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Finger Lakes Distilling – Crafting Artisanal Spirits in the Heart of Wine Country

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“Whiskey, like a beautiful woman, demands appreciation. You gaze first, then it’s time to drink.” – Haruki Murakami

It was a spur-of-the-moment decision, and it turned out exceptionally well.

fldist (4 of 5)Finger Lakes Distilling, located along Seneca Lake, small-batch distills some of the finest spirits I’ve tasted north of the Blue Ridge mountains, along with the only US-made Soju that I’ve had the joy of experiencing. The distillery, which opened in 2009, has a number of unique features, but I can’t find a single complaint.

They re-use their heating water to hydronically maintain the temperature of their barrel-aging room; they sustainably use their spent malt; they make an outstanding stable of spirits; and last but not least, they have passion. If they were a musical act, I’d say they have duende. Soul. The spirit of the craft.

December 4th, 2015
We arrive on a relatively dreary day, after a long drive, and having contacted the distillery a scant twenty minutes before. Regardless, we are welcomed with open arms (metaphorically); we get two tastings, instruction on how to properly nose, taste and appreciate, and a very attentive guide through the sensory map of spirits. Our guide through the flavors is Matt Yando.

Matt Yando pours a wee dram.
Matt Yando pours a wee dram.

Matt’s favorites are the Rye and the Gin, and I cannot complain about either one. I’m very picky on both, yet they’re both outstanding.

We enjoy the Soju, one of my favorite spirits. Soju is traditionally poured to the eldest first, so I drink first. I’m not shy about being older than my companions, if it means I get more booze. The McKenzie pure pot still whiskey is outstanding, and so is the McKenzie wheated bourbon. The distillery was featured in Whiskey Advocate for their rye, and they’ve received a great deal of attention from print publications for a distillery that’s so young. Master Distiller *Thomas Earl McKenzie certainly knows his craft.

John Pulos shows us around the brew house, where we check out the column still, the copper still, and all of the traditional equipment. The distillery doesn’t use computers in their artisanship; everything is done the old fashioned way. Which is to say, done with a great deal of pride and excellence. Thomas makes his own yeast, and according to John, “He’s a genius.” My taste buds don’t disagree.

John takes us down to meet Jerry McCall, the Assistant Distiller; Jerry has a degree from Cornell, and has a passion for what he does.

Jerry McCall, Assistant Distiller.
Jerry McCall, Assistant Distiller.

He takes us through the process of barrel rotation, where a lot more of the magic happens; the black art of evaporation, barrel aging and the angels’ share. If the amazing smell of the barrel aging facility is what the angels’ share is composed of, I’m jealous. It’s the closest thing I’ve smelled to barrel-aged heaven.

fldist (2 of 5)Let’s talk flavor; the pot-stilled whiskey is a very high quality whiskey. Think Pappy Van Winkle, not lower grade whiskeys. It’s clean, smooth and delightful with notes of caramel and vanilla. The wheated bourbon has “heavenly aroma, earthly flavor.” I’m quoting myself on that note. The Seneca Drums gin has notes of cucumber, flowers, a touch of juniper, and some elusive herbals. The Distiller’s Reserve gin is a different animal from the Seneca Drums; it’s a London Dry style. A little less floral than the Seneca Drums, but with more citrus. The Yobo Soju is dry, yet slightly sweet at the same time, and made from local grapes. Last but not least is the rye; spicy, earthy, toasty oak. Smooth, with a warmth on the finish, but no unapproachable fire. And there’s “almost a fruity hint on the back end,” according to Matt.

With all that going for them, it’s no wonder they’re quickly becoming one of the most awarded distilleries in the nation.

Text and photos by Ben Wilsonfldist (3 of 5)

*Editor’s Note: As of January, 2016, Jared Baker has succeeded Thomas Earl as Production Manager and Distiller at FLD.


Arata, Emily. “25 Quotes About Whiskey from the Famous Drinkers Who Loved It Best.” First We Feast. March 01, 2014. Accessed April 10, 2016.

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Ben is a writographer that likes to travel and do things. He's been shot, pepper sprayed and even had to dress like a clown once. In addition, he has a really hard time talking to pretty girls sometimes.

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