The future of liquor production might just be on the North Fork of Long Island. In Greenport, less than a mile from the buzzing Main Street waterfront, is where you’ll find Matchbook Distilling Company, with an industrial facility where you can learn the process of making your own spirits.
On August 16, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed legislation “authorizing custom liquor production for a non-licensed individual by farm distilleries.” Here’s why this could change everything: “The legislation is pretty landmark,” says Matchbook Distilling co-founder Leslie Merinoff, who was the driving force behind the bill. “For the first time since prohibition, you don’t need a license to distill yourself. You just have to go to a licensed distiller.”
Setting up a modest distillery, Merinoff estimates, could run you $250,000 for a 2,000-square-foot space. This, obviously, isn’t something many people or even many groups of friends can do as a hobby. But with this new legislation, you can go to Matchbook Distilling and create your own private-label whiskey starting at $15,000 per 53-gallon barrel. The Matchbook Distilling team will work with you on designing the labels and packaging. During the production process, you’ll be able to taste and adjust the spirit, which is made with New York agriculture. The whole thing takes four years, and you can be as hands-on as you want as tweaks are made.
“You can come in and produce it alongside us,” Merinoff says. “You can make the decisions that influence the liquid. Whether you have any ambitions for getting into the industry or not, it’s a really fun excursion into how spirits are created.”
Since this is your own private-label whiskey, Matchbook Distilling will only be mentioned in tiny fine print unless you want to give it a more significant shout-out. Beyond whiskey, Merinoff hopes to launch a bespoke gin program for the spring. For something simpler and less expensive, Matchbook Distilling can create a single-botanical distillate for you, maybe with a foraged ingredient or one particular herb from your own garden, for around $5,000.
While many customers will likely use Matchbook Distilling to make booze for their own private collection or for gift-giving, the distillery has the means to create spirits for bars, restaurants, and stores. It can also work with individuals or companies who want to create a new liquor brand.
Whatever you choose, Matchbook Distilling will mill all the grains on-site. The grains are funneled straight into mash tanks.
“All our water goes through charcoal, UV, and reverse osmosis,” Merinoff says during a July tour of the 38,000-square-foot distillery that cost $5.5 million to create.
There are 100-gallon, 300-gallon, and 600-gallon stills that allow Matchbook Distilling to make everything from small batches for enthusiasts to large quantities for some select commercial clients. The stills, which took two years to create, are built for various kinds of alcohol. Each still has columns, hammered whiskey helmets, and botanical baskets. There’s direct steam injection for grappa production.
The team at Matchbook Distilling, which plans to release booze made with botanicals like rose petal, green cardamom, white peppercorn, angelica root, and a blend of Italian and Croatian juniper this fall, also run The Lin Beach House in Greenport. That boutique hotel, the conversion of the old Shady Lady inn, includes the Days Like These cocktail bar and a tasting room where you’ll be able to try some of Matchbook Distilling’s spirits.
A lot of what Matchbook plans to make will likely defy typical categorization, but that’s part of the fun and part of the revolution.
“We’re fundamentally flavor-driven here, much more so than fitting our spirits into TTB [Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau] categories,” Merinoff says. “I think a lot of what we do will be classified as distilled spirit specialties. That’s fine. Who gives a fuck? We care much more about being able to create new flavor experiences for people.”
Merinoff welcomes ideas for new spirits. She wants clients to use the distillery’s on-site bar, which is set up like a commercial kitchen for elaborate tastings. She wants customers to interact with her chief distillers, Matt Spinozzi and Dean Babiar, and come up with flavor combinations together.
Babiar, who’s been drinking grappa since he was eight because his mother lives in Italy near a grappa distillery, is excited to make grappas and brandies as he plays around with grape-distilled spirits in North Fork wine country. He’s also the head winemaker at Jamesport Vineyards, so he understands the terroir here.
Spinozzi has been experimenting with sunchokes in a spirit that tastes like a funky mezcal. On the day we visit, he’s setting up shelves in his lab while the World Cup streams on a laptop. He’s been using the lab to test out things like the difference in flavor of junipers from around the world.
“If I get juniper from Croatia vs. Bulgaria vs. Italy, those are three very different junipers,” he says.
There’s also juniper you can forage in New York, but that’s different from the main species of juniper that’s used in gin.
“It’s cool to allow people to compare,” he says. “We’ll have a botanical library where we will have a bunch of varietals of juniper.”
One goal at Matchbook Distilling is empowering clients to find the ingredients that most please their palates, whether it’s palo santo or cloudberry or something much more common that they’ve overlooked.
Merinoff is only getting started in her quest to revolutionize the liquor industry.
“We’re working on other legislation that will allow farms to outsource their production to us and other craft distilleries,” she says. “Farming is a brutal business, and the margins are just terrible. “We want to be able to distill for farms and do single-estate spirits like single-vineyard wines exist.”
If this legislation passes, farms would be able to generate more revenue by having Matchbook Distilling make alcohol with produce that doesn’t meet cosmetic standards but is perfectly fine to consume. The farms could sell the spirits to bars and restaurants or offer it directly to consumers on their own farm stands. We look forward to a future where going to a North Fork farm stand means being able to buy some private-label liquor along with some heirloom tomatoes and a beautiful fruit pie.
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