Whiskey with providence…or simply, terroir. Nestled away in the cradle of Bonticou Crag, Coppersea Distilling is whiskey with providence. Their heritage method distilling process captures the essence of the Hudson Valley in a bottle.
Chief Distiller and Blender, Christopher Briar Williams, uses heritage methods to craft the spirits at Coppersea Distilling. The result is a unique flavor that channels how whiskey once tasted before mass industrialization.
Heritage distilling involves precise methods and a labor of love. It’s an ancient whiskey-making process. Every detail counts, including the local grains, malting, fermenting, distilling and barrels. Together, they lend a bold flavor to the spirits of Coppersea.
It all starts in the field. Coppersea grows their own grains for whiskey making on a certified-organic, 75-acre farm that sits between the Wallkill River and the Shawangunk Ridge, overlooking the fields below Bonticou Crag. Corn and rye are the primary crops. Landrace corn also makes an appearance on the farm. It is a distinct breed that Coppersea has cultivated over many seasons from open-pollinated heirloom varietals. The corn is ideally suited to the local soil and climate conditions.
While Coppersea mainly relies on grains from their own land, they do outsource some grains from local farms within 20 miles of the distillery. This allows the flavor of Coppersea’s whiskey to remain true to the Hudson Valley’s terroir.
Once the grain is harvested, an age-old process of floor malting begins. Only a handful of distilleries still practice this method due to the labor that goes into it. Without malting, there is no alcohol. Malting converts the starches in the grains to sugar, which turns into alcohol by the yeast in their mash.
For a week, Coppersea distillers flip, turn and rake the malt on the floor. This creates a nice, even germination. Once the grain has germinated successfully, the “green malt” (sprouted grain) is kiln dried. This makes the grain shelf stable for up to one year. Kiln drying also makes it easier to grind the grain in the mill before heading into the mash. It also imparts a slightly nutty and roasted flavor to the malt.
During my visit to Coppersea Distilling, the aroma hit me as soon as I walked through the door. It smelled like sweet corn and caramel. The scent felt warm and familiar, like a fireside chat on a camping trip. Instantly, I felt united with the terroir of the Hudson Valley.
After the grains are malted, it’s time to make the mash. Coppersea uses an open-top wild fermentation process. This is where Coppersea Distilling really taps into the terroir of the Hudson Valley. The wood barrels are left open when making the mash. The doors of the mash and distilling room are also left open all year long to waft in the local breeze, which carries the characteristic wild flora that steep into the mash. Ambient yeast and bacteria provide flavor, as well as ethanol, to the whiskey. This method extracts every ounce of flavor the grain has to offer. The result is a whiskey that is quintessentially “of the Hudson Valley”.
Most distilleries ferment their mash for two days. Coppersea ferments in wooden barrels for up to a week. This maximizes exposure to the wild yeasts that make their whiskey so remarkable. After a week, the mash is fermented, and off to the copper stills it goes.
Coppersea Distilling uses direct-fire copper stills. Fire imparts the flavor and subtle nuances that Coppersea seeks to achieve in all their whiskey. Since the 1600s, whiskey has been made this way. Later, the mass industrialization of whiskey created a process that is far more efficient.
Modern-day stills produce delicious whiskeys, but they often lack the richness and full flavor of whiskeys made with the older copper still method. Think of it like roasting marshmallows over a campfire versus putting a marshmallow in the microwave. The depth of flavor is amplified by the fire.
Coppersea’s direct-fire stills provide a creamy, deeply caramelized piquancy that is absent in modern distilleries. The whiskey is distilled twice. This allows Coppersea to get the most out of their mash and intensify the spirits’ flavor. Now that whiskey is ready, it’s time for the final stage, barreling.
The whiskey is placed in oak barrels to mature. Low-proof barreling is another of Coppersea’s heritage methods. All their whiskeys are barreled at 105 proof. This creates a balanced extraction of water, alcohol and organic compounds found in the wood barrels, which yields a distinct flavor.
For perspective, most distilleries barrel at the legal maximum of 125 proof. This maximizes the amount of whiskey that goes in the barrel. It also saves money. However, it limits the range of flavors as the whiskey matures. A lot of water is added to get it to bottle proof. Since water and ethanol react differently to the organic compounds of the wood barrels, more water means less flavor.
The proof of the whiskey is vital to Coppersea’s method. During bottling, they add very little water, which means maximum flavor.
Once the whiskey is barreled, it matures for two to four years, sometimes longer. The summer heat expands the barrels. Winter air causes the barrels to contract. As this happens, the whiskey soaks up and extracts all the flavors the oak has to offer.
The final product is a rich, delectable whiskey that is layered with Hudson Valley’s vibrant essence. Like a locally made wine, cheese, olive oil or charcuterie, Coppersea Distilling crafts spirits that can only be made in the Hudson Valley.