Field to FlaskFeb 01, 2024 09:00AM ● By Lilace Mellin Guignard
Myer Farm Distillers sits on Route 89 overlooking the west side of Cayuga Lake—that is, if you can get above the trees for the view. It was probably more visible in 1868 when John and Joe Myer’s great-grandfather bought the Grove Farm to stake his claim outside Ovid, an area their ancestors helped settle in 1789. John, a fifth-generation farmer, took over the 900-acre farm from his father, LeConte, and now it’s one of the largest and oldest currently operating organic farms in the northeast. In 2012, he and his brother Joe, who lives in the farmhouse their father grew up in, opened a distillery on site, working together to bring the family farm into the twenty-first century.
The tasting room attached to the distillery—designed to evoke the malt houses of Scotland, from where their ancestors emigrated—is inviting. A feeling of warmth comes from the amber and honey-colored bottles on the shelves and from old photographs. It emanates from the copper still. But there’s more to the feeling than clever interior decorating. There’s contentment, a rightness that hums below the surface of things. The room isn’t fancy or adorned, and it doesn’t try to evoke another time or place. It is unapologetically now and here, almost as if it’s not just whiskey, gin, vodka, and liqueur that are crafted in this spot but also something rare and artisanal in the human spirit.
On the surface, this all seems like a straightforward story of traditions kept, legacies honored, land stewarded, and spirits distilled. It is a story of all that, but it isn’t straightforward and was far from inevitable. Even with a bond to a place going back centuries, belonging isn’t always easy.
A Tale of Two Brothers
John and Joe are two of eight siblings. John is the eldest son and third-born, and Joe is number seven. They stay in touch, with all but one living within an hour or so of each other. But when John went off to college in the seventies, he had no intention of returning. The environmental movement was getting started. John studied plant ecology and natural resources, and dreamed of a life working in environmental science. He did not miss milking cows.
“Jobs were scarce in the seventies,” John says. During his time at Cornell, he’d come home weekends and help on the farm. When he graduated with his BS in general studies in agriculture, he saw a way to be his own boss and put his own stamp on the place. It’s not like it’d always been a dairy farm. His grandfather raised meat chickens. When his dad was sixteen, in 1935, he’d switched to cows.
“I was interested in organic farming and wanted to give it a try,” John remembers. “Dad said, ‘You’re crazy. You can’t do it without chemicals.’” John saw that the equipment was worn out. He knew they had good soil, and he enjoyed growing things. So, instead of replacing the milking machines, he sold the thirty cows and looked around for earlier-style equipment used for organic weed control before the boom in chemical use. In 1981, when he started transitioning to organic, there wasn’t the abundance of Amish and Mennonite farmers the area has today. John was a maverick. While his first planting of organic wheat yielded a bumper crop, “I sat on it, trying to find the market,” he explains. No one wanted to pay extra for organic. It was a tough start.
The farm was mostly organic by 1984. He focused on hay for horses, and soybeans, which sold easily. Slowly he added corn and smaller tracts of spelt, barley, rye, oats, clover, alfalfa, and triticale (a hybrid of wheat and rye). His dad watched from a quarter mile away, where he’d built his house and lived with his wife, Ruth, and raised their eight kids.
So, the farm was prospering, John had a family of his own, but something was off. His brother Joe was living again on the family land, helping here and there, but working in Ithaca. John says simply, “I didn’t think he was happy. Joe had a creative curiosity that could get bored.” Year after year he watched his kid brother, whom he knew to be a multi-talented man with depressive episodes since childhood, go through the motions of life. John started thinking of ways to involve Joe’s gifts, wondering what project they could work on that would get Joe back on the farm full-time.
The Poet and the Plastic Doll
Joe is the public face of the distillery, and likely to be working in the tasting room if he’s not busy distilling, bottling, or labeling. His is a smiling face with blue eyes that actually twinkle. He’s a poet, so may abhor that cliché (though it’s true). There are thirteen years between the brothers, and one of John’s strongest memories of Joe as a little boy is him holding the violin at age three. All the kids learned piano from their mother, who was the organist and choir director at Interlaken Reformed Church. Many siblings went on to learn other instruments, though John admits he was the least musical of them all (but the most farmer). Why did Ruth start Joe on the violin so early? John says, “I think Mom just decided that’s what Joe needed.” She used the Suzuki method—it creates an environment for learning music which parallels the linguistic environment of native language acquisition.
Joe, an artist in everything he does, is proficient in words, music, and color. It appears his mother recognized his aptitude early. Perhaps it was when she realized he was a synesthete—when he hears a C-sharp he sees a deep violet. He experiences several other tones simultaneously as color, including 440 Hz Concert A—it’s what orchestral instruments tune to—as a silvery white. Joe was told growing up that “you’ve got to develop your talents.” It was a message he took to heart.
