Stephen Osborn recently reached out to me looking to expand his network of distilling friends with which to share and bounce ideas off of. I was immediately impressed by his knowledge and the expanse of his operation as well as the fact that he is already running a custom built Chip Tate still (yeah, that’s on my bucket list too!). Throw in the fact that he was originally a Hoosier from a town roughly between where I was born and where I work and you have forged a hell of a friendship! It is my intention to make my way out to meet him in person and check out his operation first hand in the near future and maybe he will let me play with some of his awesome equipment as well.
Stephen Says of the above label: this is the Irish Style label. I forgot to mention; Auld Ulster. We are in Ulster County NY. So we’re honoring that fact plus that most Irish whiskey is made in Ulster County Ireland
Stephen, tell us a little about your background, where you come from and how you got interested in the fermentative arts and sciences? What led you to start the winery and what type of wine making do you practice?
While I’m from Indiana originally, I grew up in New York. My mother is an artist and my father a mechanical engineer who taught Physics. Everything flows from there. I studied Biochemistry at Cornell in order to find some artistic application of science and while pursuing that, met a winemaker who offered what seemed the ideal application. I took as many food science / microbiology / fermentation courses I could which also included some study of distillation. Then I went to UC Davis to study Enology and become a winemaker. My interests in wine were always on the organic chemistry side of things which led me towards a focus on making non-processed wine in order that the natural flavors of the vineyard and fermentation were most accurately represented in the glass. I went deep down that rabbit hole, eventually returning to New York to build a winery with my wife Kim Wagner that focused on only making completely natural wines. Stoutridge Vineyard opened in 2006 and when built was the only winery in the US not chemically altering wine in any way. Almost all of our grapes are locally grown, and our wines are only for sale at the winery. I’ve done every wine tasting since we opened, and talk a lot about how and why wines are processed and demonstrate what they are like when not. When Kim and I built the winery we also planned and added an extensive distillery area. The reasons were simple: We didn’t think the winery could survive on wine sales alone, and what if the non sulfited wines didn’t always pan out. In 2007, Christian Carl held a distilling seminar at Cornell and my wife and I went to investigate. We we’re impressed, to say the least, and ended up ordering 3 Carl stills, Two 450 liter five plates for fruit brandies and a 450 liter 30 plate for vodka. At the time, New York laws didn’t encourage small distilleries and so the NY Farm Bureau and a guy named Ralph Erenzo and I started lobbying in Albany to change that. Ralph was already making distillates at Tuthilltown and had a whole host of issues, and I needed a law that said I only needed one tasting room for both wine and spirit sales. Once the proposed laws had my one tasting room idea in them I just waited for the unstoppable force of Ralph to go at it with the legislators and win. Which he did.
When did you first become interested in distillation and what convinced you to pursue it alongside the winery?
Ralph was always egging us on to get started distilling but Kim and I were having a great time being wine makers and small business owners. Also, we were making it as a winery only… The wines were not failing. So our original reasons for starting the distillery didn’t materialize. We did however have 3 mothballed Carl stills! After 10 years of operation in 2016 we said ok this is ridiculous it’s time to start distilling if we’re ever going to. At that point a guy named Angus MacDonald started coming to talk to me about distilling. He had helped start nearby Coppersea Distillery. Angus was a very interesting person and pointed out the great parallels between my approach to winemaking and having a malting and kilning operation, doing lautering type mashes, having open-topped wooden fermenters as well as a direct fired pot still, in a distilling operation. He made a lot of sense but this would mean essentially building a second distillery within the first brandy and vodka distillery. A HUGE undertaking.
So Kim and I once again made the great leap of faith as entrepreneurs and said “Lets do this! We’ll make malt whiskies in a traditional way as well.”. We started building a building for the malting floor and put a big native stone furnace in the basement for an enclosed floor kiln off the malt floor as a traditional Scottish distillery would. Angus also put us in touch with Chip Tate of Tate & Company Copperworks in Texas to build us a direct fired, 800 gallon pot still. Chip agreed and we were on our way with the second distillery, integrating it into the floor plan of the first distillery so that today you would be hard pressed to tell how it happened.
Tell us a little about your malting operation. I know you are the only floor kilning facility in the U.S. What types of malts do you make and use? Do you also sell malt?
We now make malts from two different varieties of barley and also occasionally from rye. We do have customers for our malts but right now are not taking any new orders.
For my wife and I, both having strong interests in biochemistry, malting is simply one of the most fun aspects of distilling. We would not have done a whiskey distillery without having our own malts and malt whiskies at the core of it. But it has added a full year to product development and that is after the malt house was completed.
You gotta tell us about the distillation systems you have going on, brands and types and their specific uses to your production!
So, We have the two Carl 5 plates for cherry, plum and grape brandies that are utilized in 6 products. Three under the “Stoutridge” label which are eau de vie style, and three under the “Glenkaley Orchard Oriole” label which are blends of brandies and grain spirits also distilled in the Carl 5 plates. We have 94 proof Vodka and 190 proof Grain Neutral and Grape Neutral spirits made in the Carl 30 plate rectifier, all under the “Stoutridge” label. We also sell bulk Grain or Grape neutral spirits to NY winemakers.
Man We do a lot of things!
We make three dry gins from redistilled Grain Neutral Spirits and added botanicals in a 60 liter direct fired Iberian Coppers still.
Until the malt house was up and running properly, we began sorting out Corn versus Rye for whiskey. At first the experiments were all in the Carl 5 plates, and we rediscovered that these brandy stills were making excellent rye whiskey, but not so excellent corn whiskey. Right at this time a group of NY distillers came out with the Empire Rye designation and we were in agreement with all of the ideas in this branding statement. We decided to join them and had a 660 gallon, 6 plate still built by Specific Manufacturing to make the “Stoutridge Straight Empire Rye”.
We use a small local cooper, Quercus Cooperage for all of our grain whiskies. They use locally grown oak, dried 3 years, to make 30 gallon barrels for us. Our grains come from Westwind Farm in nearby Saratoga Lake, NY. As wine makers turned distillers we believe strongly in the idea of terrior both in grain and oak.
At the moment we are only using rye and malted barley in all of our whiskies. We experimented a lot with corn, and will revisit using corn mashes in the future if and when we have time to try them in the Tate & Co. pot still. I think of Corn whiskey and Bourbon as more of a southern thing, and my distillations so far agree with that. Thats not to say there are not excellent Bourbons made in NY. I just haven’t fond the knack.
Which leads us to Chip Tate’s still. It was the final still installed in our distillery in October 2017. The custom installation of a one million BTU Selas propane infrared furnace took 4 months. With the malting operations and the furnace installation figured out, We’ve been running barley malt with rye grain mashes and second distillations through it for about 3 months. The results have been very rewarding, resulting in a product which will be released for St Patrick’s day next year as “Glenkaley Irish Style Malt Whiskey”
What’s your next big thing?
We expect to be completing our planned distillery projects with a 100% lautered, open top wooden fermented, direct fired, pot distilled single malt whiskey going into 3 vintage Pinot Noir barrels beginning in April. I fully expect this to be a lifelong learning experience and am hoping that by the time I retire, we’ll have released a 21-year-old example. All of our malt whiskies will be “Glenkaley Single Malt Whiskey” with an age statement.
The only thing I didn’t touch on as far as distillery products are concerned are our Genever style gins. It’s a very large subject for me, and would be a whole article in itself to do it justice. (Editors Note: I have asked Stephen to write an article about his Genever’s for the A.C. in the near future as well)