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Hudson Whiskey’s Ralph Erenzo Tells How the Distillery Got Started

Written By: Eric Strand, The Whiskey Scout Award-Winning Hudson Whiskey Owner Shares Trials of Becoming Premier Brand
Photographed By: Mariusz Jeglinski

The Expert: Ralph Erenzo
Credentials: Hudson Whiskey Distiller, Partner, Brand Ambassador
Favorite non-Hudson Whiskies: Glenfiddich 12 and Glenfiddich 15

Hudson Whiskey is the first whiskey distillery in New York State since Prohibition and a true handcrafted spirit—from milling the grain to distilling to bottling and hand-numbering each product. The artisan brand started out small, but has come to gain notoriety within the industry and among consumers, being named Best Artisan Distiller of 2010 by the American Distilling Institute and Best New American Whiskeys 2010 by Food & Wine Magazine.

Ralph Erenzo brings 35 years of production and development experience to Hudson Whiskey. Prior to starting Hudson Whiskey, his business, ExtraVertical Inc., provided technical services to corporate and media clients for projects. Erenzo’s work at the state level has resulted in the passage of the Farm Distillery Act, which permits New York farms to establish distilleries on site and sell their agricultural spirits at the farm. A born and raised New Yorker, he has realized a lifelong dream of settling in the Hudson Valley.

Sitting back on a comfortable Southern California afternoon at Bosscat Kitchen in Newport Beach, Erenzo reminisces about Hudson Whiskey’s first 10 years. The journey started unexpectedly, and now the two-man startup is recognized as one of the world’s most respected craft whiskey distilleries. The path that would eventually lead Erenzo here began at the base of the Shawangunk Mountains, one of North America’s premier rock climbing destinations. An avid climber himself, Erenzo had dreams of creating a quiet climber’s ranch to allow fellow enthusiasts a convenient place to camp before tackling the cliffs. It seemed a perfect fit to cap off his 25-year climbing career. Having built and managed New York’s first indoor climbing gyms, including the ExtraVertical Climbing Center on Broadway, it was time to take it back to nature. Trouble started almost immediately for the soft-spoken entrepreneur, however. Neighbors rallied against the idea and began a barrage of legal challenges. The resulting feud could easily have been written in a dime-store novel of the Old West. Legal challenge after legal challenge was used to stall and drain Erenzo’s resources and resolve. In the end, the three-year battle was successful. Erenzo sold most of his property, and his beloved climbing ranch would never be.

What led him from that little town in Orange County, New York, to this little town in Orange County, California, is a tale of persistence, luck and, many times, just not knowing any better. Find out below why revenge is a glass best served neat.

Q: Let’s start from before the beginning. What happened with the climbing ranch?

Ralph Erenzo: One of the neighbors led people to think that all these loud, obnoxious New Yorkers would descend on their peaceful life, victimize their families and property. The damage was done and I couldn’t change anyone’s mind. Every time I would apply for a permit, which was always unanimously approved, they would file a lawsuit. One person came up to me and flat-out told me her plan was to stall me so long I ran out of money. And it worked. I had to sell off half the property and later the waterfront.

Q: That’s when you decided to try your hand at whiskey?

RE: No! I’m a Guinness guy. I decided to find out what I could do to make money that I had every legal right to, something nobody could stop me from doing. In that area, I had the right to agricultural activities. So I looked into wineries. That wasn’t for me! Around then, Brian Lee was interested in using the old water-powered grist mill on the property to make artisan flour. He decided that wasn’t for him. I had been looking into distilling, so I suggested we build a distillery together, but honestly, we knew nothing. Three days later he called and said, “OK. Let’s build a distillery.”

Q: So, that’s when you decided to try your hand at whiskey?

RE: No! Our first product was vodka made from apple scraps sourced from local farmers. That was going well, but Brian became interested in grains around 2005.

Q: And that’s when you decided to try your hand at whiskey?

RE: Yes! Brian sorted out the chemistry and we started with single grain because we didn’t know how to mix grains. That was our homework. We worked in the distillery all day, and at night we studied.

Q: You are the first distillery to open in New York since Prohibition. What was that like?

RE: There had been a law on the books setting the fee for licensing a distillery at $65, 000. But just a year before we started this, a new bill had been passed allowing a small distillery producing under 35, 000 gallons to get a three-year license for $1, 500. I was willing to risk that. This bill had been put through the legislature for a specific constituent who never wound up getting the license, so everyone was learning how to do this together.

Q: Was being the first distillery in New York since Prohibition a major selling point?

RE: When we went to go make our first sale, we looked for the most respected whiskey expert we could find. We came across a boutique owner by the name of LeNell Smothers. We called her up and said we had just started making whiskey in New York. She laughed, but invited us to go see her anyway. Turned out she liked it and bought our first batch of whiskey.

Q: When did you think Hudson had turned the corner from startup to an ongoing business?

