Craft work: A profile of Ralph Erenzo

02 January, 2014
Ralf Erenzo

“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.

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