Make Mine a Gin and FrolicFeb 01, 2023 09:00AM ● By Karin Knaus
Anise seed, date oatmeal cookies, citrus custard tart—these distinctive flavors might conjure up images of a sophisticated tea in the English countryside or an afternoon at Grandma’s kitchen table. But, with a refined gin palette, you can taste them all in one glass at Krooked Tusker Distillery on Keuka Lake. These flavors, as described by judges for the Beverage Tasting Institute, won Krooked Tusker’s gin—The QKA Navy—a score of 95/100 points and a spot in a Forbes magazine article on the best gins of 2022.
While gin isn’t the only spirit brewing at Krooked Tusker, it does hold a special place in the heart of Carlton Reeves, president and distiller of the business. The QKA Navy is just the latest in a cadre of gin varieties, this one featuring fifty-one botanicals, “some of which are not even indigenous to the states,” says Carlton.
If you make a stop at Krooked Tusker during the warmer months to try it out, you’re likely to pass a few jovial souls relaxing on the lawn in Adirondack chairs, or a couple on a Saturday afternoon relishing the music of a local artist on the deck. When it’s winter, come inside and find a warm space as open and colorful as the people serving the craft cocktails and tasting flights. If you’re fortunate enough to have Carlton join you while you sip, you’ll hear some merry tales about the imagination in the soul of all they do.
A look at their popular gin, Frolic, for example, leads to an entertaining yarn about Carlton building the structure with a group of Amish builders. “They’d say things like ‘we can’t work Thursday; we’re going to a frolic,’” Carlton recalls. He liked the sound of that, and who wouldn’t? So, he created a gin with a label that features a quilt pattern and a maiden frolicking through a pasture. His stories include credit where it’s due, especially for those who took part in creating any of their products. He’s quick to point out, for example, that one of the women offering tastings that day created some of the labels’ art.
Both Carlton and his tasting room manager, Christina Skelly, make it clear that developing new gin varieties is the root of the business’s distilling.
“If I could do whatever I want, every day, it’d be screwing around with gin. . . I try to use my imagination: the yin and yang,” he says. “If I use something sharp, I balance it with something botanical.” And he’s every bit hands-on in the distilling room, weaving tales about chopping mountains of strawberries and crying while grinding horseradish, both of which are flavors infused into their vodka varieties.
Prior to his “quality of life” move here with wife Anita, Carlton worked in the corporate world, traveling all over and taking him too far from home. One of the things that struck him during those years is that Americans don’t take vacation like the rest of the world. We’re never “heading off to the south of France for the month of July” to be ourselves. He wanted to create a space that allowed people to do just that—take a break, relax, and be who they are.
There’s a spirit of community at Krooked Tusker—they know that on the lakes, when one business thrives, all are better for it. Carlton believes community is the finest part of his business. So much so, the label of their Sleepless in South Pulteney barrel-rested gin features images of other South Pulteney establishments, including another distillery. Aren’t they the competition? Not for Carlton or his employees. As he puts it, “We’re all in this together. We’re better together.”
Carlton tells me, as I sip on the South Pulteney Pink gin, that it’s the people he’s met and the relationships he’s made that are the best part of the Krooked Tusker venture and experience. The slight pink hue in that gin comes from currants grown and gifted to him by the owners of Hunt Country Vineyards down the road. And convening at the bar this particular afternoon are Justin Recktenwald, owner of Wild Brute winery in Arkport—Carlton is collaborating with him on a brandy product—and another neighbor and friend who supplies the roses Carlton uses as a botanical.
The distillery also creates corn whiskeys, vodkas, bourbons, and even an absinthe. Carlton and Christina estimate they release a couple of new products each year—twenty-four in total during their six-year run. They’re particularly proud of their barrel-rested gins, including Midnight Frolic, the result of resting the original Frolic, which Carlton describes as a “thing to do on a sleepless night.”
The creative minds here work year-round. Carlton already has a few witty names scrawled on the white board in the distilling room to use when inspiration strikes on a new product. There’s a Bloody Mary bar each week for Sunday Funday around Keuka, where you can choose A Horse is a Horse horseradish-infused vodka. In early August each year, the distillery hosts a BBQ benefit with raffles and live music, this year benefitting Mercy Flight Central, a regional critical care air service. Each month, the Krooked Tusker designates a charity to receive 1 percent of all cocktail sales.
Visit Krooked Tusker at 10303 County Route 76 in Hammondsport on Monday, Thursday, and Sunday from noon to 6 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from noon to 8 p.m., with expanded hours when the weather turns warmer. Or call (607) 868-3006, go to krookedtusker.com, or find them on Facebook.