RE: I’m reminded of some of the old jazz players who couldn’t even get a room in New York. They went to Paris and hit it big. When they returned home, they were treated like royalty. We tried to find the best places in Paris to get our whiskey placed. We met up with Maison du Whisky, one of the premier distributors in France. In 2008 they bought 75 cases and became our first export. When we returned to New York, we went to all the high-end places and told them our stuff was in all the best places in Paris.

Q: Not too long after, Hudson was picked up by William Grant & Sons, the company that owns the biggest selling single malt in the world, Glenfiddich. What was that like and how has it changed what you do?

RE: What they did was buy the Hudson brand. Technically, they are our client. We make all the whiskey, they buy it from us. The biggest change is that the quality of life on the road has improved! I don’t have to carry product in a suitcase like I did going through the Paris underground with two suitcases full of bottles. But the biggest change for the company is they have helped us improve our production so we can have a more efficient, cost-effective operation.

Q: What have been some of your biggest challenges?

RE: I can easily chart them on a graph. There was the climbing ranch, of course, but that was the first property I’ve ever owned and I’d be damned if I’d let myself get pushed off! In 2010 I was in a major car accident. I remember driving around a corner and then waking up in the hospital one month later. I was in surgical ICU for four months. My doctor told me I would need to go easy on my body, and that included no drinking. “Do you know what I do?” I asked. That didn’t seem to matter. Then in 2012, a fire burned through the farm. We were told we would be out of production for 12 months. We got together with the insurance company and worked out a plan. We were back up and running in three.

Q: What have been some unexpected successes?

RE: Everything! It was all luck. We started at the exact right time to get in on the emergence of whiskey. It was sometimes an advantage not knowing anything. We didn’t know what we couldn’t do. About two weeks ago a rare tornado came through. It touched down on one side of the property but then hopped over to the other side, passing us by.

Q: What are some of the challenges in selling your whiskey?

RE: The origin of Bourbon. People are still convinced Bourbon has to come from Kentucky. I used to carry around the Standards of Identity with me. Whenever there was a discussion about Bourbon, I could pull them out. I even started leaving copies with bartenders!

Q: We’ve talked a lot about where you’ve been, but what about where you are now? You’re celebrating 10 years and as a part of that you’re releasing 750ml bottles of your Baby Bourbon and Manhattan Rye instead of your iconic 375ml bottles. Why the change?

RE: The only reason we used the smaller bottles was because, in the beginning, we couldn’t afford to fill the larger bottles. Our operation was very primitive. Now with better production, where a 375 would sell for around $45, we can now sell a 750 for around $50. We will save the smaller bottles for special releases.

Q: Is that where the name Baby Bourbon came from—the little bottles?

RE: No, Brian and I were just playing around with names and we liked the alliteration!

Q: This journey started with angry neighbors afraid of a few hundred campers. Now you have thousands being bussed in on a regular basis. How are the neighbors handling this?

RE: The neighbor that started the opposition moved away. It turns out I had earned the respect of some of the older neighbors when I refused to back down. Hudson has been good for the community. We buy from the local farms, added local jobs, one neighbor sells flowers to our restaurant, and another has opened an art gallery.

Q: Have you ever thought about giving the neighbor that moved away a bottle of whiskey?

RE: No! But I would sell her one.

Q: Maybe now you could finally open your climbing ranch?

RE: They finally built a camp near the climbing area, so there’s no need for that. I guess I’ll never get my climbing ranch.

No Limits: Bourbon can be made anywhere in the U.S., even though the majority does come from Kentucky.

Size Doesn’t Matter: The standard whiskey bottle in the U.S. is 750ml. The standard in Europe is 700ml.

Grainy Outlook: After at least 51 percent corn, Bourbon is usually made of varying percentages of wheat, rye and barley. The final recipe is called the mash bill.

Wheat Did You Say? A “wheater, ” like the famous Pappy Van Winkle Bourbons, is a Bourbon that has a high percentage of wheat as its second-highest gain.

From the Flames: Because of the fire, Hudson released a “Double Charred” whiskey. The barrels are charred once on the inside and again on the outside.

Apple a Day: Hudson currently produces 90 percent whiskey and 10 percent other spirits, including its first product, vodka made from local apples.

Awards Hudson Has Won:

• Craft Whiskey Distillery of the Year, Whiskey Magazine

  Scored 92 out of 100 on The Tasting Panel in 2010

• Best U.S. Artisan Distiller of 2010, American Distilling Institute

• Best New American Whiskeys 2010, Food & Wine Magazine

Hudson Whiskey

www.hudsonwhiskey.com

Bosscat Kitchen & Libations

4647 MacArthur Blvd

Newport Beach, CA 92660

949.333.0917 | www.bosscatkitchen.com

R O C K /// Solid. Award-Winning Hudson Whiskey Owner Went From Rock Climbing to Building Distillery.