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Artvoice Weekly Edition » Issue v13n11 (03/13/2014) » Drinking Feature: Spirits

That Hometown Spirit

Buffalo Distilling Company CEO Frank Weber III with the company's custom-fabricated still.

The Buffalo Distilling Company reborn

From 1883 to 1918, the Buffalo Distilling Company produced various hard liquors under brand names like “Old Colonial Rye Malt” and “Golden Grain Whiskey” from its facility at Pratt and William streets in Buffalo. It was one of only a handful of distillers in the entire state, the majority of which were located in Buffalo—where corn, wheat, and rye from the Midwest arrived on Great Lakes steamers for storage in our massive grain elevators before transport to points beyond via the Erie Canal and railroad.

New York State distillers were taxed very heavily, however, and they were always at a disadvantage to those producers in the bourbon counties of Kentucky, for example. In New York, Prohibition dealt the final blow.

Now, nearly 100 years later, the Buffalo Distilling Company has been resurrected as a New York State Farm Distillery located in Bennington, New York.

While the local craft beer movement has been gaining momentum for the past couple decades, and New York State wines have roots going back to the 17th century in the Hudson Valley, smaller makers of distilled spirits have struggled with one major obstacle: It is illegal to produce heat-distilled alcohol without first getting appropriate certificates from the state and federal governments, and for many years those costs were exorbitant. While home brewers and bottlers of wine are free to hone their craft making small batches in the basement, the costs involved with becoming a distiller have been a big disincentive—to the benefit of the very large companies that make most of the liquor that’s commercially available today.

In 2007, the New York Farm Distillery Law eased the economic burden on novice distillers—as long as they source at least half of their raw materials from New York. It created an opportunity that Buffalo Distilling Company president Andy Wegrzyn and CEO Frank Weber III seized upon. They began the long permitting process.

“Everything you do, you have to get approval from the federal government, and you have to get the same approval, then, from the state government,” Wegrzyn explains. “And you can’t do any of them simultaneously.”

Drinking Facts


Over the Falls in a Barrel of Beer

Before Prohibition Buffalo produced so much beer—31 million gallons—that it could run over Niagara Falls for nearly two minutes

Weird Laws

All liquor stores in New York State must be owned by a single owner, who lives within a certain distance of the store. The law is meant to ban chain stores.

That’s Mr. Six-Pack to You

During the Blizzard of 1985, Mayor Jimmy Griffin earned the nickname “Jimmy Six-Pack” when he recommended that Buffalo residents “go home, buy a six-pack of beer, and watch a good football game” to weather the storm.

Republic of Beer

The Czech Republic consumes more beer per capita annually than any other country in the world. Germany comes in a not-so-close second.

Drinking Town

A 2010 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that 19.4 percent of people who live in the Buffalo Metro area are binge drinkers.

Good Neighbors

An online real estate site, Trulia, used 2012 Census data to show that there are 6.8 bars per 10,000 households in Buffalo.

Hair of the Dog

Buffalo was dubbed the fifth most hungover city in America, according to a list compiled by Business Insider. Omaha, Nebraska came in first.

Whisky River

An old folk song, “Ballad of the Canal,” hits on Buffalo’s love of whiskey drinking: “For the Erie is a-risin’, an’ the whiskey’s getting low. I hardly think we’ll get a drink, till we get to Buffalo.”

Beer Raid

Stein’s Hotel in Orchard Park was raided in 1930 for bootlegging.

An Anthem to Wine

Though the words in our nation’s anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner,” have nothing to do with drinking, the tune of the song was lifted from “To Anacreon in Heaven,” an 18th-century drinking song.

Blue York, Blue York

Blue Monk was named #1 Beer Restaurant in New York State in 2013 by RateBeer.com.

A would-be distiller first needs a permit to produce, and a license, from the feds and the state, before he can then get his label licensed and approved from both levels of government.

In the meantime, as this paperwork slowly moved through the levels of bureaucracy, they turned their attentions to the equipment they would need to make liquor. As the word implies, distilled alcohol is a more concentrated and purified form of an already alcoholic fluid. Basically, this is accomplished by boiling and then capturing the condensed vapor. In order to produce enough to make it commercially viable, they knew they would need a still of decent size.

This they learned by doing a lot of bookish research, along with absorbing the indispensible guidance of a long-time, out-of-state, bona-fide moonshiner whose knowledge had been lovingly handed down through generations south of the Mason-Dixon line.

After looking into purchasing a still that would suit their needs, they found the cost too prohibitive. Instead, through weeks of online correspondence with a manufacturer in China, they were able to agree upon a custom-designed stainless steel pot that is four feet in diameter. The copper portion above that, where the alcoholic vapor begins to collect, is part of what is called the neck—referred to by Wegrzyn as “the orb of flavor.” This portion was custom-built here in Buffalo by Koch Metal Spinning, which was established in 1939 and supplied the World War II effort. The orb of flavor is a one-of-a-kind, custom component that is a tweak of a design originally used as the fuel cell of a missile.

From there, the condensed vapor runs down a copper arm to a spigot where the distilled alcohol pours out. There is a blend of science and art in knowing when to begin capturing the stuff, since the initial flow is too harsh and too high a proof for commercial consumption.

As of February 2014, after years of work coordinating their course through legal hoops and engineering challenges, the reborn Buffalo Distilling Company is finally able to offer its first product to the public: a brandy made from apple cider picked and pressed by Smith’s Orchards near Lockport. Once the cider is mixed with special yeast and fermented, it is poured into the pot and the distilling process begins. The twice-distilled final product is an unbelievably smooth libation to sip—unlike any sort of overly sweet brandy you may have tried. The name of the 80-proof beverage is similarly distinct and unforgettable: One Foot Cock—the Original Humdinger. It is currently available as a clear, unaged version that mixes as if it were a vodka, as well as a small batch version aged in oak barrels for added smoothness.

Already being run through the still is their next offering, a bourbon-styled whiskey made of corn, rye, and barley with local spring water, which they hope to have available as soon as this summer.

For now, their initial offering is only available in a handful of bars and restaurants. Visit www.bflodistilling.com to learn where, since this list will be rapidly expanding. The goal, for One Foot Cock, “is to penetrate the local market and prepare for national release,” says Wegrzyn.

You can also try One Foot Cock—the Original Humdinger Apple Brandy at a special event this Saturday, March 15, at the Sportsmen’s Tavern (326 Amherst Street) during the 8:30pm performances by the Canal Street String Band and the Steam Donkeys.

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