South Fork Gets in On Farm-to-Bottle Movement

It was only a matter of time before the production of spirits found its way to the South Fork
Jason Cyril Laan and Michael McQuade devised their own recipe for rum, infusing a neutral spirit they import from Trinidad with a secret blend of flavors. Morgan McGivern

    With local artisans purveying such homemade comestibles as cheese, sea salt, and wine, it was only a matter of time before the production of spirits found its way to the South Fork. As the zeitgeist would have it, two such projects have emerged at the same time, and one local farm is selling product to a Brooklyn ginsmith.

    For years while tending bar at Murf’s, a Sag Harbor tavern built in 1792 from the wood of a whaling ship, Jason Cyril Laan said he was “always hoping to find a secret recipe for rum in the rafters.” Alas, neither he nor Michael McQuade, another bartender at the establishment, ever did. So the two rum drinkers did the next best thing: came up with their own.

    Taking advantage of the latter-day “explosion of local spirits,” the duo decided the world, or at least the South Fork for now, needed a flavored rum with character. With history in mind — rum originally was transported from the Caribbean in provision barrels that had formerly been used to store such ingredients as tropical fruits and spices — they found old bourbon casks in which to age their rum, then infused it with botanical extracts. The virgin rum, which they export from Trinidad after a six-time distillation process, is virtually flavorless.

    They’re not telling what flavorings were added, but a shot of the complex elixir expressed a robust cherry nose, a bitter coffee note, and a pronounced nuttiness on the palate. “We like to call it the ‘unrum rum,’ ” said Mr. Laan. “We steered away from traditional tropical spices.” The finished product makes a fine sipping spirit, and also a worthy partner for tonic water, the mixer of choice for Mr. Laan.

    Last summer the duo took their idea to Baiting Hollow’s Long Island Spirits, the folks behind Liv Vodka. They explained that they didn’t want the two-dimensional quality of flavored vodkas, but preferred a libation “that felt like it had been around the world on an old sailing ship.”

    Less than a year after finally saying to each other, “Let’s do it,” the pair will be bottling the aging spirit this week for its launch into local stores and restaurants today. A small-batch operation, the first run will be 12,048 bottles, and each batch will have its own unique flavor profile. So far, the liquor, which retails for $37, will be available at nine local establishments, among them the DePetris Liquor Store in Bridgehampton, Fresh Hamptons, Muse in the Harbor, and Bell & Anchor in Noyac.

    Next on the partners’ agenda will be to add ingredients grown close to home. “We’re trying to find ginger locally,” said Mr. Laan. They are also planning to make a “shrub,” a 17th-century cordial made with fruit, vinegar, and simple syrup, which they hope will make a formidable mixer. Meanwhile, they look forward to hearing what the Ministry of Rum, a drinking club that contacted the duo in order to taste their product, has to say about the latest sugar cane spirit.

    Sam Lester of Pantigo Farm in Amagansett doesn’t exactly make spirits, but he does sell beach plums to Brooklyn’s Greenhook Ginsmiths. The company distills an American dry gin laced with an unconventional blend of botanicals including chamomile, elderflower, cinnamon, and ginger, to which they add the wild fruit to make their rendition of sloe gin, traditionally made with sloe berries. Mr. Lester sells the company 750 pounds of the tart fruit per year. It has received rave reviews for what Greenhook calls “the world’s first ever commercially produced beach plum gin liqueur,” and is available at Domaine Franey Wines and Spirits in East Hampton.

    In a toast to the farm-to-bottle movement, Dean Foster of Foster Farm, a 460-acre potato farm in Sagaponack, intends to distill vodka from his own crops. It is a potentially lucrative move for a farmer determined to keep agriculture alive in an area that grows more houses than foodstuffs.

    Farming profits aren’t what they used to be, what with global competition, the high cost of living on the South Fork, and shipping costs. “So many things are against us,” he said. So he too is hoping to hitch his wagon to the growing demand for small-batch spirits.

    In 2012 his family purchased the old Kaminsky farm, which, he said, “is good land, 15 acres north of the highway,” as much to “save some of the heritage around here” as to make it the headquarters for his upcoming enterprise, Sagg Distillery. The location, near the railroad tracks, “presented a perfect spot for a farm distillery — not too close to neighbors” with a garage with pre-existing nonconforming status that can function as a small farm distillery to produce up to 400 gallons a year.

    Mr. Foster, whose family “showed up here in 1639,” had been incubating the idea for several years. It became a realistic proposition last year when Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo passed a law promoting small-batch craft spirits. He is in the process of getting his farm distillation permit, mandated by both the state and federal governments.

    The transition makes perfect sense when you consider that his potatoes have been used in several award-winning vodkas, the names of which he was reluctant to give. He has hired a master distiller who moved his family here from Utah and is living in a house on the farm.

    “I’m hoping to be up and running making recipes by September,” he said, “but I don’t see any distillation starting before the first of the year.” Vodka is just the beginning phase of his plan. “We’re going to move into fine whiskies, scotches, bourbons, and brandies — all estate grown.” His motto: “Grow local, drink local.”