Our New Favorite Single Malt Whisky Comes From … New York?

A day at Tenmile Distillery reveals the potential of American small-batch whisky made from local grains.

By Shane Mitchell

Published on August 11, 2023

The weather gods have not been kind to the Hudson Valley this summer. Waterways flooded, roofs ripped off, trees downed, crops flattened. Radar maps splashed with streaks of red like tomato sauce stains on an apron. Some people might be tempted to quit; then again, what is it they say about farmers being the ultimate optimists? It requires a certain resilience to grow what is meaningful to a place, let alone create a prize-winning whisky that is finally about to receive a designation of origin from the U.S. Treasury Department’s Tax and Trade Bureau. It’s the kind of game-changer that might give the old guard of the brown spirits world restless nights.

On sunnier days while driving down certain winding stretches of New York State’s Taconic Parkway, the Berkshires heave into view to the east, and then a few miles farther down the road, the Catskills appear across the Hudson, where the westerly peaks turn purple in the low light of dusk. This almost absurdly romantic backdrop enraptured mid-19th-century landscape painters like Thomas Cole and Frederic Edwin Church, and spawned an art movement known as the Hudson River School.

Since childhood, the vista has always caught my breath. The temperate valley between these two old mountain ranges certainly catches rain clouds. The region has a long history of agriculture, dating back to early Dutch settlements in the 1660s, with first crops like wheat and rye, hops and barley, grapes and apples. An obvious byproduct was booze: applejack, hard cider, brown spirits, beer. A wealthy brewer founded the college I attended in Poughkeepsie—on Founder’s Day every year, it was customary for the president of Vassar to chug a pitcher of beer, although I hear the practice has since gone out of vogue. (Shall we say the legal drinking age was lower back then?) More recently, with the passage of state liquor laws that incentivized microbrewers and distillers to launch projects here, the Hudson Valley has seen a new boom in production of small batch beverages.

Photography by Daniel Seung Lee; Art Direction by Kate Berry

“Our whiskies and beers taste like here,” said Dennis Nesel, owner of Hudson Valley Malt, based in Germantown. A retired financial adviser with a grizzled goatee, he now favors overalls and wields an old-fashioned malt rake. “We call it re-localization. There was a time when the grains were grown here and shipped downriver by sloop, but after Prohibition all that stuff moved West, so we're bringing it back, trying to make the supply chain grown here, harvested here, distilled here.”

That aspiration has shaped a three-way collaboration. The others include a third-generation farmer, as well as one of the newest distilleries in a pocket valley near the Massachusetts border, where the family behind Tenmile Distillery is gambling on a rising demand for American single-malt whisky. Note: no “e.” We’re not talking bourbon or rye, but closer in spirit to uisge beatha, Scotland’s original water of life.

Photography by Daniel Seung Lee; Art Direction by Kate Berry

A few weeks before the valley was swamped with torrential rains, I climbed into a utility truck with farmer Ken Migliorelli to look at one of his fields planted with winter Scala barley. “We’re about a week away from harvesting,” he said, as we parked along the rural road near his crop outside the town of Tivoli. It’s a pretty grass, with a spiky seed head on a long stem that turns from emerald green to platinum blonde as it dries in the sun. Migliorelli took to farming when he was a teenager, and eventually expanded his family’s vegetable business, adding a fruit orchard, farm stands, and weekly market stalls, including Union Square Greenmarket in Manhattan. He still grows the same variety of broccoli rabe his grandparents brought over when they emigrated from the Lazio region of Italy in the 1930s. Citing the new demand for spirit grains, the 63-year-old farmer has almost 350 acres of barley and another 50 acres of rye in cultivation, despite the challenges he faces growing these crops in the Hudson Valley.

Photography by Daniel Seung Lee; Art Direction by Kate Berry

“In 2021, that was a rough July,” he said. “It just started raining and wouldn’t stop. I lost the barley that we were combining because it pre-germinated out in the field. I could only sell it for animal feed.”

The vagaries of weather are a standard risk for any farmer; however, this spring a half-acre barn went up in a blaze, and Migliorelli lost 15 tons of barley, hay, tomato stakes, and a lot of equipment. His neighbors and loyal customers launched a fundraiser to help rebuild. He gazed out at his waves of grain, undaunted. For him, it’s one crop out of dozens during a year that starts with tender greens and crescendos with apple picking season.

