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Interview: Tuthilltown Spirits Co-Founder Ralph Erenzo

July 24, 2012

Gardiner, New York-based Tuthilltown Spirits, located in the heart of the Hudson River Valley, was founded by Ralph Erenzo and Vicki Morgan. In 2001, the two partners acquired property in Gardiner which included the nationally landmarked Tuthilltown Gristmill. After converting one of the mill’s granaries into a distillery, they began producing spirits in 2004.

Today, Tuthilltown Spirits is led by the Hudson Whiskey range, made from locally grown grain and including a Hudson Whiskey Single Malt, Four Grain Bourbon, Baby Bourbon and Manhattan Rye, all sold in 375-ml. bottles and retailing at $35-$45. In 2010, Tuthilltown Spirits sold the Hudson Whiskey range to William Grant & Sons, which now markets that lineup worldwide.

Tuthilltown Spirits also produces its Heart of the Hudson and Spirit of the Hudson vodka brands, made from apples grown at local orchards. In addition, the company recently launched the Half Moon gin range, also made from local grains and fruit. The gins and vodkas are packaged in 750-ml. bottles and retail in the $35 range. This “farm distillery” also makes small amounts of rum, eau de vie, brandy, cassis, absinthe and infusions. SND recently spoke with partner and co-founder Ralph Erenzo about progress for Tuthilltown and the craft spirits business in general.

SND: How is the craft spirits movement progressing, in your view?

Erenzo: In 1996, there were six micro-distillers in the United States. Today there are over 400. And changes in state alcohol control laws are being implemented nationwide, making it easier to be in business and operate at the family business scale.

SND: How are your products doing?

Erenzo: Our Hudson Whiskey line was acquired by William Grant & Sons and is now distributed worldwide. Our vodka is a regional product made from Hudson Valley apples and is very popular. Our apple brandy is in development, and we grow Old World cider apples for that project. And our cassis sells out. Consumers love the variety of our products and their farm origin. Our startup was built from scratch by two partners who had no experience in distilling. It’s a true, American-style entrepreneurial story that people love to learn about. Visitors come from around the world to tour our distillery.

SND: Where are your brands sold?

Erenzo: We’re in the best restaurants and cocktail lounges and bars in the United States, Europe and Australia. By the end of 2012, we anticipate being available in shops and on-premise accounts in every U.S. state.

SND: Do you think consumers fully understand the concept of craft spirits?

Erenzo: I think consumers are starting to learn. It’s the first job of every micro-distiller to educate the public on the differences (between craft spirits and mass-produced products). What makes craft-produced spirits different? People are ready for new spirits products, and small producers are the only ones who can take on truly experimental product development.

SND: What’s the benefit of being a craft spirits distiller, compared to being a producer of a larger brand?

Erenzo: Scale and cost of startup actually work to the benefit of craft distillers, because the cost of competing on (a mainstream) scale is too high. Craft distillers have control over the future of their brands and their business. And a craft operator is better equipped to change its strategy as the market changes.

SND: What does the future hold for craft spirits and craft distilling?

Erenzo: Craft distilling is where micro-brewing was 20 years ago. In the next five years, the community of micro- and craft distillers will probably double. Many will prosper, and some will fail. But the overall result will be a proliferation of regional distillers who will provide a growing variety of new spirits products. The successful craft distilleries will become acquisition targets for the larger companies. Hopefully, product quality and variety won’t suffer from takeovers by larger producers.


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