The way that the Orange County Distillery got started sounds like an indie film script about two friends who, on a fateful Christmas Eve, were drinking and chatting when they stumbled upon a great idea.
The dialogue goes like this:
John: Hey Bryan, I have 6,000 pounds of sugar beets sitting in my warehouse—do you wanna make vodka?
Bryan: Yeah, sure.
And that’s literally, how it all began.
Fifth-generation farmer John Glebocki and Bryan Ensall, owner of a lawn care franchise in Orange County, New York, found that they both had time on their hands during their annual four-month winter offseason.
Black Dirt and Small Batches
That’s when they decided to take their friendship to the next level and partner up to make some moonshine. Except that they have a license, and what they make is far from the bootleg moonshine that used to make people go blind. The two friends founded the Orange County Distillery almost exactly one year ago within a stone’s throw of the famous black dirt fields of Goshen.
Glebocki and Ensall are hands-on in the truest sense of the word.
“We grow everything. John grows every single ingredient we need—the sugar beets, the corn, the rye, the barley, and the botanicals. So we don’t buy a single ingredient from anybody else, which is very rare. We have complete control,” said Ensall.
They make small batches: sugar beet vodka; gin laced with aromatics like lemon balm, citrus mint, angelica root, coriander, sumac, lavender, and of course juniper; and five types of whiskey. They distill a corn whiskey, a bourbon, an unaged single malt whiskey, and an aged version of the single malt, which they are currently aging in the same charred barrels previously used for the bourbon.
As Ensall recounted their short journey with a very steep learning curve, you could smell the next batch of gin cooking with the aroma of juniper.
“We don’t have any background, neither of us has taken a class. It’s just a lot of reading, and trial and error. That’s how we learned,” said Ensall.
On our visit to the distillery, they had made a minuscule batch of honey whiskey which, for now, can only be tasted at the distillery. It was another experiment that exceeded Ensall and Glebocki’s expectations and there are plans afoot to make more later.
As we discussed the humble sugar beet, Ensall wondered why there isn’t more sugar beet vodka available, because “it turns out that sugar beet vodka is quite unique and very good, and people love it. Restaurants love it the most.”
While demand for their spirits is growing, for now, they sell from their farm and, luckily for New York City restaurateurs, they are the first and only distillery ever allowed at a New York City farmers market—more precisely at Union Square and Brooklyn’s Fort Green market.
That has turned out to be a good distribution channel to restaurants and bars because they go there to source produce and taste local ingredients. As word is spreading, so is the demand for Orange County Distillery spirits.
Ensall points out that they can match medium-size distilleries with their current equipment and although there are plans to expand, the two friends are thinking long-term.
Irene Took the Onions and Everything Else
Glebocki, the farmer, has been thinking long-term ever since superstorm Irene flooded his fields and he saw his crops, as well as the other farmers’ crops, floating for days in its aftermath. Their plans are to diversify so that if something like a hurricane hits again, Glebocki still has a fall-back crop, should another one fail. And as Ensall points out, alcohol has an unlimited shelf life, unlike corn or onions. He is currently growing spring onions—a typical spring crop—as far as the eye could see on his fields.
The operation strives for sustainability. All the water used in the distilling process goes back out to the ditch that waters the fields.
Where Does the Moonshine Go?
And then there’s the high-proof alcohol called “the four shots” that can’t be used for drinking. It’s the stuff that would make people go blind for a week once they consumed it. As pure ethanol, it now comes in handy as diesel fuel for the farm truck.
But the two friends are also thinking big in the sense of growing the local area into a hub for other farm-to-table producers.
They just bought another barn, two miles from the distillery, destined to become a huge tasting room and to provide a place for other New York farm breweries, wineries, and even distilleries to sell on tap. It will have a kitchen catering finger food and 23 acres where people can brings their children and play.
Both are family men and understand the value of outdoors recreation, and as Ensall said, “Who doesn’t like to drink outdoors?” They are also keen on establishing a farmers market that will sell their produce and attract other farmers to sell theirs.
As Ensall stood outside the old, red barn pointing to where everything is going to be, his gestures bespoke of something rare—a guy who is at an exciting place in his life, brimming with ideas about growing his own small world with benefits for everyone else around him. It proves that “old-school” can be the best way to go about establishing a distillery.
“We are true 100 percent farm-to-bottle, you can’t get much more local than we are. We’re taking [the ingredients] from right here, where the fields are,” said Ensall pointing to the black dirt field next to the red barn which, for now, is home to one of the youngest distilleries in New York state.