When harvested, Migiolrelli’s grain heads to the malt house, less than ten miles away, for the next step in the process. “It's a pretty tight circle from here to Dennis, and then down to Tenmile,” he said.

On a good day at Hudson Valley Malt, Nesel and his wife Jeanette Spaeth load 6,000 pounds of malted barley, rye, or wheat into a kiln. By hand. That’s the last step after the raw grain has been steeped and raked in a thin layer on a smooth concrete floor to germinate and develop the sugars that will convert to alcohol. “Floor malting is a craft and an art,” he said. “We do it old school, the way it was done in the 1850s. It’s definitely not glory work.”

Nesel and Spaeth both grew up in the Hudson Valley. After retiring from corporate life, they decided to convert their horse barn instead of downsizing. In 2015, they recognized that area distillers needed a local malting operation. (They have a hopyard as well.) “It would be too easy to go south, but we’re not snowbirds,” he said. “I was looking for a way for our farm to be more sustainable.”

Photography by Daniel Seung Lee; Art Direction by Kate Berry

The turnoff for Tenmile Distillery is a shunpike called Sinpatch. An apparent allusion to the area’s checkered past, it leads to the repurposed barn complex with a tasting room and a dining patio next to a parked vintage Airstream that belongs to Westerly Canteen, a restaurant popup serving a seasonal snack menu sourced from Hudson Valley producers. While in residence, chefs Molly Levine and Alex Kaindl celebrate summer with floral infusions, delicate crudos, and heirloom vegetables. In addition, chef Eliza Glaister of Little Egg favors wild game for her popups and occasional private tasting dinners.

Photography by Daniel Seung Lee; Art Direction by Kate Berry

When the couple delivers a load of malt, Tenmile’s master distiller Shane Fraser takes over. He walked me into the darkened cask warehouse where his single malt rests in French oak barrels that once held sherry, bourbon, and California pinot noir. (Tenmile founder John Dyson, who formerly served as New York State’s agricultural commissioner, also owns Williams Selyem Winery in Healdsburg.) Born in Aberdeen, Fraser learned his trade at several marquee distilleries, including Royal Lochnagar and Oban, before taking on the lead role at Wolfburn, a startup in the far north. Almost no one who achieves the elevated title of master distiller leaves the job security of his peat-and-heather homeland, but Tenmile presented Fraser with a challenge almost unheard of back in Scotland: creating a new brand of single malt. His first batch of fresh New Make—what we call moonshine or white dog—was barreled in January 2020. He also experimented with unorthodox cask woods, including smaller Italian cherry and chestnut barrels typically used for aging balsamic vinegars, because regulations remain fluid in the States for now. Fraser patted one on a rack. “That’s the thing with the new designation,” he said. “You have to be careful to make sure that it will be defined as American single malt. Because when those rules come out, you can't use cherry.”

Photography by Daniel Seung Lee; Art Direction by Kate Berry

Currently, single malt producers in the States number fewer than 100, which means it's still an exclusive club, but not the stuffy kind full of tufted leather chairs and cigar smoke. Establishing a formal standard of identity, and having that recognized at the federal level, will give distilleries here a better chance to compete against the global establishment. Single malt no longer means it has to taste like a burned-over bog.

Fraser pointed out another 140 acres of Ken Migliorelli’s ripening spring barley planted beyond a formal apple orchard and beehives. Then we entered the whitewashed brick dairy, where copper stills imported from Scotland have been installed behind a glass curtain wall in the converted great room. The bar, at the opposite end, has a full cocktail program designed around the distillery’s gin, vodka, and whisky.

Fraser and I sat down in the wood-paneled tasting room, and he poured a cask strength dram of Little Rest, Tenmile’s first edition bottling, into my tumbler.

Photography by Daniel Seung Lee; Art Direction by Kate Berry

We lifted glasses to our noses.

“I get tropical fruits coming through,” he said. “Some chocolate notes, and once it sits awhile on the tongue, there’s a bit of spice, almost like cinnamon. Every time you go back to it, you smell something different, because it’s so young and still got a bit of life to it. Some of the older whiskies, when you smell them, it’s like, well, whisky.”

I took a sip.

The Little Rest was released this April, after three years and a day in barrels, the minimum to be officially characterized as whisky. Comparably light in style, more like a subtle Speyside than a peaty Islay.

“You can see what a little rest does,” said Fraser.

He told me that someone else compared the flavor to a green Jolly Rancher, and sure enough, it did have a perky apple note. 

Rain or shine, it tasted like home.


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