“Childhood was at times beautiful and magical, but at times it was traumatic and painful,” he says. An innately sensitive person, those extremes coexisted as naturally for him as sound and color. His dad wasn’t home much—up at 4 a.m., home for lunch, back to work and home for supper at 6:30 p.m., office work, and then bed. Joe didn’t spend much time with him until he was old enough to help herd cows and unload hay. Then he rode around in the truck with his dad, who would give the kids Mounds candy bars to keep them quiet. Joe was thirteen when they sold the herd.
“I missed the cows and the chores—the rhythm of that life—so bad,” he says.
He loved falling asleep hearing his mother practicing Chopin’s nocturnes. “And Bach, especially on Sundays.” He describes playing Bach as “like dancing inside a four-dimensional geometric orchid.” When Joe was in fifth grade, he won a Suzuki violin competition that would take him and a couple dozen other students on a performing tour to play at Carnegie Hall, Atlantic City’s Boardwalk, and Disney World. But Joe had started having depressive episodes, and refused to go because he’d be too homesick. “John offered to travel the country with me and the group,” Joe says, “and camp with his then-girlfriend so that at least some family would be there with me.” Even though he didn’t go, he never forgot his brother had cared enough to make that offer.
Joe graduated from Roberts Wesleyan University in 1989 with a degree in music performance for piano and violin. But he wouldn’t stick with just one art form. Or just art. He’d missed cows so much he went to work for Doc Mehling on his dairy farm in Interlaken. While there, he developed his drawing and painting. Professional artists would tell him he needed to pick one thing, but Joe, remembering what he’d been told about talents, responded, “I don’t think so.”
From the 1990s through 2010, Joe published poetry in journals, played violin and piano on professional recordings, and gave private music lessons. For twenty years he exhibited and sold his visual art. Joe started JMyer Holsteins, a pure-bred stud bull husbandry business. He ran it for seven years, generating nationally and internationally ranked stud bulls. He was also working for John on the farm some of this time. “I love to work,” he says, “so I’ve usually worked sixty to eighty hours a week for most of my adult life.” In one of his poems, “In Your Path,” he describes the worlds found along the forest path that most people never see, and writes “beneath the calm moss, the ants are always working—.”
There was a lot going on beneath Joe’s calm exterior, too. His Dad’s mom, Susie, whom he considered to be his best friend, had died in 1987. His grandma’s non-judgmental and unconditional love had been his touchstone while he was figuring out who he was as a young man. He says, “When she passed, just six weeks shy of turning ninety-seven, I was devastated. Even after I moved into this house of hers in 1991, I was bereft. I wandered the woods and fields and streams calling for her.” Once when hiking across fields to a neighbor’s abandoned house and farmyard, checking out various outbuildings, he went into a hog shed. “Just inside the doorway was a naked doll with its eyes locked open. Very startling to see as you might imagine.” He wrote a poem capturing the moment, which concludes with:
Nothing escapes those unclosed eyes.
Every fall I come back to ask
what that gaze is good for
when your mouth is always shut,
when you stay in just one place.
He says, “I guess I identified with feeling abandoned. My parents were loving and supportive, but being gay was an issue and sorting out that aspect of myself was a challenge, as it is for anyone who doesn’t fit into the mold of what is accepted.” As an introvert and an artist, Joe was a great observer and analyzer of life but “had just started to open my mouth and speak back to the world what I saw.”
By this time Joe had completed his MFA in poetry while still living on the farm and working at Cornell, where he’d settled into a position in 2007 as an administrative assistant in Human Development. But, “I didn’t feel like I’d found my ‘work home’ yet, my place in the world.”
At a particularly low point in 2009, Joe experienced his dark night of the soul and heard a voice call to him, “Go see John!” “Even though it was two or three in the morning, I got into my car and drove to John’s place,” he says. “He answered, thinking I was his dog at the door, and sat with me and let me get it all out.” Joe thinks this moment was the true start of them founding the distillery.
In 2010, Joe attended a distillers conference in Geneva. Unbeknownst to him, John went to a distillers conference in Rochester that same year. Joe came back with a clear message from the universe saying, “You must do this.”
John says, “I had no doubt that he could do it. He’s very organized and thorough—always has a good attitude.” Joe describes himself as an all-in guy when he’s doing something. Though he still plays piano and violin for himself, he doesn’t write or paint anymore. “Now,” John says proudly, “he’s making bourbon.”
From Planting to Pouring
So, the brothers designed and built a facility. They bought a 650-liter copper pot still handcrafted by Germany’s oldest fabricator. Joe made his first wort—the base of whiskey—and distilled his first batch in June 2012. The tasting room opened its doors that October. First on the shelves was the John Myer Bourbon, which highlights John’s wheat. “It’s nice to be able to take some of the grain and keep it and see it get processed by my brother,” says John. It was quickly followed by corn whiskeys, ryes, gins, vodkas, and liqueurs.
