Several months ago I worked with Finger Lakes Distilling on some custom products. As I learned more about their business, I was impressed by their focus and creativity, particularly the ways they have incorporated green and eco-friendly practices to build their business. Co-owner Jenny McKenzie generously agreed to answer some of my questions so I could share their story with you.
Overlooking Seneca Lake in upstate New York, Finger Lakes Distilling offers artisanal spirits with the distinctive flavors of the region. A member of the Finger Lakes wine trail, the distillery is the brainchild of Brian McKenzie, a former bank vice-president who was interested in starting a business with his wife, Jenny. A fortuitous meeting at a craft distillers conference in 2007 got the ball rolling. Thomas Earl McKenzie had a background in wine-making, farming, brewing and consulting for breweries, with skills that complemented Brian's experience in business and finance. The two (unrelated) men shared a name and an interest in distilled spirits, and worked well together to build the distillery. “It is a family business,” says Jenny McKenzie. “We couldn’t do it without a lot of support from our family and friends. They have volunteered to help with everything from watching our 2-year-old daughter Lucie to bottling, labeling, deliveries, sales, and working in the tasting room.”
This sense of community figures prominently in the distillery’s daily operations, as they work with many other businesses in the area. “We have distilled some wine that the winemakers were not happy with for one reason or another into a neutral spirit. This allows them the ability to fortify with their own product instead of shipping it in from another area,” Jenny says. They work with a local chocolatier, Renée Suzette's, who uses the distillery’s liqueurs in her truffles and chocolate sauce. Finger Lakes Distilling also belongs to local and state organizations including New York Farm Bureau, Finger Lakes Culinary Bounty, and the Watkins Glen Area Chamber of Commerce.
The regional focus at Finger Lakes Distilling has inspired more than their business interactions: their products begin with local ingredients and each is imbued with the flavors of the region. Unlike the potato-derived vodkas of Russia (and our local distillery here in Maine), the version made by Finger Lakes is distilled from grapes and retains the flavor of that local harvest. Their Seneca Drums Gin is also distilled from local grapes and infused with 11 different botanicals before a second distillation. And their new McKenzie Rye Whiskey starts with local grain and finishes in sherry barrels from local wineries, imparting a reminder of the distillery’s location in wine country. Their fruit-infused liqueurs are fairly bursting with the flavors of locally grown black currants, raspberries, blueberries, apples, and cherries; the distillery has 4 acres of its own grapes, and sources most of its other ingredients within a 50 mile radius.Utilizing locally grown produce, collaborating and cooperating with other regional businesses—these are “green” practices, which Finger Lakes has adopted at every step. “As far as the green aspect, we designed the building and business with that in mind,” Jenny says. Reclaimed lumber has gone into the construction of the distillery, from storage shelves to flooring. Process water is recycled, and heat generated during processing is used to heat the building’s water. Very little is wasted; “We work with local farmers to ferment and distill fruit that may otherwise go to waste because of bruising or having a slight flaw,” Jenny says. Even the spent grains from fermentation are not thrown away but fed to animals at local farms.
The distillery currently offers vodka, gin, corn and rye whiskeys, and a variety of liqueurs. While several of their products can be purchased at New York restaurants, bars, and select retail locations, some are only offered at the distillery. A tasting room and gift shop is open year round, offering an assortment of cocktail-related products and gifts (including the liqueur-inspired custom lip balms we created to "match" their most popular flavors—see Jenny's excellent photo!). “I decided to keep the gift shop focused around barware,” Jenny says. “I carry funny cocktail napkins, martini glasses, flasks, bar tools, logo merchandise and high end decanters and glassware. I also have cocktail infusers made by Teaforte that are pretty interesting. We also carry vintage cocktail books, mixers and bitters.”
Their self-distributed line may soon be expanding to a restaurant or retail location near you, but in the meantime you can visit them online at their web site and follow new product releases and distillery news on their Facebook page and blog! If you're visiting the Finger Lakes area, make sure to stop by for a visit (and a taste!)
Photos of the distillery © Finger Lakes Distilling.