd.
“The ‘pie in the sky’ idea is for it to be a closed loop, where all of the farm distillery operations are integrated and it’s sort of symbiotic,” says Williams, who has a background in sustainable agriculture. “Grain growing in the Northeast is sort of a lost art. A big part of why we’re doing this is to help restore the grain shed of the Hudson Valley and bring back that understanding — the techniques of farming grain in this region.”
The idea is that Coppersea’s farm will also be a certified organic corn, barley and rye farm. But it would also grow other rotational crops, helping build the soil and keeping the grain healthy.
How it got started
Coppersea Distilling incorporated in 2011, but the idea for an old-fashioned distillery has been in master distiller MacDonald’s mind for more than a decade.
MacDonald has had a lifelong interest in distilling. He spent roughly 30 years learning the history of spirit-making in New York State, studying its economics, learning forgotten techniques and trying to figure out exactly how whiskey was made 200 years ago.
Williams, the distillery manager, jokes that his boss took a cue from kung fu movies and walked the earth searching for the old masters of whiskey.
“The last of these people were 90 years old, 20 years ago,” MacDonald says. “A lot of the origin story of whiskey is lost in simple advances in technology.”
Coppersea is known for their “green malt” whiskey. Typically, distilleries kiln-dry their malted grain before it goes in the mash. But an older technique rediscovered by MacDonald told him not to do that.
“Using un-kilned rye is like a genuinely ancient and obsolete process,” he says. “And it produces a liquor that hasn’t been made or tasted commercially in at least 150 to 200 years at this point.”
MacDonald adds: “We do it for the art and historic preservation of it — and because what it makes is unique and delicious.”
Before Prohibition, liquor was big money for local grain farmers. Either they could set up a small distilling operation, creating booze that added value to their product, or they could bag, cart away and sell simple grain at a lesser price.
“It was just a good economic move,” the master distiller says. “The American thirst was essentially unquenchable back in those days.”
MacDonald joined forces with Michael Kinstlick — another self-made expert, whose passion was the economics of craft brewing and wineries; he’s now Coppersea’s chief executive officer — and the farm distillery was born.
The process of how spirits are made at Coppersea is very traditional. In large wooden fermenters, roughly the size of a hot tub, Coppersea uses the “open fermentation” process. It’s an ancient method, which dates back to before people knew that yeast was a microorganism. It exposes the mash to the air to gain additional wild yeast.
After fermentation, the liquors are distilled by direct fire in traditional copper stills.
Williams compares the direct-fire method to traditional Spanish paella, which is meant to be cooked over an open fire in a special pan called a “paellera.”
“It’s like making paella in a paella pan or making paella in a microwave,” he says.
Fire caramelizes the mash, adding flavors not present in mass-produced whiskeys. But the downside is that a distiller can more easily burn their fermented mash.
Coppersea produces eaux de vie along with its premium whiskies. To learn more about them, head to http://www.coppersea.com/.