RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And this summer, we are looking at comeback stories - comebacks in wildlife and fashion, food and drink. Today, we're looking at the return of New York state distilleries.
A century ago, the state's thriving spirits industry supplied much of the whiskey, gin and rum that kept the city and the country lubricated. Then Prohibition arrived. The industry dried up. Now, it's making comeback.
NPR's Joel Rose reports.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Tuthilltown Spirits was one of the first boutique distilleries to open in New York since Prohibition.
Today, it turns out thousands of bottles a day - many under the brand name Hudson Whiskey. It's been 12 years since Ralph Erenzo bought this property in a rustic corner of the Hudson Valley - about 75 miles from Manhattan. Back then, there was nothing here but an old grist mill and some farm land.
RALPH ERENZO: We knew less than nothing about this business or about the process or the technology of it. But what we decided was that there are guys back in the woods with no teeth and a kindergarten education, they figured out how to make a living at this. We can do it.
ROSE: In his first career, Erenzo owned a climbing gym in Manhattan. He was looking for an agricultural product he could make in the Hudson Valley. Then Erenzo found out about a recent change in New York law that cut the licensing fee to open a small distillery dramatically - from $65,000 to just a thousand. Erenzo and his partner started the business in 2003.
ERENZO: This is the first whiskey we made. It's a corn whiskey. It's clear like this because it doesn't go into an oak barrel. This is right off the still.
ROSE: What these are called white lightning?
ERENZO: Yeah. More or less. Yeah. Sure. Legal moonshine, you might say.
ROSE: Erenzo's corn whiskey is clear, but it is not weak. The flavor is sweet, grainy and boozy. Then Erenzo pours a second glass. The liquor is darker, the color of maple syrup, and the flavor is more complex, with hints of caramel and vanilla.
ERENZO: It's called Hudson Baby Bourbon and that - by the way - is the first bourbon whiskey ever made in New York. And it was the first aged whiskey legally made in New York since Prohibition.
ROSE: Now there are dozens of distilleries operating in New York State, from the Adirondacks to Brooklyn.
(SOUNDBITE OF DRINKS BEING MIXED)
ROSE: At the bar attached to the five-year-old New York distilling company in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, co-founder Allen Katz pours a cocktail with the company's Perry's Tot Gin. It's made with juniper and nine other botanicals and spices, including coriander, citrus, star anise and even green cardamom pods.
Katz says the landscape of emerging distilleries in New York harkens back to the heyday of the state's liquor industry.
ALLEN KATZ: If you go back to the 1800s, people were making all different types of spirits. They were making gin and they were making whiskey. They were making rum and apple jack.
ROSE: Katz says there was a widespread appreciation for those spirits in New York's thriving bar culture; then, came Prohibition, the 18th Amendment put a stop to legal alcohol production and the distilling industry in New York either disappeared, or went underground.
KATZ: It not only killed the bar culture, but it killed our taste buds. The idea of having quality spirits behind a bar in a consistent nature really became forgotten.
ROSE: Prohibition ended in 1933. But it was already too late for small distillers in New York who'd gone out business. Today, if you look behind most bars in this country, you're likely to see the same few mega-brands of whiskey, gin and vodka. But that's starting to change as the growing interest in local food, beer and wine moves into the hard stuff.
(SOUNDBITE OF DISTILLERY)
BRAD ESTABROOKE: So this is a 2012 rye harvest.
ROSE: Brad Estabrooke runs his hands through a sack of small dark grains. To the untrained eye, it looks a lot like bird seeds, but it'll be the basis for the Breuckelen Distilling company's American Rye Whiskey.
ESTABROOKE: I used to have a desk job that I hated.
ROSE: After Estabrooke lost that day job as a bond trader in 2009, he launched Breuckelen Distilling in an old warehouse near the Brooklyn waterfront. His operation is basically a higher-tech version of the same thing distillers have been doing for centuries. Estabrooke starts with local grains and lets them ferment in big tanks. Then he boils the results in a copper still to release the highly alcoholic vapor.
ESTABROOKE: The idea that we are bringing in ingredients and actually making something - I mean that is the part that makes me feel like we're connecting to this ancient, old activity.
ROSE: Are you getting rich, like you were in your other occupation, or not?
ESTABROOKE: No, not even close.
ROSE: And Estabrooke the day may soon be coming when the company is profitable.
Ralph Erenzo of Tuthilltown Spirits has already scaled up to employ several dozen people at his distillery in the Hudson Valley. He says craft distilleries are starting to have a real economic impact in New York, and beyond.
ERENZO: People are getting hired. Old buildings are being reused. Our craft is being reestablished in this country that hasn't existed for 70 or 80 years 'cause of Prohibition. People are building cooperages and malt houses. I mean this is a rebirth of a whole industry.
ROSE: But this new spirits industry is not exactly like the old one. Many of the new distillers are coming to the business as a second career. Erenzo says that makes them less tied to tradition, and that's making it a very interesting time to pour a drink.
Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.