Here’s a conversation you won’t hear often in the Finger Lakes—or, in fact, in very many places around the world:
“Something’s showing through that I don’t like. It’s the angelica root, I think.”
“You’ve got allspice and black pepper in there, too, don’t you?”
“Is there lemon and grapefruit in there, because I think they could help.”
“I was thinking maybe about adding a bit of lavender to brighten it up.”
“I’d kill the angelica root, and I also think the coriander’s too strong. Cut that down a little bit, too, and I think you’ll have the complexity and the floral notes that you’re looking for.”
It’s an animated, cheery, yet quite serious discussion about gin that did, indeed, take place recently—I know because I was part of it—and it’s also one that Brian McKenzie, owner and president of Finger Lakes Distilling, hopes to be hearing more often. Brian and his crew at FLD, one of the first craft distilleries in New York, have recently rolled out a new program called the OriGINal Gin Workshop—intentional emphasis on the “gin” in “original.” rough it, groups of up to eight people can, with the help of Brian and FLD head distiller Jared Baker, create their own blend of gin, distill it, make labels for it, and take home forty 375-milliliter bottles of their concoction.
Gin, one of the oldest and broadest spirits known to man, is believed to have origins in the Middle Ages. Billy Joel sang about it, Julia Child credited it and “red meat” for her longevity, and W.C. Fields said of it that he never drank anything stronger “before breakfast.” Basically a fermented and/or distilled grain mash, it was used as a medicine in Holland in the early 1600s to treat stomach issues and was made more palatable by being flavored with juniper. It’s also one of the best selling spirits at FLD, which also produces whiskey, bourbon, vodka, and brandy, among other spirits.
Brian McKenzie opened the distillery in 2006 with his life savings after the bank where he had been working was bought out. He has been thinking about a gin workshop for a while and thinks now is the perfect time for it—a complete hands-on experience from start to finish.
“The premise is that people are looking for more experiential opportunities when it comes to their beverage alcohol,” he says. “The idea is basically to give individuals the ability to come in and make their own gin, which is not easy to do.” What distinguishes different gins are the various botanicals—in addition to the distinctive juniper—that impart flavor profiles and complexities to the beverage. The workshop will explain that and will give participants the opportunity to taste and experiment with nearly two dozen botanicals in their gin. To showcase the structure of the program, Brian invited Joe Kennedy, co-owner of the Linden Social Club in Geneva, and Scott Thomas, “spirit consultant” at Northside Wine & Spirits in Ithaca, to a recent demonstration. “These guys know more about spirits than pretty much anyone I know,” says Brian.
Jared Baker—who aptly enough used to be a chemistry professor at Elmira College before coming to work for FLD two years ago—distilled twenty-one different botanicals into twenty-one glass gallon jugs of 100-proof, clear liquor. Those botanicals included everything from juniper and coriander—the two main spices in traditional gin—to more exotic ones such as angelica root, dandelion leaf, grapefruit peel, lavender, nutmeg, orris root, peppermint, and rose hips. Using simple glass pipettes to draw the liquids and a scorecard of sorts to record which botanicals are used and at what ratios, it’s then up to the workshop gin-makers to mix and match flavors until they nail down something they enjoy. Which, by the way, led to the conversation at the opening of this story among Jared, Joe Kennedy, and Scott Thomas. Truth be told, in our session, the experimenting with the flavors was hit or miss—mostly miss.
“I found out that I’m far from knowing how to make gin, and I have a little more respect for people who blend those botanicals,” says Joe, adding that gin is a favored spirit among bartenders because of its ability to take on other flavors. Scott gave it three tries before hitting on a combo of flavors that he liked.
“The first one didn’t work out well,” he laughs. “Too much angelica root. This one is a little more citrus-forward; it’s nice. I’ve got the orange peel and grapefruit peel, and a lot of peppermint to balance it out.”
Workshop participants should expect to spend four to five hours. The experience includes a Gin 101 course, a labeling party, and an FLD tour. The all-inclusive price of the OriGINal Gin Workshop is $1,000, and groups, from one to eight people, can split the cost. Forty 375 ml bottles will be produced. (You can schedule a workshop by contacting Katie Budd at [email protected] or  546-5510, ext. 11.) Gin-makers will grind their own botanicals and decide what the base alcohol will be—corn, wheat, and grapes are the most popular. Using an eight-gallon “Wee Still,” Jared will make what is called the “head cut,” or start, of the gin. The group will be able to tweak things before the final—or “tail”—cut is produced and will decide the proof they want, which is determined by cutting the gin with purified water and is generally between eighty and one hundred proof. They actually could walk out with their gin that day, though Jared says it is better to let it rest a week or two in a tank to mellow and develop flavors. Either way, FLD handles the bottling.
“We’re also planning on keeping a few bottles on site,” Brian says, “so that if you’re out and about tasting with friends and you stop in for a tasting, you can give them a taste of your own gin. It’s right here.”
And chances are, that’s when the discussion will start again.