hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues May 2017


Keeping the spirits local

Washington County distillery relies on area corn and grains


Contributing writer



Tom McDougall, left, the general manager of Lake George Distilling Co., and owners Robin and John McDougall show off some of their products at the distillery’s headquarters in Fort Ann. Joan K. Lentini photo

John McDougall was propelled into the distilling business by happenstance because of something he saw on the History Channel.

McDougall was already adept at crafting home-brewed beer, and also at making wine, when he tuned into a “Modern Marvels” show nearly five years ago that discussed how small-batch distilleries were popping up and thriving around the nation. He began charting a new course.
“I did research and knew they were coming up around the state,” he recalled.

Farm-based distilleries have indeed proliferated across New York in the past decade and include such now-established businesses as Finger Lakes Distilling, Tuthilltown Spirits (in the Ulster County town of Gardiner), and the pioneering Harvest Spirits, based at the Golden Harvest orchard in Valatie [and the focus of a profile in the May 2008 Observer].

“I decided to visit a few of them and spoke with the owners, who pointed me in right direction,” McDougall said.

McDougall, his wife, Robin, and son Thomas founded Lake George Distilling Co. in 2012. Their goal was to make handcrafted spirits with the best local and regional ingredients they could find.
They officially opened their distillery and retail space on Route 149 in September 2013 and began production of whiskeys, corn bourbon (also known as rye) and corn whiskey.

“We call the corn whiskey ‘moonshine,’” McDougall explained. “There’s no federal classification of moonshine, so it’s known as corn whiskey.”

Historically people used “moonshine” to mean “anything that’s produced illegally, and obviously we have a license,” he added.

The McDougalls make weekly visits to Ellsworth’s Family Farm in Easton to stock up on non-GMO corn.

“We go through a ton a week and transport it in 100-pound bags,” McDougall explained. “And we use grains such as rye and malted barley from the Finger Lakes.”

Although Lake George Distilling doesn’t grow its own ingredients, McDougall said it uses local products whenever possible. And it’s required to use a significant share of ingredients from New York state.

“Under our New York state farm distiller’s license, we’re required to use at least 75 percent New York state grains,” he explained, adding, “We use 100 percent when possible.”


From mash to spirits
Over the past four years, McDougall said, business has grown to the point that their initial 100-gallon still has been replaced by a 578-gallon stripping still.

“That will allow us to increase production five-fold,” he said.
In the early days there was a lot to learn about the distilling process, which McDougall described as similar to crafting beer.

“First, you basically make a beer from the grains that ferment to about 8 percent alcohol, and then put it in the still,” he explained.

In the still, he continued, the beer -- it’s called “mash” in the whiskey world -- is then boiled, and the alcohol is “stripped” from the mash into what are called “low wines.” Alcohol boils at 173 degrees, and water at 212 degrees, so mash that’s a combination of both water and alcohol results in a boiling point somewhere in between.

“So as the mash boils, the steam is mostly alcohol vapors in the beginning,” McDougall said.
The steam hits the condenser, which is a set of pipes with cold water running through them, and the hot alcohol vapors “condense” back into liquid, he continued. These low wines are then distilled a second time, which is called a “spirit run.”

On the spirit run through the still, the resulting alcohol is used either to age in barrels for bourbon or rye, or reduced in proof with water and bottled.

As mash ferments, McDougall said, yeast consumes the sugars and gives off carbon dioxide.
“But it is not like you would think of a beer, since there’s no carbonation,” he explained.


More products, outlets
The product line of Lake George Distilling includes its 32-Mile Moonshine, named after the length in miles of Lake George; Indian Kettle Smoked Corn Whiskey; Apple Pie Moonshine; Bullhead Bourbon; Red Rock Rye; Adirondack Wildfire (known for its cinnamon finish); and Lake George Lemonade.

The spirits are available in 750- and 375-milliliter bottles and are sold at farmers markets in Bolton Landing, Glens Falls, Saratoga Springs and Troy. Prices start at $19.

There is also a retail space at the distillery’s headquarters on Route 149 in Fort Ann, a major route between the Northway and Vermont.

“Ski season and summers are great for us,” McDougall said.
Last summer, the McDougalls also opened a year-round retail store on Canada Street in the village of Lake George.

“We sell moonshine slushies, which are very popular, and we did a frozen cider with our Apple Pie Moonshine,” McDougall said. “And we also rotate between margaritas, strawberry daiquiris and pina coladas.”

Knowing that spirits have long been a sought-after accent in cooking and baking, the McDougalls recently began collaborating with Mapleland Farms in Salem to create a new product.
“Right now it’s a bourbon-barrel-aged maple syrup with no alcohol,” McDougall said. “When we dump our bourbon barrels, they’re filled with maple syrup and aged 3 to 5 months to absorb flavors in barrel, which has the residue of the bourbon. We had a hard time keeping it in stock during maple season.”

This month the company will debut its latest product line, to be known as Lake George Spirits. Targeted at area pubs and restaurants, it features a selection of locally made vodka, gin, bourbon and rum that establishments can offer patrons.

“We’re trying to give bartenders different things to add to their mix,” McDougall said. “Right now, we have about 60 accounts and are growing at a pace we consider sustainable.”
And sustainability is important for their handcrafted inventory.

“One of things with bourbon and rye is, they’re aged spirits,” McDougall explained. “If you chew up all the stock, you won’t have the age on it. It stays in barrel ideally 6 to 8 years, so what we’re doing is putting as much away as we can. We have to make more than we’re selling, so we’ll always have stock in the future. We have stock that’s two years old but are trying not to release it.”

McDougall said he gets good feedback from customers who appreciate a locally sourced, small-batch product.

“The only thing we don’t do right here is grow the grains, but I can tell you who grows them,” he said. “A lot of people want to get back to knowing where food is coming from and knowing what’s in your food. If you can get same quality or better, why not shop local?”

The McDougalls also make a point of buying locally. In addition to locally sourced ingredients, their bottle labels are made in Glens Falls at the Sheet Label Co., and Fronhofer Tool Design in Washington County produced the still head for their new stripping still.

Next on the horizon is the hard cider market, which will undoubtedly tap into the region’s bounty of fresh apples.

Though business is growing at a pleasantly brisk pace, McDougall said there’s one thing the distillery can’t do for its customers: ship out of town.

“We get requests all day long via e-mail for our products to be shipped,” he said. “It’s a heart-breaker, but it’s illegal to ship spirits in New York state. New York state wines can be shipped, so we’re hoping one day that changes.”


Visit www.lakegeorgedistillingcompany.com for more information on Lake George Distilling’s products and retail outlets.