Myer Farm Distillers is a New York State Farm Distillery, a designation showing they use at least 75 percent ingredients from within the state. More remarkable than that, it’s an estate distillery, a term indicating that all the grain comes from their own farm. Most of the botanicals and fruits used are sourced within twenty miles. The ginger for the ginger vodka and ginger rye is grown in greenhouses five miles away at Good Life Farm (also the home of Finger Lakes Cider House). The organic grain is certified by Where Food Comes From Organic. “Being an artist, I like full control,” Joe admits. As they say, they plant the seed that produces the spirit.
And they honor those who planted the seed that produced the legacy they carry forward, though the parents and grandparents whose faces grace the labels weren’t drinkers. Joe says of their late father “The man opened a bottle of wine at Thanksgiving and finished it at Christmas.”
Their parents tried some of their spirits, though, and “Mom did discover that she enjoyed the gin.” She also mentioned that she thought Joe’s beloved grandma “would be rolling in her grave if she knew I made the fig liqueur in her name,” Joe recalls. The photo on Electa Fig Liqueur (Electa was Susie’s middle name; she gave Joe Fig Newtons when he was little) is of her at age sixteen. He’d found the old negatives in the attic the year before they opened the distillery. That find, he believes, was something of a sign.
Their dad died in 2016 at age ninety-seven, and never got to taste LeConte’s Repair, a coconut liqueur reminiscent of the Mounds bars handed out from the glovebox. He did, however, come around to John’s farming methods, transitioning the 100 acres he still farmed in his seventies and eighties to organic. Ruth gave piano lessons up until she died two years ago at ninety-six. “She always wanted to be called Ruthie,” Joe says, “but no one did.” So, he named the coffee liqueur Ruthie’s Music, both for her piano playing and the coffee she drank “from dawn ’til dusk.” Her mother, Clara, also a church organist and piano teacher, has a chocolate liqueur in her name, made distinctive by the Vietnamese cacao roasted by Rue Claire in Lodi, who also grows the lavender for their lavender vodka.
Nikki Reese, the tasting room manager and marketing assistant, is behind the counter when John Spencer, a regular, walks in and starts stacking bottles by the register. He and his daughter are buying for friends they’ll see over the holidays. Having introduced these friends to Myer Farm spirits, he jokes, “We’re like mules now.” His favorite is the single malt bourbon. Nikki—whose favorites are the coffee vodka, wheat whiskey, and Cinnamon Lake flavored whiskey—rings them up. She’s also the mixologist and shares her original recipes online. On the counter is a display of stainless steel and copper jewelry for sale, featuring Cayuga Lake stones, designed and made by John and Joe’s sister, Denise. Their sister Cindy works in the tasting room as well.
Myer Farm spirits have won many awards since 2012, with their most prestigious ones in 2019 from the American Distilling Institute at the crafts spirits conference in Denver. Their Cayuga Gold Barrel Aged Gin won double gold and best in category. The Myer Farm Gin, Joe’s favorite, also won a gold. After the pandemic, Joe says he stopped sending products out to compete. He’s happy with where the business is now and has not had a depressive episode since they opened.
“When I was younger,” says Joe, “I abhorred business and people who cared about money in any way. I was an artist, and focusing on making art was all that mattered to me.” But now he realizes how much creativity goes into starting a business, “right down to what the building looks like and smells like.” His goal is not to grow bigger, but to keep evoking a specific reaction in customers. He likes to hear them say, “This is the best spirit I’ve ever had. It’s a work of art.”
As for John, “I’d like to see the farm prosper.” He turns seventy next year and has ideas about who might carry on after him, but adds it’s at least fifteen years down the road before he hands anything over. John thinks that being on the Cayuga Wine Trail is a great spot for their distillery. “Thirty years ago, the Finger Lakes couldn’t make a red wine to save their lives. But now!”
Both think their parents liked seeing their sons working together in the place they grew up. Terroir, the environmental and geologic factors that winemakers credit for the distinctive taste of their grapes, is harder to detect in spirits because of the distilling and aging. But since they grow their grain organically, Joe says there certainly is an aspect of that to what they produce. “The soil nurtures the grain in a different way. The soil is a living thing.” He credits the importance of place in other ways, too. “I tried to move away and missed the fields so much,” Joe says. “I had to move back and accept that sometimes staying in one place is just fine if you know how to move around the spheres and circles of life in a way that draws the people to you who you want to interact with.”
You can interact with Joe, the staff, and the spirits at Myer Farm Distillers at 7350 State Route 89 in Ovid. Winter hours are 1 to 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Find out more at myerfarmdistillers.com, on Facebook, or give them a call at (607) 532-4800. Their spirits are also sold throughout Ithaca and the central Finger Lakes, but, given that estate distilleries are few and far between, you might as well go right to the source. It’s worth the drive.